At the height of World War II, a British officer, Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness, Star Wars), and his men, agree to construct a bridge for their Japanese captors. Meanwhile, the Allied forces, commanded by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins, Ben-Hur) and Commander Shears (William Holden, Picnic), mount a campaign to destroy the bridge.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!”
The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest of all war films — few films have captured the madness of war as well as this beloved classic. Sometimes big doesn’t necessarily mean better, but in this case, the scope of the content matches the enormity of the production. The Bridge on the River Kwai is the rare epic that concentrates as much on character development as on spectacular vistas.
At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, I will say it again: The Bridge on the River Kwai is a riveting and compelling epic. The film is based on the 1952 satirical novel by Pierre Boulle, best known for his 1963 book Planet of the Apes. Director David Lean worked on the screenplay, first with Carl Foreman (High Noon and The Guns of Navarone), later with Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun and The Sandpiper).
Ironically, none of them received credit for their work on the script. Wilson and Foreman had been blacklisted, thus making it impossible for their names to appear in the film (newer prints have restored their names). Lean later claimed that producer Sam Spiegel (The African Queen and On the Waterfront) maliciously deprived him of screen credit. French author Boulle, who didn’t speak a word of English, got sole credit and went on to win an Academy Award for a screenplay he had nothing to do with.
Anyhow, the acting in the film is of stellar quality. Sir Alec Guinness, who won a well-deserved Oscar for his work here, plays one of cinema’s most interesting anti-heroes. It’s a tricky role that Guinness plays to perfection. In essence, Guinness’s British Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson is both the hero and villain of the piece — the British officer is misguided but well-intentioned, so you sort of feel bad for him.
William Holden, who was cast because of his box office clout, is great too. I think Holden’s contribution to the movie has been vastly underappreciated — he is perfect as the prototypical American soldier. There are also fine performances by Sessue Hayakawa (Walt Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson) as Colonel Saito, James Donald (The Great Escape) as Major Clipton, André Morell (The Man Who Never Was) as Colonel Green and Geoffrey Horne (Bonjour Tristesse) as Lieutenant Joyce.
Composer Malcolm Arnold (The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and Tunes of Glory) used the famous march “Colonel Bogey” to great effect (it’s hard to get it out of your head). Jack Hildyard’s (The V.I.P.s and The Yellow Rolls Royce) Oscar-winning camera work is spectacularly good, too. Art director Donald M. Ashton (The Purple Plain) supervised the construction of the magnificent bridge.
I do have one little quibble: I didn’t like the film’s very last moments — they seem a bit redundant and heavy-handed. Director Lean didn’t shoot the ending — it was filmed by second unit director Peter Newbrook — and was very angry with producer Spiegel for what he considered sub-par work. I’m not sure what perfectionist Lean had in mind, but he had to live with his dissatisfaction for the rest of his life.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Bridge on the River Kwai is near perfect, and I’m sure that even people who tend to dislike war films will find something here to their liking — it’s that good! The film is very long — it’s nearly three hours long — but it moves swiftly, and its climax is truly breathtaking and exciting. Color, 164 minutes, Not Rated.