The Bridge on the River Kwai Review
A full six months after its Blu-ray release in the USA, 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' has at last landed on these shores in the High Def format. Happily we get exactly the same great transfer as our colonial cousins as well as the same extras on the disc. Where the two differ is in the packaging department. Our friends across the pond got a nice, inch thick (that would have been 25.4mm in the UK) chunky digibook with postcard size copies of the original Front Of House stills - all housed in a sturdy box. We true Brits will have to make do with the usual blue plastic Blu-ray box in a card slip case, but it still looks very nice and it's the movie that really matters. The film hasn't changed in any way, shape or form since I reviewed it back in December 2010, so here's that very review.
One of the most respected British movie directors of all time, Sir David Lean’s films had won a large cupboard full of Oscars by the time he died in 1991. He personally won the Best Director award for ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ which went on to garner a total of 7 statuettes at the 1958 Awards ceremony. It would be wrong to call it a typically British film, for it was based on a book by a Frenchman called Pierre Boulle, was adapted to a screenplay by Americans Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson with its funding coming from American Distributor, Columbia Pictures. It was this film, however, that allowed David Lean to make the transition from being a director of small British films to become an international movie maker of big screen epics like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Dr Zhivago’, ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ and ‘A Passage to India’.
‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ is one of those movies that I’d never managed to watch all they way through when it was shown in black-and-white on TV and in a pan and scan version. It was always uncomfortable to watch as half of the image seemed to be missing due to the widescreen frame being modified to suit the old TV shape. To a youngster, it always seemed to be very long with all the action coming at the end. Let’s face it, how many of today’s teenagers would watch a 161 minute film just for the train crash at the end? Now we get to see it in its full widescreen 2.55:1 aspect ratio (as seen through the lens) and in glorious Technicolor.
Just as it says on the tin, the story concerns the building of a bridge over the river Kwai as part of the Burmese railway by allied Prisoners of War under the command of the Japanese during World War II. It’s a lot more than that, however, as it encompasses a battle of wills, national pride, doing things correctly and by the book. It also raises questions such as when does doing a professional job end and where does collaborating with the enemy begin?
Alec Guinness won the Best Leading Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Colonel Nicholson, the British Commanding Officer who confronts camp commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) with the Geneva convention regarding the use of Officers as forced labour in a Prisoner of War camp. Even when he’s slapped in the face by the rule book, he’s still concerned that there should be no disorder in the ranks as his soldiers surge forward at their captors. He believes firmly in discipline as without it he fears that there’s no civilisation. Even when Saito threatens to gun him and his officers down in cold blood, he stands there defiant in the baking heat. After Saito sees that bridge construction is falling behind and gives in to the pressure to allow officers relief from manual labour, we see Guinness’s character seize the chance to show the Japanese how the British define project management. As the first production meeting takes place, he asks if they could possibly have a cup of tea. When Saito organises one, you know that the Brits are taking charge and that the men return to being soldiers rather than prisoners.
The film also has many British supporting actors such as the lugubrious James Donald as the Doctor, Major Clipton, who at one point saves the lives of Nicholson and the officers by questioning Saito’s ‘Warrior’s code’. In order to secure Columbia’s financial backing, producer Sam Spiegel (they don’t have names like that any more) had to cave in to demands to include a big American star in the movie to ensure bums on seats. At one point the suave Cary Grant was considered for the part of Shears, but it eventually went sensibly to the more gritty William Holden, who was one of Hollywood’s biggest names back in 1957. He adds a cynical realism in the American ‘wise ass’ tradition and provides a counter point to Nicholson’s staid, stiff upper lip approach. There’s a difference in styles about as big as the Grand Canyon here, as well as opinions when planning a breakout is suggested by Shears and banned by Nicholson. So Shears does it anyway.
While Guinness has the most memorable part in the movie, the role of another obsessed soldier, Major Warden, went to Jack Hawkins – who fights his way back through the jungle with Shears in an attempt to destroy the bridge. The three strong characters are all carefully and skilfully drawn by the actors and moulded by Lean in what he called ‘a tickling of talents’. Apparently there were arguments between Lean and Guinness concerning the way certain scenes such as when Saito and Nicholson have a friendly chat on the bridge against the backdrop of the setting sun. Guinness was concerned that Lean wanted to shoot it with Nicholson’s back to camera and the actor couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to show his face. In the end Guinness conceded that Lean was right when the movie was released. They had similar arguments during ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘A Passage to India’ so their relationship can never have been easy but there was mutual respect for each other’s talents.
The cinematography of Oscar winner Jack Hildyard gives the film it’s dirty, dusty look yet the framing of each shot in the widescreen format is so pleasing to the eye. Malcolm Arnold’s Oscar winning score highlights the psychological drama effectively but his most memorable piece just has to be The River Kwai March which kicks in as a counter melody to the soldiers as they arrive at the prison camp whistling the Colonel Bogey tune. You’d think a full orchestra would sound out of place here but it works very well and remains one of the most enduring themes from the movies of the last half century.
It’s no great secret that the bridge is destroyed at the end of the movie and the moment when the train goes over the edge of the bridge is right up there with Steve McQueen leaping the barbed wire fences in ‘The Great Escape’. It’s an iconic scene that is imprinted into the memory of every film buff.
The final message of the movie is left to James Donald’s Major Clipton to deliver. As people lie dead, the train is in the river and the bridge is in pieces he simply says, “Madness.....madness!”
The audience falls silent at this point and the one question they still argue about all these years later is – did Nicholson deliberately fall on the detonator or did he just collapse? Watch it and make your own mind up.