MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: War Drama/ Stars: William Holden, Sir Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne, André Morell, Peter Williams, John Boxer, Percy Herbert, Harold Goodwin/ Runtime: 161 minutes
I feel like if you, my fellow movie lover ever were to think of what or who best in the world of movie magic consistently exemplified the word “epic”, I feel only a select few individuals would come to your mind. If you will pardon me for saying so however, it is my distinct opinion that David Lean should be either near the top or at the top of your list. I say this because this man is the British filmmaker who gave the 20th century some of its finest movies including such titles as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India, and the film we are reviewing today, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Indeed that is quite the powerhouse quartet if I ever saw one and even more remarkable is the fact that each of these films on their own is an out and out masterpiece of narrative, scope, work in front of and behind the camera, and just movie magic at its absolute finest. With that being said, I feel you should know that The Bridge on the River Kwai is easily one of the most commercially, critically, and just overall perfect films he ever made. Indeed this is the rarity amongst movies in that this is a movie that earned smashing success with audiences worldwide, global praise from the film reviewing community, and manages to construct a narrative for us that zeroes in on what it means to be human instead of the typical guns-a-blazing combat drama that a lot of films about World War 2 back then were.
Indeed with this film, Lean managed to throw out the rule book when it came to this film because even though it is set during a time of conflict, the movie is not about war. Rather this is a film about the concepts of compulsion, hubris, and commitment be it the compulsion to win at any and all costs, the personal hubris that all people have, or the commitment one can have to their country or to a cause that they devotedly believe in with zero hesitation. Indeed The Bridge on the River Kwai is also a noteworthy movie in that this is a film with a trinity of distinct narratives at play: one a chess match of wits, another an engaging and thrilling mission deep into the heart of enemy territory, and the third being the tragic narrative of an individual who becomes so lost in his personal hubris that he finds himself unable to see anything, but the commitment to a task right there in front of him. It is also worth noting that each of these narratives also has something to say in regards to the human condition on quite a few both immense and impressive levels, with one of the levels being best represented at the conclusion of the movie with the repetitious cry of “madness! madness!” A cry that I should point out not only brilliantly sums up the destruction and chaos of war, but also the inability by mankind to see the consequences of the actions they commit; consequences that also may be different for each of the main characters in this film, but all made up of the same saddening and quite frustrating outcomes possible…
The plot is as follows: The film takes us back to the year 1943, and drops us smack dab in the middle of conflict in World War 2 where we quickly ascertain that the Japanese are ruthlessly using any soldiers they imprison as a form of slave labor to aid them in their combat efforts at a remote prison camp. Yet out of everyone who was shanghai’ d into building the camp which is now under the ruthless iron fist of a merciless colonel by the name of Saito, there are now only a pair of survivors, one of whom being an America seaman by the name of Shears. Yet this is about to change for the camp is soon refilled with a massive British squad. The leader of this squad is a stoic colonel by the name of Nicholson and who is soon assigned by Saito to have his men construct a nearby bridge that, when complete, should hopefully connect a pair of railways between the cities of Bangkok and Rangoon. Yet it isn’t long before Nicholson and Saito immediately start butting heads due to Nicholson’s adamant refusal to follow Saito’s order for him and the other officers under him to also partake in the labor since this is explicitly outlawed according to the Geneva Convention which has been all but ignored by Saito. Thus a battle of wits soon commences with neither man willing to budge on their respective point of view regardless of how cruel Saito is towards Nicholson or how much he ruthlessly verbally assaults the men and officers under Nicholson’s command. Yet while all of this is going on, we soon see Shears manage to pull off a successful escape attempt only to, a short time later, be assigned to help lead a mission to annihilate the very bridge Nicholson and co are working on before it is given the opportunity to be put to use. Thus we soon see this unholy trinity of men placed on a horrific collision course that by the end of it will have ramifications none of them could ever have predicted….
Now it should be noted that The Bridge on the River Kwai chooses to operate more as a character study rather than the typical movie found in the War genre. I say this because whilst there are a few action beats they are quite spread out throughout the movie with the violence exclusively given to a final third that is showcased less by bullets and bombs, and more by the idiosyncrasies of people and the insanity of not only combat, but that which combat and personal fixations can grow within a person. Thus this is a film about sticking to one’s personal set of values, and beliefs as well as learning who one truly is when faced with horrific circumstances. Above all though, it’s about hubris and being narrow-minded, both qualities that can quite possibly overwhelm even the most deep-rooted beliefs and values that a person can hold. I bring this up because, before anything else, The Bridge on the River Kwai is first and foremost the narrative of a stoic yet stubborn colonel whose sole purpose is to not only show how worthy he is, but that he is the better soldier and man as well. Perhaps his stubborn methods are due to all his time spent serving which has also resulted in him sacrificing any possibility of a life away from the uniform for a long time. As such, he has for a long time now not known what it means to be a multilayered human being as well being endowed with the skill to both adapt and comprehend things that are greater in magnitude than what is before his eyes. Indeed his longevity in the armed forces and, through that, his life have come to be represented solely by his talent to achieve whatever it is right in front of him be it one-upping Colonel Saito or showing he is fit to head the building of the best bridge possible even as he neglects his men’s well-being, his own individual pursuits as a POW, or sticking to a plan that will benefit his friends rather than his foe. Indeed all of the concepts that this film possesses including bravery of a personal nature, self-sacrifice, intense concentration, horror, fixation, perseverance, and hubris are all showcased at one time or another throughout the film by the character of Nicholson, and it’s only through a phenomenal turn by Alec Guinness that this iconic character is able to completely encapsulate all of the insanity that combat can truly bring to even the best of men.
Of course, it goes without saying, but this movie wouldn’t be nearly half as effective as it is if the creative team didn’t add in a counterpoint to Nicholson. Thankfully the film gives him such an opponent in the form of a Japanese colonel by the name of Saito. A man who, it is worth noting, is just as shortsighted and just as devoted to himself and his pride as Nicholson yet ironically still winds up constantly coming up short in that battles of wit and will. Indeed I think it is safe to say that not even when they first arrive is Saito ever in charge of this man or his men who enter camp whistling “Colonel Bogey March”. Yet nevertheless Nicholson still finds within Saito a “reasonable fellow”, but this is not because Saito more than once makes the threat to annihilate the British officers due to their joint insubordination, nor is it because of his excessive demands that the men be put to work undertaking back-breaking manual labor, or because he is proven to be quite fixed in how he does things. Rather it is because Nicholson intuitively sees that Saito is just like him albeit with flaws that he can exploit to his advantage. Flaws that, unbeknownst to Nicholson, are ones that not only does he too possess, but are ones which become completely apparent by the end of the film. Yet although Saito does come around to realizing Nicholson may be his better, and he still manages to give in to his opponent quite a bit, it’s only because he knows that he will get the recognition for whatever success Nicholson is able to achieve….with the added caveat that he should be ready to lay down his life if Nicholson and his men are unable to deliver; the ultimate bowing down for a man whose life choices have been dictated by the most bullheaded pride imaginable. Suffice it to say then that Sessue Hayakawa does a fantastic job at proving to be Alec Guinness’ equal in regards to showcasing for us a character whose insanely single-minded from beginning to end. Indeed he manages to do a phenomenal job with the role and also in showcasing for us the degree of shame that comes when you are constantly losing to someone who is most assuredly your better. Indeed you will most assuredly find yourself wondering just how someone of this position in their life could be so willing to bend over backwards to the worn-out and equally as arrogant British colonel in front of them to the extent that they relinquish, for all intents and purposes, control of the camp and this vital project. Yet even with that in play, Nicholson still has enough regard and respect for both the chain of command and for military tradition that he still is willing to at least, superficially, respect Saito’s leadership.
Now in between this tug-of-war is the story of the character of Shears. A character who, it should be noted is also fixated on something. Unlike the other two however he doesn’t care about leverage or proving himself. Rather he just plain and simply cares about survival. Indeed as one of the few men to ever get away from Saito’s prison hell and live, he may be something in the vein of a typical action hero. However he does also have the distinct quirk of working the system to suit him until he is reluctantly drawn back into the fray by the possibility that he will be exposed for his actions. Nevertheless this is still a man who prioritizes hitting on gorgeous ladies and drinking a drink or 3 on a lovely beach somewhere than anything to even remotely do with combat or the nightmare he left behind at the camp to say nothing of the men who died. Yet even though Shears knows courtesy of reluctant firsthand experience how brutal the camp is on men, that still doesn’t mean he won’t try to find a way out of returning there to aid a team whose been assigned to obliterate the bridge. Indeed Holden may get the lion’s share attention for being both the film’s main action hero as well as for being the shirt-lacking hunk who has acquired top billing, but to a lot of people, his character from a concept and dramatic point of view is honestly one that isn’t all that unique. Despite that however, Holden manages to provide the movie with a nonchalant and carefree manner that is the exact opposite of the 2 other leads. Indeed he is able to see the bigger picture whereas they are; a bigger picture that shows that war and combat in general is indeed rooted in absolute hell or plain and simple insanity as the movie so simply yet so elegantly says. Yet even though he may be the “hero” of the film, he is just as much the eyes of the audience more than any other character save for the decent Doctor Clipton who despite being told he “has a lot to learn about the army” is able to see clearer than anyone else just how badly the whole affair with the bridge has degraded into absolute and irrevocable “madness.”
Now it goes without saying, but all of the phenomenally-portrayed and vividly-written individuals in this film almost manage to take away the incredible job done by David Lean on this film. Key word of course being almost. Indeed Lean does an amazing job of spotlighting the people his story revolves around through his signature visual style. A style that manages to capture beautifully what is going on in front of and in the background of a given scene. Indeed this is one film which is brought vividly to life as a phenomenally detailed film that doesn’t look in even the slightest bit overdone, but rather utilizes a quite realistic style where the film seems at every point to just feel alive and overwhelmed with a sense of activity thus filling the film with a sense of real from the environment to the people in said environment. Not only that, but Lean’s style of frame is seemingly perfect, and his choice of shots phenomenally well thought-out. Indeed this is a movie that deploys a particular narrative structure which gives the action the opportunity to go down whenever and wherever it likes yet not once sacrificing the tempo of the film. Indeed it seems like Lean really does seem satisfied with just sitting back and letting the actors do their thing within the constructs that he provides and it is this remarkable comprehension that this is what the movie requires that ensures this movie truly becomes something special. Make no mistake: this film has already been gifted with terrific performances, a wonderful score, a dynamite script, and brilliant editing work. It’s just that Lean comprehends better than most directors what tools he has at his disposal and does only just enough on his end while trusting the other elements to follow through and make the film feel whole as a result; a manner that makes him more iconic than the everyday filmmaker. Indeed, if anything, Lean showcases wonderfully with this film that if you want to be a brilliant filmmaker then get everything you can out of a script and the actors hired to bring that script to life. Plus Lean also doesn’t desire to have the film be a poster child for too much in a movie or for exemplary showmanship; rather he decides to tell a story from beginning to end and use his skill as a brilliant filmmaker to aid, rather than hinder, the film and also not as a vanity-driven excuse to earn awards even if the awards themselves do show up at one point or another.
All in all The Bridge on the River Kwai is a truly masterclass in filmmaking and one of only a select few movies out there that can have the words “iconic” and “masterpiece” attached to it. Not only that, but this film feels complete in every way, and also functions as a excellent human drama that focuses just as much on the flaws of man as it does on the flaws of combat. Indeed this film is a phenomenal yet steady rise toward the brink of insanity be it courtesy of how small-minded the cast of characters or rather from the catastrophic reality of conflict itself. An insanity that is a destructive and volatile mixture of an overindulgence of hubris, an extreme degree of shortsightedness, and a foolish dedication to a ridiculous goal instead of a cause of more significance are this film’s main concepts at play with the action beats contained herein simply propping up instead of defining the film. Indeed it is most certainly worth saying that this is a movie that also functions as a defining film in regards to the elegance that a master director like David Lean can bring to a film such as this. Indeed suffice it to say that his reserved but steady approach is one of the film’s greatest assets. Thus it is safe to say therefore that as long as film exists as a medium of art that this is one film which will always be one of its shiniest stars. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Bridge on the River Kwai a 5 out of 5.