Instantly one of my favorite films, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a tense, terrifying, absolutely riveting film about the ironies of war and the deadly psychological games enemy soldiers play with each other.
Prisoners from Japanese POW Camp 16, deep in the jungles of Thailand, are the forced labor building a railroad bridge over the River Kwai. British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and his troops, newly captured, arrive at the camp, and a battle of wills is drawn between Nicholson, a stickler for regulations, and the hard-nosed Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Nicholson refuses to allow his officers or himself — as opposed to his enlisted men — to be put to manual labor, as per the Geneva Convention (a copy of which he carries with him); he also privately ponders the legalities of escape attempts. Saito dismisses Nicholson’s insistence on the rules — “This is war,” he tells the British officer, “this is not a game of cricket.” But Nicholson is stubborn, and is willing to let his own men die as a matter of principle.
When Saito manages to give in while also saving face, Nicholson and his officers take over the management of the bridge construction — if the British soldiers are to be forced to build a bridge, they’re gonna show up the Japs by building the best damn bridge possible. However, in nearby Ceylon, British commander Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) has his own ideas about what’s to be done with the new bridge: He sends a commando unit, along with an American soldier (William Holden) who defied the odds by escaping from Camp 16, into the jungle to blow up what is becoming Nicholson’s pride and joy. The stage is set for a suspenseful and shocking finale.
Director David Lean’s name to me always sounds like his movies: Spare, trim, simply and cleanly shot. Kwai’s long, wide, static shots aren’t interrupted by frequent cuts or jumps — there’s no distraction from the stark brutality of life in the prison camp or the dangers of travel in the jungle. Lean’s palette is full of the gray-greens and browns of the jungle, of the muddy river, military fatigues, tanned men, bamboo buildings, and the logs of bridge. Colors are washed out, melted together as if by the heat of the sun. This is the first Best Picture in which I started noticing the pan-and-scan process (I couldn’t find a widescreen video) and getting slightly annoyed by it, but even that couldn’t detract from Lean’s lucid genius.
My only minor quibble with The Bridge on the River Kwai is what I see as a slight character cop-out at the ending (some others fans see ambiguity). But the brilliant performances, especially by Guinness and Hayakawa, and the fabulous direction make this a beautiful film about an ugly situation. This one is not to be missed.
Oscars Best Motion Picture 1957
AFI 100 (1998 list): #36
unforgettable movie moment:
New British POWs, led proudly by Colonel Nicholson, march boldly into the Japanese prison camp whistling “Colonel Bogey March.”