In my mind, there is no better place to mine stories from than war. I’ve talked about this before on this blog: Hollywood loves movies that have to do with war. There are many reasons for this. War is something that is very complicated and wars often have wide-ranging geopolitical origins and consequences. They tend to shift timelines and alter lives. There are literally millions of war stories in just one single battle, let alone an entire conflict.
But also, and I think, more importantly, war is a purely human phenomenon and it is a deeply human experience. As long as there has been history, there has been war. But it never changes, nor does it get any less savage.
When it comes to movies about war, the films can cover a wide array of topics and even push a number of different agendas. Some may be anti-war. Some might be pro-war. Some, like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker feature someone who is just plain addicted to it.
This week, I’m talking about another war film, an epic, really, but this one is a much different war film when compared to others that I’ve covered. David Lean’s first of two Best Picture winners that I’m reviewing is The Bridge on the River Kwai, a British production about war. The 1957 Best Picture winner features a group of British prisoners of war forced to build a Japanese railroad bridge over the River Kwai in 1943.
I’ve mentioned before, I have mixed feelings about films from the 1950s, due mostly to the influence of the House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC. This film, however, while subject to HUAC’s scornful watch, managed to break through and be immortalized even though the film’s writers were on the Hollywood blacklist. Just like with On the Waterfront, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this film. However, that doesn’t mean I had low expectations, either.
What I ended up with was a film that captures my imagination from the opening shot. Its stunning cinematography, brilliant acting, strong direction, overall message about war, as well as a continually shifting narrative make The Bridge on the River Kwai the best mid-century movie I’ve seen to date. It is a gritty examination of passion, honor, lethargy, and, most of all, the human spirit.
Now, for the rest of the movie.
The opening shot of The Bridge on the River Kwai is of death. Or, to be more specific, graves. The British commander, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) marches his men into a Japanese POW camp after having been captured by the Japanese. While there, Nicholson runs into Shears (William Holden), an American POW who has been in the camp so long as a gravedigger, that the terrible camp conditions have left him jaded and sarcastic.
Nicholson also runs into Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the sadistic leader of the camp. It’s Saito’s job to build a railway bridge across the River Kwai in western Thailand. When Saito informs the new prisoners that all men, including the officers, will work on the bridge, Nicholson objects, citing that forcing the officers to work is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. After some British soldiers and Shears escape, and Nicholson won’t change his position, Saito locks Nicholson in “The Oven,” a metal box meant for solitary confinement. This opens a tremendous battle of wills between Saito and Nicholson.
Meanwhile, an escaped Shears finds himself in a military hospital on the coast. He’s recruited by Major Ward (Jack Hawkins) to help lead an expedition into the jungle to blow up the bridge that’s under construction. Shears initially refuses but is coerced into going.
Saito finally releases Nicholson from “The Oven” so to help the British work better on the bridge after the British have intentionally sabotaged any progress on the bridge. Nicholson decides that, in order to keep his men in high spirits and to prove the ingenuity and resolve of the British Army, convinces Saito to allow him to take over the project. Nicholson, after gaining control over the bridge’s construction, redesigns and relocates the bridge, finishing it just in time for Saito’s deadline.
As you can tell, this plot is very complicated. That was a general synopsis, and while brevity is the name of the game when writing, that was as short as I could get it. The most interesting part about the narrative is the shifts in viewpoints, and who is actually working in opposition to whom. Initially, it’s Saito against Nicholson, then it becomes Shears versus Nicholson while Shears is working to blow up the bridge. This shifting in narrative kept me guessing throughout the film. I couldn’t predict which way it was going to go to save my life.
But the story also slowly builds up over time, a common feature in most war movies. However, this one is different. Calamity slowly unfolds in this one. The Bridge on the River Kwai is 161 minutes long, and you have to be patient with it, and if you are, the payoff is incredible. There is not one inciting incident, but several. 1.
Perhaps just as dramatic as the plot itself is the actual writing of the script for The Bridge on the River Kwai. Initially, the story is based on the novel of roughly the same name by the French author Pierre Boulle. The screenplay was written jointly by Carl Foremen and Michael Wilson. However, both Foreman and Wilson worked on the film in secret as the two were on the Hollywood blacklist and couldn’t be credited. Therefore, the writing credit went to Boulle, and when the film won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, the award went to Boulle, even though the man didn’t speak a word of English and had literally nothing to do with the script.
But for the actual script itself, the most striking feature is the directness of it. David Lean preferred to let what people see tell the story, not what they hear. It is almost like Dunkirk in this regard. There is scant dialogue, and whatever speaking there is always gets straight to the point. But that doesn’t mean the script is bad either, it just takes some time to get used to. The writing is funny and witty at times, but also prophetic at others, with characters reflecting on their lives as well as their life’s work, particularly at the end of the film. 1.
Composing the score for The Bridge on the River Kwai was Malcolm Arnold. The effort won him the Oscar for Best Scoring.
From the outset, the score is very dramatic, with high crescendos, intense strings, and deep drums. It’s got the typical, tinny 1950s sound. The score is certainly worth the listen, even though the score is scarcely used. When there is no music, the ambient noises in the jungle really come to life. However, there are two areas of the film’s sound that really stand out in my memory, and both of their uses are absolutely perfect.
The first was the whistling of “Colonel Bogie” as the British soldiers marched into the POW camp at the beginning of the movie. The tune, which has lewd lyrics, had to be whistled by the British soldiers. The song’s jolly tune contrasts beautifully with what is actually happening in the scene. Lean chooses to highlight the various conditions of the soldiers in the heat, humidity, and general terribleness of the Thai jungle.
The second great use of sound was as the climax was approaching towards the end of the film. The first train to cross the new bridge is full of Japanese VIPs. As it approaches, the rhythmic thumping of the train acts almost like a ticking clock, counting down to an explosive finish. 1.
David Lean decided on authenticity for The Bridge on the River Kwai. While scouting locations for the film, the scouts decided that the actual River Kwai was not dramatic enough. Therefore, the shooting moved the jungles of Sri Lanka. As the characters suffered through the heat and humidity of the jungle, so too, did the actors. The conditions added a layer of depth to the movie.
Additionally, the set successfully showcases the brutal conditions of both the men in the camp and the camp itself. The camp was very dirty and very “jungle-y.” The men wore tattered uniforms and many of them didn’t have shoes. The set for this film is highly authentic and helps to set the atmosphere of the movie. 1.
Winning the Best Cinematography for The Bridge on the River Kwai was Jack Hildyard. For the life of me, I can’t imagine a better winner for Best Cinematography in recent posts.
Utilizing the new technology of CinemaScope, Lean and Hildyard gave The Bridge on the River Kwai a big feel. It’s like the movie was shot for the widescreen televisions that we have today. The setting itself is large and grandiose, sure, but so is the cinematography. Using very wide-angle shots of landscapes and jungles, Hildyard captures the world of the story so well that I ended up falling in love with the scope of the film. This allowed Lean to tell the story using visuals, not just words. To put it simply, The Bridge on the River Kwai gave a new kind of “bigness” to epic movies that we’ve seen repeated in the decades since then in movies like Dances with Wolves and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
Using the cinematography to help tell the story makes this large movie so incredibly personal. We find ourselves actively seeking out the story where it isn’t told to us. Complimenting this is are the vivid colors captured by the camera. This makes the film one of the most visually stunning movies from the decade. 1.
With strong acting across the board, The Bridge on the River Kwai, garnered two acting nominations, including a win for Alec Guinness.
Guinness plays Colonel Nicholson, the veteran British commander whose men are captured by the Japanese in early 1943. From the start, Nicholson is an honorable and loyal man. He believes in laws and rules, believing that order lays the basis for civilization. He sticks to his guns when Saito refuses his request to not have the officers working side by side with the regular soldiers just because the order runs against the Geneva Conventions. He eventually defeats Saito and gets the bridge built his own way.
A man of convictions, Nicholson believes that, while being a prisoner of war is terrible, his men should accept it, shooting down any organized escape attempt by his men. He also takes pride in building a bridge for the enemy despite many objections from his officers. He wants the users of the bridge for the decades to come to realize the great work by the British soldiers.
But here lies his downfall, too. Nicholson becomes so consumed with building the perfect bridge that he forgets that he’s supposed to be fighting a darned war. Pride is his Waterloo, and his dogged determination to protect the bridge, and even work against those (who, again, are on his side) who seek to destroy it, costs him dearly in the end.
On the other hand, William Holden plays Shears, a man trapped in the camp longer than he cares to remember. He’s dug so many graves he loses track of the men that he buries. He’s jaded as to his whole existence and deals with the savage conditions in camp with sarcasm and dry humor.
But he’s a determined man, too, falling prey to an injury as he escapes from the camp. But the goal after the injury is to go home via a medical discharge. He no longer wants to fight, no longer wants to be the hero. When he’s roped into going back to the bridge site to help destroy it, he goes, but certainly not willingly. Over time, though, his skill as a soldier shows itself, as does his resolve for the mission at hand. He’s a man that has been personally victimized by the Japanese, and that drives him forward.
Other honorable mentions of great acting include Jack Hawkins (Major Ward) and Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Saito). Hayakawa was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role. 1.
David Lean won Best Director for this film, and his strong direction, attention to detail, and general perfectionism makes The Bridge on the River Kwai one of the great movies of the 20th century.
From a thematic standpoint, the film is as complicated as its narrative and it’s a startling examination of war that only came to me after a few nights thinking about it. For me, thinking about war movies always brings up some small part of a larger, cataclysmic event. Call it the “Saving Private Ryan Effect.” In that movie, even though the objective is to get Private Ryan out of combat, the movie takes place over the course of the early stages of the Allied invasion of Europe from D-Day onward. This was an incredible turning point in the war and may have been the beginning of the end of the Axis reign of terror. I think many war movies are like that.
And while World War II in Southeast Asia was a giant event and part of a larger conflict, the story of The Bridge on the River Kwai is almost an isolated incident. It’s a movie about POWs and a bridge. There were likely dozens of railway bridges along that same route and the prisoners were just one fraction of the millions of POWs during the war. Yet it is this bridge, in particular, coupled with these specific prisoners that make it special. The war is fought on such a small scale in this movie. In fact, right up until the end, we had a war movie with almost no battles and this sets it apart from other war movies.
But this, oddly enough, speaks to a larger fact that Lean is trying to get across about war: it’s wastefulness in both men and materials. Nicholson, Saito, Shears, and Ward are men that all want different things and this is a film that focuses not only on the wants of the men but also the consequences of those wants. The movie ends in almost a Shakespearean manner with so much death and destruction. The terrible costs that all the men pay are over a bridge. Again, a tiny little piece, a specific bridge at a specific time.
But the film has more than that to it, too. It’s an examination and a testament to the human experience. The course of the narrative is so complex and convoluted, and yet it makes perfect sense in retrospect. We’re each the main characters in the stories of our own lives, and the movie humanizes itself by bringing this to the screen. Each man really works against each other, though they don’t really know that until right at the end. All the decisions made show that the men are making decisions based on their own experiences and beliefs, not thinking for a second that they’re contradictory to others in the story. This is a human experience, too. Can you think of the last person that cut you off in traffic? It may have aggravated you then, but that person is generally not out to get you. He or she is trying to get to a specific place, just as safe as you are, but their methods might be different. This is the brilliance of David Lean and The Bridge on the River Kwai. 1.
I’m giving a bonus point to acting, directing, and cinematography.
Final Score: 10/10
The Bridge on the River Kwai won the 30th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 26, 1958, at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out 12 Angry Men, Peyton Place, Sayonara, and Witness for the Prosecution for Best Picture. The award was presented by Gary Cooper and accepted by Sam Spiegel, producer. In all, The Bridge on the River Kwai was nominated for eight awards, winning seven.
Other notable winners that night included Joanne Woodward winning Best Actress for The Three Faces of Eve, Red Buttons winning Best Supporting Actor for Sayonara, and Miyoshi Umeki winning Best Supporting Actress for Sayonara. The ceremony was hosted by Bob Hope, Rosalind Russell, David Niven, James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, and Donald Duck (yes, really).
Next week, we pick up the second of David Lean’s two Best Picture winners: the all-time classic tale Lawrence of Arabia. After that, it’s The Great Ziegfeld, Rain Man, Cavalcade, Mutiny on the Bounty, Shakespeare in Love, and All About Eve.