The Bridge On The River Kwai: A David Lean masterpiece

Bridge on the River Kwai has been a favourite of mine since I first saw it, I only have to hear the familiar whistled theme to instantly recall the movie. Having been raised on a steady diet of westerns and war movies, this film ranks as one of the best.

Colonel Nicholson [Alec Guinness] is the British commanding officer of a group of prisoners captured following the fall of Singapore. He is incensed that the British officers are being forced to work as slave labour for the Japanese and becomes locked in a battle of wills with the Japanese prison camp commander, Colonel Saito [Sessue Hayakawa].

Nicholson’s determination to build the Japanese a better bridge starts to blur the line between obsession and collaboration. Although Saito is an equally strong and sympathetic character, Nicholson begins to match his counterpart in stature and, as the film progresses, to even overshadow him.

Shears [William Holden] is the cynical American soldier, not at all at ease with Nicholson’s stiff upper lip form of leadership. He escapes from the camp only to find himself volunteered — in true understated British fashion — to join a daring mission, led by Major Warden [Jack Hawkins], back into the jungle to destroy the bridge.

As the film approaches its spectacular finale, Shears fights against time to lay charges on the bridge amid tight Japanese security as the ammunitions and weapons laden train approaches. Nicholson, immensely proud of his achievement of completing the bridge on time, discovers the plot and races to stop the demolition. It’s only as the dying Nicholson falls on the explosive plunger, saying, ‘Good heavens, what have I done?’ that he realises his obsession with finding victory in defeat has instead slipped into self delusion.

While Bridge On The River Kwai is a brilliant movie, it does take liberties with actual history. The true story of the bridge and railway built by the prisoners of war is far more brutal and horrifying than what is presented in the film.

The jungle — with Ceylon, now Sri-Lanka, taking the place of Burma — is visual perfection, with its hot and steamy atmosphere. This is further impressed on the audience by its sharp contrast to the cool and comfortable extravagance of the British headquarters.

The demolition of the bridge and the subsequent train wreck at the end of the film are spectacular.

The superb acting by the entire cast — Guinness won an Oscar for his role — and David Lean‘s excellent direction make this a brilliant film.

My only quibble with the film is William Holden’s character. Depending how I feel at the time, he is either trivial and shallow in comparison to the rest of the solid cast. Coming off as something of a compromise to placate the film’s financers — or possibly as a marketing ploy to lure an American audience. Or a brilliant counterpoint to the similarities between the main British and Japanese characters and their shared sense of honour and duty.

That aside this is a memorable film highlighting the absurdity of war.


Published Epinions — 24.08.2000
Published WrittenByMe — 20.02.2001
DVD available from Amazon, Amazon UK and DevotedDVD

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