The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) 4.86/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 86.7
Genre: War
Duration: 161 mins
Director: David Lean
Stars: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins

The fog of war has more often been examined in movies in the more frenzied sense. Where perspective and judgment are clouded by fear and adrenaline in the heat of battle. The Bridge on the River Kwai looks at it from a more subtle and broader perspective where training, orders, and duty are distorted by the complexity of war’s logistics and wider strategies as well as the personalities of those individuals involved. Alec Guinness stars as Colonel Nicholson, the commanding officer of British POW’s who must initially cross swords with the stern commander of his Japanese prison camp when the latter refuses to abide by the Geneva conventions concerning treatment of officers. Through the long ordeal in which Nicholson is tortured and punished intensively, the two men’s positions of authority begin to shift but with unexpected consequences. Once past this threshold, the Japanese commander finds Nicholson more than willing to stop his men’s purposeful shoddy work on a strategically important bridge and begin constructing it in earnest and to the impeccable standard of the British army. When his doctor questions Nicholson’s decision to seemingly aid the enemy, he promptly asks the doctor if he would allow a Japanese prisoner to die on his table and follows it up with questions as to the doctor’s sanity.

Guinness brings a unique complexity to his stiff and by the book Colonel Nicholson. In his mind, his clear understanding of the rules and of his duty impel him to build that bridge and so unwavering and articulate is his belief, from time to time, he causes his doctor and audience alike to question the certainty of their position. This is the real achievement of director David Lean and Alec Guinness. To create an atmosphere and context which explains this seemingly outrageous course of action. Based on Pierre Boulle’s semi-autobiographical novel and written by then blacklisted (and so unaccredited) Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, there’s a rich texture to the characters, dialogue, and plot. In addition to Nicholson, the story also focuses strongly on a US prisoner named Shears (William Holden in a fine performance), who after escaping that same prison camp, is convinced to return with British commandos to blow up the bridge. The scene is set for a powerfully nuanced finale and through Lean’s masterfully paced direction, that is exactly what the audience is treated to. Lean’s direction in general is tempered and supremely balanced. He captures all the oppression of the jungle camp so that the sense of heat and stickiness seems an incidental burden. The sound of the jungle in particular is used to telling effect during both Shears’ escape sequence and the dawn time preparations of the climactic scene.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is the type of picture that is extraordinarily difficult to make correctly. There are multiple strands each rooted in strong complex characters which all need to pull in the same direction. The drama is almost entirely psychological and subtly so. Added to this are the logistics of making the film in the rough jungle terrain of Ceylon. The fact that Lean pulls it off with such apparent ease is testament to his masterful craft but also those working under him. Guinness’ and Holden’s complementary turns should not be underestimated for they add as much depth as the director’s contribution.

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