1 June 2006 | EUyeshima
Still Stirring Wartime Adventure and Compelling Psychological Drama Exhibit David Lean at His Peak
After years of more intimate British films and just discovering the joys of location shooting with 1955's "Summertime", master director David Lean made his first actual widescreen epic with 1957's "The Bridge on the River Kwai", an acknowledged classic that deserves attention from a new generation of viewers and another visit from the rest of us who love perfectly executed films by an unparalleled craftsman. Recently, this movie has been overshadowed by his 1962 follow-up epic, the comparatively more elaborate "Lawrence of Arabia", but this richly textured WWII-set adventure is special enough on its own terms. While it has its share of action and suspense presented in exacting detail, the film is even more resonant as a psychological drama about the test of wills between mission-driven officers amid the perils of wartime survival.
The plot takes place in 1943 when after surrendering in Singapore, Col. Nicholson marches his ragged British company into a Japanese prisoner work camp in the Burmese jungle (this is where the famous whistling of "Colonel Bogey March" is first heard). The erudite Col. Saito runs the camp and demands that the new prisoners build a massive railway bridge, a critical juncture between Rangoon and Malaysia. In a classic stand-off, Nicholson finally forces Saito to respect Geneva Convention and not allow his officers to do manual labor on the construction. Upon his ironic Pyrrhic victory, Nicholson slowly descends into the madness of seeing the completed bridge as a potential morale booster for his battle-weary men. Meanwhile, shortly after Nicholson's arrival, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Shears escapes from the camp only to be later blackmailed into joining a British commando mission led by do-or-die Maj. Warden and hesitant Lt. Joyce with the sole goal of blowing up the bridge. Through Peter Taylor's thoughtful film editing, the movie breathlessly alternates between the parallel story lines of the bridge construction and the jungle commando mission until the exciting climax.
Lean's accomplishments are many with this memorable film - the authenticity of the Burmese jungle locations (filmed in Sri Lanka), the seamless integration of the two story lines, the masterful handing of the final scenes, and in particular, the gradual metamorphosis of Nicholson from a by-the-book British officer to Saito's willing collaborator. A frequent participant in Lean's films, Alec Guinness gives his career-best performance as Nicholson providing all sorts of unexpected shades to his complex characterization. As Shears, William Holden does what he did best in the 1950's, concurrently exude natural bravado and a conflicted soul and then added a layer of cynicism that dares to challenge the viewer to support him. The 68-year old Sessue Hayakawa came out of retirement to play Saito and delivers a subtle performance of unbending discipline and pained humiliation. Jack Hawkins and Geoffrey Horne lend sturdy support as Warden and Joyce respectively. With the same expert eye he lent to "Summertime", Jack Hildyard provides the superbly expressive and composed cinematography. Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, both blacklisted at the time, wrote the brilliantly developed screenplay. This is essential viewing.
The two-disc 2000 Limited Edition DVD set has a pristine print transfer with great sound making the entire experience feel surprisingly fresh upon viewing. There is a nearly hour-long documentary on Disc Two, "The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai", produced for the DVD and full of intriguing insight into the production logistics. There are a couple of shorter featurettes produced around the time of the film's original release, the first is a black-and-white teaser for the film itself and the second a rather pedestrian lesson in Film 101 produced by USC grad students and introduced by Holden. Director John Milius provides a respectful tribute to the film in another short.