10 May 2008 | Steffi_P
"This is not a game of cricket"
The Bridge on the River Kwai – David Lean's first epic, a genre he would later be associated with more than any other. Previously having made his mark as a director of deep and often psychological dramas, Lean's easy transition into bigger pictures reflects the change that was taking place in the genre itself, moving from the grandiose spectacle of De Mille et al, towards the "intimate" epic of the late 50s and early 60s.
We are also here seeing the development of the war, or rather, the anti-war picture. Prior to this most anti-war or anti-military pictures were small-scale dramas, whereas all the big war films were rousing flag wavers. Bridge on the River Kwai ticks both boxes, and is all the more effective for it. It is an anti-war film which prevents itself from becoming static or preachy, and an action film with a humanist edge.
The problem presented to David Lean, aside from the fact that he had never done anything on this scale before, is that Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman's multi-layered screenplay contains many different strands, with stories told from multiple points of view. Lean fortunately had dealt with such fragmentary narratives before – 1952's The Sound Barrier for example – and here he actually uses the trappings of the epic to keep the narrative focused. This was the first time he had used the cinemascope aspect ratio, but rather than employing it purely to show off the stunning landscapes (although he does do a fair bit of that too, and why not?) he also uses the width of the screen to cram varying elements into the frame. For example, in the scene where Nicholson (Alec Guinness) surveys the railway construction with his fellow officers, the figure of Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) can be seen on a hill in the background. This reminds us of his presence, and subtly keeps his story arc going.
Lean's use of colour is also remarkable. Of course, when your film is set in a PoW camp in the middle of a jungle, you have a fairly limited colour palette anyway, but Lean's crafty choice of camera angle and positioning is calculated to show off different tones at different times. In the opening moments, highly reminiscent of The African Queen (which, like Kwai, was produced by Sam Spiegel) he begins with the greens of the jungle – a fairly cold colour. As we descend through the trees, Lean gradually turns up the heat with those dusty yellows and browns. For the middle section of the film, he cools things off again with more lush greens and even some vibrant shades, before returning to the stark hot tones for the tense finale. Again, this is all very subtle director's work, but these touches do create little shifts in mood and influence the way we view each scene.
Lean's handling of the larger canvas was however not yet quite up to best showing off his actors upon it. That's a shame with such a good cast, although Alec Guinness in one of his earliest non-comedic roles shone through enough to garner an Oscar. William Holden was also deserving of at least a nomination, but didn't get one. To my mind though the best performance of the picture was that of Sessue Hayakawa. Hayakawa was an incredibly powerful silent film actor – check him out in De Mille's The Cheat (1915) – and it's great to see him at the top of his game again here.
Bombarded with awards, Bridge on the River Kwai is typical Oscar-winning fare, particularly for the conflicted political climate of the 1950s. It can be read as a damning critique of war, but also enjoyed as a gripping action film. This broad appeal, the depth of the screenplay and Lean's assured direction made it a hit in its day and allowed its popularity to endure in the generations since.