In 1957, a movie was premiered that was the most awe-inspiring of its time. It was a massive project, involving a collaboration of several countries and the building of a bridge. It was the film that put director David Lean on the map and brought home Best Picture and six other Oscars at the Academy Awards. Although Lean and producer Sam Spiegel later topped themselves with `Lawrence of Arabia' and their first film's flaws have since become apparent, `The Bridge on the River Kwai is still a landmark of motion pictures and still awes (Major spoilers up ahead).
`Madness! Madness!' The last words said in the film by Colonel Clipton can be used to sum up the film. Most of the major characters were mad in a way, but some more so than the others. Let's take Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, one of his most renowned performances. Nicholson is a stiff upper lip officer, who believes that by building a proper' bridge, he is helping the future and providing the prisoners with better work and self-esteem. He doesn't seem to take into account that this bridge will be used by the Japanese in Burma against the allies and that men are dying on the River Kwai. There are three other main characters in the story. Shears, played by William Holden, Colonel Saito, played by Sessue Hayakawa and Major Warden, played by Jack Hawkins. Shears, from what we can tell, doesn't want anything to do with the war or the P.O.W camp. He bribes officers and, when he escapes, tries to weasel his way out of going back. As an actor, Holden has always been, yet this movie will have us asking why. Hayakawa was 68 years old when he was cast as Saito, yet he doesn't look or act like it. Unlike Nicholson, he only builds the bridge because he has to. Like Shears, he does his duty because of what would happen if he did otherwise. The third character, Warden, is different on the other hand. He sees the war as a game, playing with his plastic explosives as if he's a kid with firecrackers. He also believes only in the mission, carrying around suicide pills should anyone have to be killed.
Speaking of the River Kwai, the actual story was worse than it is here and this is one of only two problems I have with the story. Hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners of war died along this railway from causes such as malnutrition, dysentery, malaria, gangrene, beatings, exhaustion and torture. And some just wanted to die. This sugarcoating of the actual story is one of the most controversial parts of the movie, but what did you expect? This is a Hollywood Epic. This is where the film's only other problem comes in: It seems to have no major focus. We leave the Nicholson-Saito story just when we are to decide whether to cheer or boo Guinness so other events can be fitted in.
The Colonel Bogey March has become one of the most renowned scenes in film history. Originally, however, the song was almost not excepted because it had some rude lyrics. However, the scenes were the march is first used foreshadow other events to follow. The P.O.Ws march past `the graveyard' and the hospital were the sick are kept. They are like new recruits marching past battle hardened veterans as they go to war. Shears remarks to Corporal Weaver, `We're going to be a busy pair of gravediggers'. The second time the march is used is near the end, as the gang marches across the bridge just before the commandos strike. The march, as happy as it may seem, is an omen of what is to happen next.
`There's always the unexpected'. John Milius once said that the commando mission in this movie is the best he has ever seen on film. Why? Because everything that could go wrong does. The team parachutes off course, one member is killed, they have to take an alternate route and Warden gets injured in the foot. However, they continue on and on. They finally reach the bridge, marveling at the quality of the structure and the apparent comradeship of the prisoners with the Japanese. They think that, from there, it's easy sailing. However, nature has a way of toying with them and are they really prepared to fight and kill others if the need arises?
Ironically, the person who destroys the bridge is the same man who advocated its construction. Nicholson's actions, however, still spark debate to this day. Many believe that he would never do such a thing and that he must have been knocked unconscious we he did what he did. However, what about his last line `What have I done?' In my view, though he loved the bridge like it was his own child, he realizes the enormity of what he has been doing and that he must kill his child.
In the end, the bridge is destroyed, but for what cost? Everyone involved is either dead or doomed to die. Their fates have been sealed. On the other hand, life has survived. The first shot we see in the movie is of a bird floating around in the sky. This represents nature's tranquillity, before it is disrupted by the machines of war. The last shot we see is of the same bird and once again is tranquillity. Only this time, it is a return to peace. Men may have kicked aside life in their quest to build and destroy a bridge, but they are only temporary visitors. Nature is a permanent resident.
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