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BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (director: David Lean; screenwriters: Michael Wilson/Carl Foreman/based on the novel by Pierre Boulle; cinematographer: Jack Hildyard; editor: Peter Taylor; music: Malcolm Arnold; cast: William Holden (Cmdr./Maj. Shears), Jack Hawkins (Maj. Warden), Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson), Sessue Hayakawa (Col. Saito), James Donald (Maj. Clipton), Geoffrey Horne (Lt. Joyce), Andre Morell (Col. Green); Runtime: 160; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Sam Spiegel; Columbia Pictures; 1957-UK)
“Antiheroic war epic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia”/”Doctor Zhivago”/”Ryan’s Daughter”) directs this antiheroic war epic that is among other things a mine field of cliches.It was the first of director David Lean’s Hollywoodlike big-budget, spectacular wide-screen blockbusters. The film was loosely based on a true WW II incident, and the actual character of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. It’sbased on the novel by Pierre Boulle and written by two blacklisted writers–Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman–who received their Oscars under the table. It won seven Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture.

Set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma in 1943 (filmed in Ceylon), where a battle of wills rages in the steaming jungle between sadistic camp commander Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and the newly arrived unbending moralistic British colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). The colonel has his men march into the camp whistling their regimental tune. The cynical long-term surviving American prisoner Shears (William Holden), a navy man posing as a commander, observes and shakes his head in disbelief when the naive colonel makes no plans to escape because headquarters ordered him to surrender. The next day Saito declares that all the men, including officers, will work on building a bridge across the River Kwai to be used by the Japs for military purposes. The colonel refuses to have his officers do manual labor, pointing out the rules of the Geneva Convention, and Saito counters by placing all the British officers in a torture chamber, small, corrugated iron boxes which are set in the scorching midday heat.

While the troops labor at the bridge, Shears executes an escape with two other Brits. The three are shot at and seemed killed, but only Shears avoids drowning and miraculously washes down-stream and ends up recovering from his wounds in a hospital. There Shears continues impersonating an officer since it offers more advantages than an enlisted man; he meets British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), in charge of guerrilla operations, who plans to blow up the bridge when it’s completed and needs Shears’ help. In the meantime Saito under pressure from the high command to complete the bridge in three weeks or else he will have to commit hari-kari, makes a strange bargain where he saves face with the arrogant colonel by getting him to work on the bridge and the colonel wins his argument that no officer is to do manual labor. The rigid martinet colonel is peeved his troops have become lax in their discipline and takes over the building of the bridge by getting his men to work at full speed, and he ends up pushing his men harder than the Japs did. The colonel begins to look upon the bridge building as a test of his prowess and wants to make the best bridge possible. It all leads to a maddening climax, as the bridge is detonated under some unusual circumstances by Shears and the Brit commandos while the colonel doesn’t want his bridge ruined and tries to stop them. The point made is that war is a futile effort and those who are in it are subject to fits of madness; it also pokes fun at British pride.

It has superb production values, the drama is gripping, the visuals are stunning and the acting is first-rate. But the lessons learned seemed pat and the fuzzy ending seemed to fudge whatever its point of view was supposed to finally be about doing one’s duty.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”