THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, 1957
Directed by David Lean
Starring: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, and James Donald
Review by JR Kuzma
David Lean’s epic of a captured battalion of British soldiers and their proper colonel who are forced to build a bridge over the Kwai River for Japanese supply trains pass over.
Oscar wins: Best Actor- Alec Guinness, Best Cinematography- Jack Hildyard, Best Director- David Lean, Best Film Editing- Peter Taylor. Best Original Score- Malcolm Arnold, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay
The film starts out with two Allied PoWs burying a dead comrade, one of the men being U.S. Navy Commander Shears (William Holden), who, upon finishing up the burial service bribes a Japanese guard to put him and the other prisoner on the sick list to avoid more labor. It is about this time when they hear the whistling of the British tone “Colonel Bogey March” by a battalion led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), Shears blows it off thinking it is just more men he is going to have to bury in the near future.
Upon arriving at the camp, the battalion is greeted by the camp commander Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) who informs the new prisoners that they will be constructing a bridge for the Burma Railway for the River Kwai and that everyone will be working next to each other. This is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, which states that officers were exempt from manual labor, Nicholson points out to Saito, Saito seems to take it under advisement and during an officers meeting that night Nicholson believes he had won the argument and orders all to put a halt to any escape attempts. This is the meeting in which Nicholson meets Shears and Shears informs him on how ruthless Saito can be, Nicholson takes his warning lightly believing that he has gotten through to the Japanese commander.
The next day however, Saito orders all the troops, officers included, to the construction site, Nicholson once again goes to Saito to mention that this action was against the Geneva Convention and Saito slaps him for it. Nicholson sends the troops to go work, but orders his officers to stay put. When the men are out of sight a truck carrying a machine gun pulls up and aims at Nicholson and the other officers, Saito warns them that they have to the count of three to join the troops and when they don’t move Saito starts the count, and upon getting to the count of one the camps doctor, Major Clipton (James Donald), informs Saito that the people in the medical tents were witnesses to the actions causing Saito to not give the order to fire, but instead leaves the officers to remain standing there the rest of the day under gun point.
Upon the troops return from their work they see the officers still standing in there position, they start cheering them on. Saito decides to try and negotiates with Nicholson, saying that he didn’t have to work but the rest of his officers did, Nicholson declines the offer and is put into “the oven”, a metal box, that with the heat and humidity of the region is like being cooked alive.
It is during this time that Shears (Holden) and two other prisoners attempt their escape. One man is shot very early on in the attempt and the other is gunned down at point blank range. Upon killing the second prisoner the Japanese guard is killed from behind by Shears and continues running, he makes it to a cliff were he is shot and wounded by another guard and falling into the river, believed to have drowned. We later see that he survived and is found and nursed back to health by some local villagers who give him a canoe and supplies and send him on his way to the Pacific where he is later found by a passing British naval ship and is taken back to their headquarters.
Back in the camp Nicholson is still in the oven, and Saito summons Clipton into his shack to inform him that the men in the medical tent were going to be sent out to work on the bridge, that is far behind schedule at this point, because of the stubbornness of Nicholson. Clipton informs him that this would be a death sentence to most of the men, so Saito sends Clipton to try and make Nicholson give in, once again Nicholson refuses. Clipton also informs Nicholson about the failed escape attempt, which leaves Nicholson to believe that escape would be impossible.
At this point, Saito is faced with the hard truth that everything he and his engineers have done so far hasn’t work, for the bridge continually falls apart, so Saito summons for Nicholson and tells him that if the bridge doesn’t get done in time that he will be forced to kill himself and that he will be taking a lot of people with him. It is at this point that Nicholson informs Saito that a few of the British officers were engineers in India and that they will look over that land to see what the problem was. Saito agrees to this and also makes it so the officers will not have to do any labor.
That night, Nicholson and his officers the maps and charts for the bridge and the next day review the grounds. They find out that the reason why the bridge keeps collapsing is that the bed rock is unstable and they will have to move the location up river a little. Saito allows this and construction is moved. Very quickly the troops morale starts to come back and the bridge’s construction is starting to move much more swiftly.
It is at this time, at the British headquarters, that a Special Operations team is being rounded up by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) to go and blow up the bridge, thus cutting off the Japanese supply line. Warden recruits Shears because of the insight he has of the island. After much nagging, Shears finally agrees to go. The team of four are dropped on to the island and, though three land safely one does not and dies when he lands in the trees.
Team regroups, and with the help of a guide and a few ladies, makes their way to the bridge site. It is a journey that them takes over several days, where at one point they find out that a train will be using the bridge in the near future and another where they run into Japanese guards which they kill a few, leaving one to flee into the jungle, Warden and one of the other guys follow him in. It is during this encounter that Warden is shot in the foot while killing the Japanese man, forcing Warden to hobble the rest of the trek. Eventually though they make it to the newly completed build.
It is during this the teams journey that Nicholson and his men finish the bridge, where Nicholson ended up forcing his officers to do manual labor and to take some of the people out of the medical tent to also do little things to help finish everything up. Nicholson has taken great pride in the troops accomplishment and on the day the bridge is completed puts a plaque up informing whomever that this bridge was completed by British troops.
Later that evening, the troops put on a show for the camp, it is during this celebration that the Shears, the guide, and the other member of the team mine the bridge. Upon finishing their task, they head down river to a lookout point and wait.
The next morning, the team notices that the river had gone down during the night, leaving the line of cable to be visible when it is stuck on a log. Meanwhile the troops from the camps are sent to another location, but Saito allows Nicholson and Clipton to remain behind to see the first usage of the bridge. Clipton goes to a nearby hill while Nicholson remains on the bridge for one last inspection. It is at this time that Nicholson spots the cable and he and Saito go do to the river to investigate. Seeing something is up, Nicholson and Saito follow the cable to the location where one of the soldiers is hiding with the detonator. The soldier quickly kills Saito, by stabbing him in the back, Nicholson then tackles him and calls for help. On the other side of the river, Shears is watching this take place and quickly goes to aid the other team member, while Warden is on a nearby cliff firing artillery shells down on the Japanese soldiers, all while the train can be heard in the distance.
The other soldier is shot by a Japanese guard, as Shears gets to the beach, heading at Nicholson with a knife in his hand. Shears is gunned down, looking at Nicholson and both noticing whom each other are, he drops dead. Nicholson quickly realizes the error he had made and goes toward the detonator, when a shell lands in his general area, he is morality wounded, but is able to make it to his feet, walks a few more steps when he falls down right on the trigger of the detonator causing the bridge to blow up, right when the train was going over it. Clipton, seeing all this action take place, goes down to investigate and can simply say “Madness”.
When this film was released in 1957, it was highly criticized for not depicting the realistic condition that the British PoWs went through under the Japanese, however most critic ignored this and saw the movie for what it was, a true masterpiece. It took home seven Academy Awards that year including Best Actor for Guinness, Best Director for Lean and Best Picture. In 1998, the American Film Institute voted it the 13th best film of the last 100 years and when they remade the list in 2007 it was 14th.
On a personal level this is my favorite David Lean film. It’s nowhere near as flashy or as epic as Lawrence of Arabia, but it has more emotion. It really causes you to get more caught up in the more, and it has you rooting for until the very end. Though the film is nearly three hours long, it moves quickly, so it doesn’t seem like it. This is a true classic and I highly recommend a viewing. Enjoy.