A British Colonel in a Japanese POW camp works to complete a bridge, while, unbeknownst to him, a small team of Allies is moving to destroy it.
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is one of those movies whose name gets tossed around a lot when the word ‘epic’ comes up. It’s a film that’s mentioned alongside other greats like “Ben-Hur”, “Seven Samurai”, or “Lawrence of Arabia” (coincidentally, also directed by Lean), and rightfully so. To call this movie anything but epic would be a travesty; it’s huge, it’s exciting, it has memorable characters, set pieces, and conflict, and it still holds up sixty years after its original release.
(SOME SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
After the British officer Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness, “Star Wars: A New Hope”) surrenders his troops to a Japanese prison camp commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, “Swiss Family Robinson”), the two butt heads over the Geneva Convention’s rules, and Nicholson is thrown in a hotbox until the two settle their disputes. When Nicholson and Saito finally come to an agreement, Nicholson takes control of his troops and begins construction on a bridge over the River Kwai. Meanwhile, an American Navy Commander, Shears (William Holden, “Sunset Boulevard”), escapes from the Japanese camp, only to be approached by the British to help go back to blow the bridge up.
I think the best part of this movie is the characters. Alec Guinness is absolutely incredible as the stubborn and strong Nicholson, and watching he and Hayakawa butt heads is amazing. You can honestly feel the tension between the two throughout the entire film, but as the bridge progresses, so does their relationship. Guinness fights for what he believes in, and he fights for dignity, even if it means suffering at the hands of his opponent to do gain it. One of the scenes in the whole movie comes after Saito finally relents and lets Nicholson have his way. Immediately after Nicholson inspects the bridge, he tells Saito he’s been doing his project wrong the whole time and takes control of the project. He then goes on to say that the bridge is behind schedule for a trivial squabble that was entirely not his fault. It’s almost humorous how stubborn and driven Nicholson is; but we really see multiple sides to his character throughout the whole of their tiff. Saito is another great character. He isn’t a one-dimensional villain, bent only on making the lives of his captives miserable. He’s a man who is assigned a task, and if he fails that task, his life is at stake. He’s not a hardened, cartoonish villain, he’s a man we can relate to and sympathize with, especially after Nicholson starts to take over, and we see how powerless Saito feels, even when he’s still in charge. Shears, too, is a fantastic character. His character is a somewhat lazy American; a reluctant hero forced to return to the place where he was captured. His character also has a secret, and it makes his character even more compelling.
The writing throughout this movie is fantastic; it has everything! There are subtle character arcs, twists, reconciliations, action, adventure, intrigue, and even a little bit of romance. Honestly, this movie does have everything, and it moves at a pretty quick pace too. This is a fifties movie, so there are, of course, some longer dialogue scenes that sometimes slip into slightly melodramatic or preachy, but for the most part dialogue is snappy and quick.
Set design is another thing that is great in this movie. The bridge itself looks great, as does the Japanese prison camp. Most of this movie is set in exotic locations, and that, paired with the cinematography, make for an extraordinarily good-looking film. There are wide, sweeping shots that show the expanse of the bridge over the river itself, and then there are also static shots with long scenes of dialogue where the background seems to stretch on for miles. This film is another great example of Technicolor, as everything is extremely saturated and rich.
This film is a classic; it has been for sixty years and it will be for another sixty. This is a perfect example of golden age Hollywood, when the productions were large and expensive, and things were still a marvelous spectacle to behold. This movie isn’t as fast paced as more modern war films like “Saving Private Ryan”, and I’d argue Lean’s later film “Lawrence of Arabia”, is still better than this, and more epic too. But this is a film that is truly epic, and it has enchanted people for generations. The chaos, the drama, and the characters are all worth revisiting, or if you haven’t yet seen this film, then I highly recommend it. It’s a wonderful experience.
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