The film begins with the peaceful beauty of the jungle. That beauty is quickly disrupted, first visually as we come across bamboo crosses marking several makeshift graves and then with the harsh sound of a steam engine as it emerges down the railroad tracks through the jungle leading to a military work camp where prisoners are forced labor working on continuing the track through the jungle.
This film takes a look back at WWII now more than 10 years in the rear view mirror. And although we’ve seen plenty of war film win best picture, this is the first one to feature the war in the Pacific theater.
The story starts as Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and his company arrive as prisoners in the work camp. It is their story and David Lean shows why he’s one of the best directors who ever lived. The film is remarkably shot, giving it both an epic sense of scale and a personal portrait of these men.
As 1950s American cinema continues to bring spectacle and scenery to the screen that can’t be seen on television, The Bridge on the River Kwai for the most part doesn’t sacrifice story and character for the sake of the spectacular. More on that later.
This film is exotic and beautiful in glorious Technicolor Cinemascope. But unlike Around the World in 80 Days and The Greatest Show on Earth this film would work just as well if it were shot on 8mm black and white.
Nearly the first half of the film is a battle of wills between Nicholson and the man in charge of the work camp Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).
Saito is a man under personal and professional pressure to complete the bridge on time. He disregards the Geneva Convention and forces British officers into manual labor. But Nicholson won’t budge. It lands him in solitary confinement (“the oven”).
There’s a scene when they drag Nicholson out of the oven to meet with Saito. Alec Guinness is so emaciated you can understand exactly why the Academy was so impressed with his performance. I’m surprised it hasn’t shown up on one of those “25 Times Actors Went Too Far For Their Role” Buzzfeed clickbait lists. But Guinness’ performance is much more than just being skin and bones. His Oscar was well-deserved in a very crowded field that included Marlon Brando, Charles Laughton and Anthony Quinn.
Saito struggles to find a way to give in but save face. Eventually he has no choice but to concede and Nicholson is reunited with his men. Saito’s private emotional response knowing he lost gave a level of humanity films of this era rarely gave our WWII adversaries.
But there’s work still to be done. That bridge ain’t gonna build itself ya know.
While Nicholson was in solitary for a month his men become lackadaisical. He sees building the bridge as the opportunity he needs to rebuild his regiment’s discipline.
Meanwhile, three prisoners attempt to escape. Two are shot dead, but the American in the camp, Navy Commander Shears (William Holden) is wounded but manages to get away. He stumbles into a village of natives who help him leave by boat and he makes his way to a military hospital in Ceylon.
This is where the film drags a little. In Ceylon Shears is taking it easy on the beach with a nurse. There’s some kind of commando school there as well with an international team being put together to blow up the bridge. Since Shears had knowledge of the camp he is recruited and pressed into service. Their journey through the jungle dialed up the “exotic spectacle” but it was heavy on the padding.
It was kind of the weird lovechild of Apocalypse Now and Robert Lippert’s The Lost Continent. The latter was riffed in 1990 on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and took quite a beating for relentlessly padding the movie with endless scenes of an expedition team walking and rock climbing.
Between Ceylon and the jungle trek it added 20-30 minutes we didn’t really need. But in the hands of David Lean at least it looked gorgeous.
I think the reason it bogs downs is that we don’t get introduced to these characters on the demolition team until halfway through the film. When we do meet them we watch them do a lot of walking through the jungle so it’s tough to really care about them.
In a movie that’s 2 hours and 45 minutes long it felt superfluous especially because it meant time away from Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa’s compelling performances.
With about 30 minutes to go the film recaptures its heart and reeled me right back in.
The last 10 minutes are fantastically suspenseful and sets up a really gratifying ending.
If you’ve seen this film by now you might be whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” made famous…heck, made iconic by this film. It’s the authorized march of The King’s Own Calgary Regiment (RCAC) of the Canadian Forces and by golly it’s a catchy little ditty.
In case you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, here it is. But I warn you, it might get stuck in your head.
This was a big year for films. The top three grossing films of the year were all up for best picture. The Bridge of the River Kwai, Peyton Place and Sayonara respectively.
Two courtroom (sort of) dramas from legendary directors rounded out the best picture category. Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men.
Both of these films were shot in black and white which hurt their commercial success. 12 Angry Men in particular was a box office disappointment. This continues the ongoing preference for the Technicolor spectacle theater-goers were eager to see.
These Oscars finally brought an end to my ongoing personal nightmare of having no idea what the differences were between “best story,” “best story and screenplay” and “best screenplay.” These categories have been simplified into two categories, one for original screenplays and one for adapted.
Best adapted screenplay, (called “Writing Based on Material From Another Medium” at the time) was awarded to Pierre Boulle for The Bridge on the River Kwai, even though Boulle didn’t speak English. He had written the novel the script was based on. The actual screenwriters were Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman. But Wilson and Foreman had been blacklisted and weren’t given screen credit for their script. They have since been recognized by the Academy for their work.
With so many strong films that year it’s a little surprising that The Bridge on the River Kwai won 7 Oscars. The only one of its 8 nominations it missed out on was best supporting actor. Instead of Sessue Hayakawa it went to Red Buttons for Sayonara. But before you start thinking this is an early #OscarsSoWhite you should know that Miyoshi Umeki won best supporting actress this year. She was the first (and still only) Asian woman to win an acting Oscar.