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THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)
British POWs during World War II are ordered by the Japanese to build a bridge for the Burma-Siam railway. The POWs want to sabotage the bridge but Colonel Nicholson (Guiness) convinces them to build it as a symbol of British spirit and dignity. The prisoners admire Nicholson initially when he suffers torture rather than change his views. But as time goes on Nicholson is gradually revealed as deluded and obsessive -- the bridge is a monument to himself rather than Great Britain.
#13 on the AFI Top 100. Eight Oscar nominations; seven wins (Best Picture, Best Actor, Direction,Writing, Cinematography, Editing, and Music).
Director David Lean's "Bridge on the River Kwai" is an epic of a sweeping, highly moving, war-time drama.
Best Picture Oscar Winner / Best Picture Index
The basic story involves a group of mostly British soldiers, fighting to hang on to their dignity in a cruel Japanese prison camp, run by a Japanese officer, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Under a forced labor situation, demanded by the Japanese, a tough British colonel, Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) works his men hard to build a bridge, to keep his men's morale and Esprit de Corp. up, winning a moral victory over the Japanese. Unknown to them, British and Allied forces plan to destroy it, because the completed bridge would allow the Japanese to move supplies and men up into India, in a place that would be hard for the allies to bomb and destroy.
The film opens showing the jungle on an island near India. As the camera pans the jungle, the lens starts to catch graves with crosses along the railway, which runs by a Japanese -run prisoner of war camp cemetery. Two rag-tag men, an American, Major Shears (William Holden) and a Brit, are busy burying yet another fellow prisoner in the graveyard outside the prison buildings. The men had all perished from disease, hard labor and poor conditions foisted on them by the realities of the camp, and a determined, honor-bound Colonel Saito, who was willing to do anything to get his work camp assignments finished. If Saito fails to do so, he is ordered to kill himself out of the disgrace of failure.
Then, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a disciplined, well-trained commanding English officer marches his officers and men into the prison camp, all whistling the "Colonel Bogey March." Upon their arrival Colonel Saito comes out to greet them, and lays down the law, telling them who is boss. Colonel Nicholson assures the Colonel that he and the soldiers will comply, until Colonel Saito insists that both the officers and men will work side by side to build the bridge, under the direction of Japanese officers. Colonel Nicholson boldly asserts that by the Geneva Convention rules, officers would not do forced labor. After slapping Nicholson, Saito barks: "Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!"
The first struggle of wills between the two men had begun. Colonel Nicholson was put in solitary confinement in the "hot box," and his officers were incarcerated as well, suffering much, all for the sake of an important principle. If they give in to the brutality and lawlessness of Colonel Saito, who knows where the brutality will stop?
Meanwhile, while the officers are incarcerated, Major Shears(William Holden) and two others attempt escape. While all three men were thought to be killed, Major Shears escapes and in sad shape stumbles into an island village, where the people nurse him back to health. They give him a boat to enable him to escape the island. But, the dumb bunny drinks some of the river water, and becomes really ill. He is picked up by a British plane and winds up in a British military hospital in Celon.
With the deadline for completion coming up fast, Saito has a serious problem. The men don't work well under the direction of Saito's Japanese engineers, or even Saito's direct supervision, and the officers won't break and submit. Saito, much to his personal shame and distress, finally relents and takes up Nicholson's offer to let the British officers, who had built bridges in India take over the construction of the bridge. While not doing the hard manual labor, the officers would direct the men to do so, and accomplish the task given, as an organized, disciplined unit of the British armed forces. The deal was that Saito would get the bridge built, the men would receive good treatment, the hospital would stay open, and the officers would run things in disciplined, civilized British fashion.
However, one can win the battle but lose the overall war. One wonders if Colonel Nicholson has invested too much in the idea of this moral victory, accomplished by building this bridge with pure British know-how, and seeing it as the unit's personal achievement under duress, instead of a forced-labor project to benefit Japan's war effort? Will he be able to step back without a word when he realizes that someone from the allied forces is about to blow up the bridge, a symbol of his unit's backbone and victory over their captors?
Major Clipton, the wise Medical Officer (James Donald) tries to warn him about the psychological and military pitfalls about the bridge project, but Colonel Nicholson has fully rationalized the project as a way to keep the men busy, get them better treatment, and show the Japanese what a civilized unit could do.
The bridge's construction of course doesn't go unnoticed by allied forces. So, while Major Shears is resting and recuperating in Celon, he is called into service by British commando department to go with a demolition squad of 3 other men to be air-dropped back onto the island to blow up the bridge. Feeling that he has no choice, Shears reluctantly joins this Demolition Expert Force 316, led by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins).
The gripping screenplay was written by the talented Carl Foreman and gifted Michael Wilson, which was based on the original novel by Pierre Boulle. Carl Foreman, a writer who was black listed in the 1950's, also wrote "High Noon," "The Guns of Navarone," "Cyrano de Bergerac," "Young Winston," and "Home of the Brave."
Michael Wilson, who was also black-listed in Hollywood during the 1950's witch hunt for communist sympathizers, was the writer of the screenplays for "Friendly Persuasion," "Border Patrol," "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Place in the Sun," "Lawrence of Arabia," and "Planet of the Apes."
This film is another masterpiece that is directed by the talented director, David Lean, who was the driving force behind the greatness of this grand epic, filmed on a steamy jungle location set, including wild rivers and rustic beauty, with a dynamite cast and a terrific screenplay. Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is a classic because it offers an epic war survival story with gripping situations, intense action sequences, moments of great courage, great acting, and excellent photography. The film is perhaps best known for the catchy tune the British soldier's whistle. The tune, "Colonel Bogey March," which was incorporated into the film's memorable score, by Malcom Arnold, won an Oscar.
The British and American cast did a terrific job bringing the script to life, in both their solo and ensemble work. The film offers a fascinating contrast between actors and nations, as well as acting styles. In many ways it's as much a battle of acting schools, and styles, as it is about characters and action.
The marvelous Alec Guinness, who loved to lose himself in a role, drew upon extensive stage and screen experience to create his stern, principled stiff upper-lipped colonel, determined to stand by his deeply-held principles, British military discipline and for what he thought was best for his men.
Holden, who like all great American stars, tended to exploit his looks and personality, portrays Major Shears as an earthy, handsome, vital, and defiant character, a practical man who naturally does what he has to do to survive, and will be heroic if he has to, because of various situations that arise. He isn't so sure that he goes along with the crazy with courage attitude of the British when it comes to duty and missions, which both rank higher than individual human life.
While Guinness won the Best Actor Oscar, Holden more than holds his own with one of the best actors of the British Empire. Favorite scenes with these two actors happen at the very beginning when the Colonel has a meeting with Holden and his officers, and the scenes at the very end of the film.
At the beginning of the film, Holden explains the reality that exists in the camp. "I'd say the odds against a successful escape are about 100 to one. But may I add another word, Colonel? The odds against survival in this camp are even worse."
Jack Hawkins as the affable but tough as nails, dedicated British officer Major Warden is convincing. My favorite scene with Jack Hawkins is the low-key, polite way he good- naturedly and patiently breaks the news to the soon to be reluctant volunteer, Major Shears (Holden) why he has to go back to the island that he just escaped from, and help them accomplish what they must do. It seems that both the U.S. forces and the British forces have found out the truth about Major Shears, which sort of has him over a barrel. Knowing that everyone knows his little secret, Major Shears changes his tune and attitude of "I've done my bit," and agrees to volunteer for this high-risk mission.
Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his moving portrayal of Colonel Saito, and one can see why. He at first is a formidably stern, stubborn foe, who has to find it within himself to let the British take over the building of the bridge, when it is evident that the men are earnestly trying but need their officersâ encouragement and expertise. Because of the British, he must change his way of thinking in order to accomplish his orders and survive himself, as he is stuck as well in the harsh system of Japanese policy, which was succeed with honor or die.
My favorite sequence of scenes has to be the last 20 minutes of the film's terrific ending. The human drama and personal revelations of the main characters, combined with the terrific shots of the bridge being blown up, and the train crashing into the drink are quite a satisfying end to this epic tale.
This film is rated P.G., but may be too emotionally hard to take for the sensitive, and perhaps a little long in the middle for the inpatient viewer used to the Star Wars editing style. This story deals with some unpleasant realities about Japanese -run internment camps, and about the brutal and senseless nature of war. On the positive side, this war adventure shows how the challenges of difficult situations bring out the best in the resilient human spirit, and shows the charactersâ dedication and self-sacrifice to a noble cause, as they fight against what the worst qualities in human nature have created. Hard choices had to be made, which can either make or break a mission, or a person. But, this film is highly recommended as a classic war adventure film, because it looks at both sides of war, the negative and the positive.