- Directed by David Lean
- October 2, 1957 (London) / October 11, 1957 (United Kingdom) / December 14, 1957 (United States)
British POWs are forced to build a bridge for the Japanese, unaware that the Allies are planning on destroying it with the help of an escaped prisoner from that same camp.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is considered one of the greatest films of all time. I am not sure about that belief, but it is a fantastic film nonetheless. It is more drama than anything else with a few tropes of the time thrown in for good measure. The thing is the characters and dialogue and plot are so well crafted that the over two hours fly by and the finale is a real nail biter. Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle (the Planet of the Apes book guy) this film tells a fictional story about British soldiers forced to construct a bridge over a river in Burma. It is not based in fact.
William Holden plays long-term American prisoner of the camp Lieutenant Commander/Major Shears. Shears has been plotting and dreaming of escape for a long time and has no desire to genuinely aid his captors in their plan. Shears does eventually escape and makes it back to civilization where we learn that his rank of “lieutenant commander” was all a ruse on his part to get better treatment. This bit of information forces him to be conscripted into a mission to take out the bridge. It also sets him and his British counterpart in the camp on a collision course.
Sir Alec Guinness plays recently transferred British officer Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson who decides to work with his Japanese captors not out of a particular love or desire to support the Japanese but rather because he feels it is his duty as he was ordered to surrender by his superiors. In his mind that requires him to follow their orders. The character of Nicholson stirred, and still stirs, controversy in that it portrays Nicholson as a collaborator and is seen at times as a cruel parody of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey of the British Army who commanded a group of POWs that were forced to build a bridge for the Japanese.
This real story occurred in the same area but contrary to the movie, the British POWs mixed cement poorly and gathered termites to eat the wood among other things. This was one of many differences between reality and this work of fiction. People do not seem to realize this film is not fact based. It is Hollywood folks!
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a work of historical fiction based on a work of historical fiction. It is filled with historical inaccuracies and outright fabrications. Do not go into this looking for a history lesson. Do not even go into the movie looking for a place to start. You will not be successful. You would do better with an episode of Hogan’s Heroes.
This is a dramatic war piece and not a fun adventure story. Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the camp commandant, is no Col. Klink. He is a tough and brutal warden who if the bridge is not completed on time will be forced to commit ritual suicide and thus is willing to put the screws to his prisoners to get the job done. He does not react well when Lt. Col. Nicholson arrives and points to the Geneva Conventions as to why officers are exempt from forced manual labor.
Shears’s spirit and beliefs remain relatively unbroken throughout his captivity as well as his forced servitude on the mission to destroy the bridge. Nicholson on the other hand believes he is remaining true and strong to himself and his ideals by following the orders of his captors, but he is instead broken by the Japanese commander and just does not see that. Maybe not outright broken but the Saito is able to get Nicholson to bend his well even though if Nicholson really examined it he would not be so willing to be so effective.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is photographed really well. You get the sense of heat and humidity of the prison camp. My only gripe is there is a scene where British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) and his team (including Shears) are walking along during the mission to destroy the bridge. It does not look like they are actually in a jungle. Looks more like they are walking next to a hedge and occasionally getting struck by untrimmed branches. That is nitpicky but in an otherwise perfectly shot film it stood out to me.
We have a fantastic cast here that brings a very solid story to life. They are all good actors but aside from Guinness and Holden, James Donald is probably the best-known name (to me anyway) in the cast. He can be seen in such films as The Vikings, he played Group Captain Ramsey who was the Senior British Officer in The Great Escape, King Rat, Cast a Giant Shadow, and Quatermass and the Pit to name a few.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a great war film. It is a classic bit of cinema that you must see!