Reviewed by Danny Sarnowski
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a movie caught in a strange place. In time. In moviegoer’s tastes. In the United States’ appetite to use war, especially World War II, as entertainment. The film has a strong pedigree both in front of and behind the camera. It ranks in the top 15 on the AFI’s top 100 movies of all time. It won seven Academy Awards in 1958. And yet, for me, something doesn’t click. The sum of these parts do not, for me, make a fully-satisfying whole.
The movie is set in an Asian-based Japanese POW camp during World War II. A British battalion, ordered to surrender to the Japanese, are brought to the camp and informed that while in captivity they will work to build a rail bridge spanning the Kwai river. The bridge is a necessity for the Japanese as it will open a valuable supply line for them. A due date has been set and the camp’s commander, Colonel Saito, has very strict orders to meet this date.
The battalion is commanded by Colonel Nicholson, a by-the-books, career-military man played with starched righteousness (and later misguided delusion) by Sir Alec Guinness. Nicholson is fine with his men building the bridge you see, but, per the Geneva convention, does not want his officers doing any manual labor. It is acceptable that they work in an “administrative capacity” but not manual labor. Saito disagrees and puts Nicholson and his officers in tortuous "hot boxes" to sweat them into submission. For days (or weeks, it isn't clear) Nicholson sits in the box sustained by his indignance and defiance of Saito's crazy request. How dare he want to have officers do work!?? An American detainee, played by William Holden, uses the distraction of the British soldier's situation to escape the camp. He barely escapes the jungle with his life and, with the assistance of some local citizens, is eventually rescued by nearby British naval resources.
Nicholson's refusal to budge ignites a battle of wills against Saito, a British-educated Japanese commander who has more riding on the bridge's completion personally than we may understand. This conflict over the officers' role seems petty and ridiculous but it does provide Guinness with many opportunities to play nearly-broken and physically decimated. He does this very well. Ultimately, Saito relents and the men continue building the bridge with the officers overseeing their work.
Nicholson not only gets the men working on the bridge, he gets them perfecting the bridge. His men are going through the motions, working to sabotage the bridge with poor and sloppy work and delays. This simply won't stand for Nicholson and he, instead, whips his men into shape and has his officers lay out a new location for the bridge. They devise a schedule which will ramp up the work being completed by the men and finish the bridge on schedule. This deluded obsession with proving to the Japanese and the world just how superior the British are leads Nicholson to push his men fervently to create a lasting monument in the bridge. Saito largely sinks into the background in the second half of the film as Nicholson serves as both protagonist and antagonist.
Holden's character, having been rescued, is sent back into the jungle with a small team in an effort to destroy the bridge. The Allies have gotten word of the bridge's existence and mean to blow it up just as a train of Japanese VIPs attempts to christen the bridge. The slog through the jungle provides some beautiful cinematography and reminds us why the jungle SUCKS. Ultimately, the allied force reaches the bridge, wires it to blow, and waits for the train.
The climactic scene is heart breaking as Nicholson actually fights to defend the bridge which he has forced his enslaved men to build for his enemy. This bridge which will carry supplies and reinforcements for the enemy to kill his countrymen and further the war effort. This bridge which he sees as a permanent monument to his men and his career. In his last few moments of life, the folly of this effort dawns upon Nicholson and he aids the Allies in their mission.
David Lean's direction is languid and full of wide shots in the beating sun. The actors mostly look miserable (as they should) but there are strange elements that don't fit and plot points that go nowhere. Why make a point of Holden's character having lied about his rank? Why try to insinuate the female sherpas who accompany the Allies are also paired up with one man a piece? Why have the British soldiers, who have worked for months in the heat and humid jungle doing back-breaking labor to build this bridge also have the time, interest, and energy to put on a drag show complete with live band to celebrate its completion?
This movie seems trapped between a rousing, we-won-the-war type of film and a depressing, war-is-hell and pointless type of film. It seems that World War II may have been still too fresh to push things further (and Korea was fresh as well) and yet the filmmakers did not want to whitewash things too much. It feels like a compromise.
- Sir Alec Guinness. He is very good in the role (he won Best Actor) and adds to my perspective on his career. It doesn't erase Obi-Wan Kenobi, but complements it well.
- The cinematography. Beautiful shots in day or night fill the film.
- Holden's subplots. There are several and they do not add much.
- Saito. He isn't quite developed. He is neither too evil nor too nice. He's bland enough to be immediately forgettable.
- Pacing & music. The movie has fits and starts and at times the music feels as though it was written for another film. It is well done - it just doesn't fit the movie.
- The movie feels old. Like a type of movie they don't make anymore. And it doesn't leave you wishing they did. Big, almost-bold, well-acted: B