Sunday, March 01, 2015
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle, The Bridge on the River Kwai is the story of a group of POWs in a Japanese camp who are tasked to build a bridge in Thailand during World War II as they deal with their time in the prison camp. Directed by David Lean and screenplay by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, the film explores the life of British POWs deal with doing work for the Japanese just as the war is heating up. Starring William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness, and Sessue Hayakawa. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a riveting and engaging film from David Lean.
Set in a Japanese prison camp in the middle of the jungles of Thailand, the film revolves around a group of British POWs who are tasked by the Japanese to build a bridge as their officer tries to help lead the charge to boost morale and to smooth things over with the Japanese. It’s a film that plays into a man trying to maintain a sense of honor and code among officers during the time of war as he is also trying to deal with a Japanese colonel who isn’t familiar nor is he willing to abide by the rules. At the same time, an American prisoner manages to make an escape as he is asked by the British to aid them in a mission that relates to the bridge which he reluctantly agrees to do as he is apprehensive about returning to the place which he escaped. It all plays into the complications of war as some wondered why Lt. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) is willing to help the Japanese build a bridge.
The film’s screenplay starts off with Lt. Col. Nicholson’s arrival as he has been captured where the American POW Commander Shears (William Holden) watches as he’s been in the camp for some time. Under the command of Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the prisoners are trying to build a railway bridge on the Kwai river where things aren’t going well as Saito has a deadline to catch on as he needs Nicholson’s officers to do manual labor work but Nicholson says they can’t because of rules that prevent officers from doing manual labor. Saito doesn’t care about those rules where a secret escape attempt made by Shears would have some men killed with Shears being the only one to do so successfully. The second act is about Saito and Nicholson playing a game of wit to see who can do what where the result has Nicholson take charge on the bridge’s construction so that he can look after his soldiers and contend with their morale where he would find a way to get the bridge to work and do it right.
One aspect of the script that is unique is the form of a supporting character in a medic in Major Clipton (James Donald) who is sort of the film’s conscience as he would often watch everything that occurs as he also asks Nicholson into why the bridge needs to be built. It plays into Nicholson wanting the world to know that it was British soldiers that built the bridge though he is aware that questions into treason or collaborating with the enemy might come into play. It then leads into this third act where Shears is asked by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) to take part in a mission to blow up the bridge as Shears’ reluctance is due to the fact that he doesn’t want to go back to the jungle as it is also a place where things are just as treacherous as the camp that he escaped. The two are joined by a young Canadian officer in Lt. Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) who takes part in the mission despite his lack of actual combat experience. The mission becomes troublesome where Shears tries to comprehend exactly what is going on as its climax involves Warden’s mission in conjunction with the bridge’s completion.
David Lean’s direction is truly grand in not just his approach to create something that feels vast but also in the way it plays into a world where two different cultures and two different ideas have to work together to build this bridge. With its 2:35:1 aspect ratio for widescreen, Lean manages to create a lot of compositions that are very striking in his approach to capture the large number of British POWs with his usage of wide and medium shots. Particularly with scenes of crowd shots as well as a key scene where Japanese soldiers are waiting for Saito to give the order to shoot Nicholson and his officers on a very hot and sunny day. It’s a chilling scene that plays into this battle of wits between Saito and Nicholson where it would continue in some intimate moments where Nicholson is forced to stay inside this small little cell known as the oven for a period of time.
The direction also has Lean use some inspiring tracking shots and other stylistic shots to play into the scenes where the bridge is built as Lean takes advantage of the locations as it is shot in Sri Lanka with a few scenes shot in Britain. Notably as Lean would use the locations as characters of the film including the river where much of the film’s action, aside from the prison camp, takes place as it is showcases what Nicholson is doing as the bridge is sort of a metaphor for what he wants to do with Saito despite being in two different sides of the war. The film’s climax where many of its key characters converge play into not just the fallacy of war but also in the sense of madness as it plays into not just Shears’ own frustrations with war but also in Major Clipton’s own understanding of things. Overall, Lean creates a very engrossing yet exhilarating film about a British officer trying to create peace by helping the Japanese in creating a bridge.
Cinematographer Jack Hildyard does brilliant work with the film‘s cinematography to capture the colorful look of the jungle in the daytime as well as some very stark and low-key lighting schemes for the scenes set at night including the camp interiors. Editor Peter Taylor does excellent work with the editing as it‘s straightforward for the most part with some stylish dissolve transitions plus rhythmic cuts for some of the film‘s action scenes. Art director Donald M. Ashton does amazing work with the design of the prison camps as well as the look and design of the bridge upon its completion as it plays a key part of the story. Sound editor Winston Ryder does terrific work with the sound to play into the tense atmosphere in the camps as well as the sense of chaos in the bridge construction scenes. The film’s music by Malcolm Arnold is fantastic for its orchestral-based score that underplays the drama as well as some military-based music that includes Colonel Bogey march.
The film’s cast includes some notable small roles from Andre Morell as a British colonel who organizes the plan to destroy the bridge, Ann Sears as a nurse Shears spends time with after his escape, Peter Williams and John Boxer as a couple of Nicholson’s officers who help design the bridge, and Geoffrey Horne as the young Canadian officer Joyce who aids Shears and Warden in the mission to blow up the bridge. James Donald is excellent as Major Clipton as an army doctor who is the film’s conscience as he copes with what Nicholson is doing while being baffled about the rules of war. Sessue Hayakawa is amazing as Colonel Saito as the Japanese prison camp leader who is trying to get the bridge made as he’s under a lot of pressure to finish it on time while maintaining some honor in his battle of wits against Nicholson.
Jack Hawkins is fantastic as Major Warden as a British officer who takes charge in the mission as he is someone with an affinity to do dangerous things as he later copes with an injury that plays into the fallacy of war. William Holden is brilliant as Commander Shears as an American POW who escapes the camp as he reluctantly takes part in the mission to blow up the bridge as he copes with the dangers of war and all of its risks. Finally, there’s Alec Guinness in a remarkable performance as Lt. Col. Nicholson as a stubborn and proud officer who tries to instill a sense of honor into his situation as he would take charge in building the bridge with the hope of bringing a sense of peace during a time of war.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a phenomenal film from David Lean. Armed with a great cast and compelling themes on war and honor in war, it’s a film that manages to explore a lot of things as well as be engaging in the way it portrays life in prison camps. Especially as it’s a film where there are no heroes and villains but rather men caught up in the middle of a war. In the end, The Bridge of the River Kwai is a sensational film from David Lean.
David Lean Films: In Which We Serve - This Happy Breed - Blithe Spirit - Brief Encounter - Great Expectations (1946 film) - Oliver Twist (1948 film) - The Passionate Friends - Madeleine (1950 film) - The Sound Barrier - Hobson’s Choice - (Summertime) - Lawrence of Arabia - Doctor Zhivago - Ryan’s Daughter - (Lost and Found: The Story of Cook’s Anchor) - A Passage to India - (The Auteurs #75: David Lean)
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