The Bridge on the River Kwai
At the time of its release, some critics complained that The Bridge on the River Kwai was confusing: was it for or against war? That ambiguity, however, may be exactly what has contributed to the movie's lasting appeal. In its often uneasy mix of heroism and blind obedience to military honor, large-scale action and subtle characterization, humor and horror, this war movie - one of the biggest and most spectacular - turns out to be rather anti-war, while ironically retaining all the crowd-pleasing aspects of a rousing adventure film. As director David Lean himself said, "There has been a lot of argument about the film's attitude toward war. I think it is a painfully eloquent statement on the general folly and waste of war."
Lean's intention was to make a big movie with meaning, an epic with a message. Whether he achieved that has been open to much debate, but it unquestionably made him a major international director. He never made a "small" movie again. The success of The Bridge on the River Kwai also marked a transition for the British film industry. In the years just prior to this picture, the country's film output was characterized by the gentle but biting satires of everyday English life turned out primarily by the Ealing Studios. After this, British releases were dominated by grand epics financed largely by Hollywood studios, many of them directed by Lean himself: Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan's Daughter (1970), A Passage to India (1984). Whether that change was welcome or not is a matter of opinion, but it is a fact that The Bridge on the River Kwai had as profound an influence on the way British films were made and marketed as the American blockbusters of the mid-70s, such as Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), had on this country's industry.
The Bridge on the River Kwai also brought Alec Guinness to international stardom. Although he was not the first actor considered for the role of Colonel Nicholson, Guinness proved to be an inspired choice. Something seemed to carry over from his days in the Ealing comedies portraying the foibles of the British national character. Here it is pushed to its extreme in his performance as a military officer so caught up in his pride and sense of superiority that he ends up abetting his enemy.
The story was also loosely based on a real-life person, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. Captured in late 1942, Toosey and his men labored through May 1943 under orders to build two Kwai River bridges in Burma (one of steel, one of wood) to help move Japanese supplies and troops from Bangkok to Rangoon. Unlike the fictional plot, the bridges were actually used for two years until they were destroyed in late June 1945.
The Bridge on the River Kwai won Academy Awards® for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Adapted Screenplay (Pierre Boulle, Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman), Best Cinematography (Jack Hildyard), Best Editing (Peter Taylor), and Best Score (Malcolm Arnold). It also earned an Academy Award® nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Sessue Hayakawa). In its list of the 100 greatest British films of all time, released in 1999, the British Film Institute ranked The Bridge on the River Kwai number 11. Lean was chosen the greatest British director of all time.
Director: David Lean
Producer: Sam Spiegel
Screenplay: Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle
Cinematography: Jack Hildyard
Editing: George Hively, Peter Taylor
Art Direction: Donald M. Ashton
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Cast: Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson), William Holden (Shears), Jack Hawkins (Major Warden), Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Saito), James Donald (Major Clipton), Geoffrey Horne (Lt. Joyce).
C-163m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon