The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed:  04/07/2012

Felix picked this one for movie night.  His grandfather had told him about it, saying that it was one of his favorite films.  But perhaps more than any other aspect of his grandfather’s thoughts on David Lean’s 1957 WWII prison camp epic The Bridge on the River Kwai was that his granddad and his friends, inspired by the film as kids, went into the woods and built bridges and blew them up afterwards.  I should note that Felix’s grandfather eventually went on to be an engineer for British Rail, actually working on building bridges.  Not a saboteur.

It was fine with me.  I’d thought of taking the kids to see it at the Castro some months ago.  I prefer to not be the only person suggesting films for the kids.

This is one of those films that seemed to be on so regularly when I was a kid that I don’t know how many times I’d seen it, or if I’d watched it all the way through in any one sitting, or what, but I’d probably seen the final scene, the blowing up of the bridge often enough to feel as familiar as almost any cinema that I can think of.

The story of English, American, Australian, Burmese, Thai, all sorts of soldiers (though mostly British), stuck in a Japanese prison camp in 1943 somewhere in Thailand or Burma, forced to work on a railroad bridge across a river.  When a new group of prisoners comes in, led by Alec Guinness in one of his most signature roles, almost everyone in the camp senses the meeting of an irresistible force against an unmovable object in the battle of wills between Guinness’s Col. Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa’s brutal Colonel Saito.  Clara very quickly came to hate Saito, his cruelty and severity so starkly on display from the get-go.  But it’s not just the Japanese whose rigor and pride wind up destroying themselves.  When Nicholson wins the first battle of the wills, showing the integrity of the British (perhaps against better judgment or not), he then wants to show further the ability of the British to build a bridge, a one-upsmanship that leads to even greater hubris.

The always great William Holden plays the more callow but still sensible and ultimately noble American, the one man who gets to call a spade a spade as far as self-importance, stiff-upper-lippedness (phew! just typing that was tough), and general blindness to common sense.

The location settings are tremendous, the beauty and wild drama of the landscapes, the exotic flora and fauna that surround all these men, that they hardly take one brief glimpse of.    The cinematography won an Oscar for Jack Hildyard.  This is one of the films that immediately comes to mind in thinking of Lean’s work in epic cinema, the epic breadth not just of story, but of image and setting.  The thing won a bunch of Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Guinness.  This is one of those films that is pretty well just plain great.  One of the films whose greatness is pretty readily obvious to most.  Probably one which you’d find the majority of people would generally agree upon.

The kids liked it, too.  Though perhaps Felix thought that more than one dramatic bridge explosion would happen.  However, that finale is pretty damn awesome in and of itself, a familiar, but brilliant piece of cinema.

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