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The Bridge on the River Kwai Movie Review

guinness lean film alec

1959 – David Lean –

During a television special on the American Film Institute's selection of the 100 Best Movies, Steven Spielberg commented on David Lean's prison camp masterpiece. Spielberg marveled at the plot construction and development—how the film simultaneously propels a number of parallel stories and masterfully brings them all to a thrilling climax. Memorable for its whistling “Colonel Bogey's March” and innumerable classic scenes, The Bridge on the River Kwai is still somewhat flawed by a certain implausibility of the main character.

Kwai is set in a Japanese POW camp in Burma during World War II. At the outset, we watch Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) engage heroically in a battle of wills with the camp commander Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). After he endures the solitary confinement of “the oven,” Nicholson is taken to Saito's private quarters. The early scenes between these two foes are among the film's best and certainly qualify it for inclusion among those few spectacle films that can be accurately described as “intimate epics.” Saito needs men to complete a bridge, and he admits that if he fails it will cost him his life. The bridge will extend the railroad from Bangkok to Rangoon and on to India. Nicholson decides to supervise the construction of the bridge with the labor of his men even though such an act will aid the enemy. He does so seemingly out of British pride and the urge to respond to captivity with a constructive, challenging enterprise that will endure—and show his captors just what British pride can accomplish. He visibly swells with pride, for example, when another officer tells him that the wood in the indigenous trees could produce a bridge that would last six hundred years.

The heroic battle of wills between the Commander and the Colonel is gradually superceded by a moving commentary on the absurdity and futility of war, allegorically demonstrated by the rise and fall of the bridge. This combination of moods has always struck some as an awkward mix. The only American POW, “Commander” Shears (William Holden) is less concerned about duty and more focused on survival. Lean replaces the Colonel's conflict with Saito by moving Shears (who is actually a private) into an adversial role, contrasting the pragmatic American with the class-conscious and duty-bound British officer. The film hammers together each successive scene and plot point as surely as the men extend and complete their bridge. The climax is powerful, but Nicholson's final actions aren't perhaps fully believable, however consistent Guinness has been with the character.

Cast: William Holden (Shears), Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson), Jack Hawkins (Major Warden), Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Saito), James Donald (Major Clipton), Geoffrey Horne (Lieutenant Joyce), Andre Morell (Colonel Green), Peter Williams (Major Reeves), John Boxer (Major Hughes), Percy Herbert (Grogan), M.R.B. Chakrabandhu (Yai), Kannikar Dowklee (Siamese girl), Harold Goodwin (Baker), Keiichiro Katsumoto (Lieutenant Muira), Henry Okawa (Captain Kanematsu) Screenwriter: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson Cinematographer: Jack Hilyard Composer: Malcom Arnold Producer: Sam Spiegel for Horizon Pictures; released by Columbia MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 161 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards, 1957: Actor (Alec Guinness), Screenplay, Cinematography, Director (David Lean), Editing, Picture, Score; Nominations: Supporting Actor (Hayakawa); British Academy Awards, 1957: Actor (Alec Guinness), Film, Screenplay; Directors Guild of America Awards 1957: Director (David Lean); Golden Globe Awards, 1958: Actor—Drama (Alec Guinness), Director (David Lean), Film—Drama; National Board of Review Awards, 1957: 10 Best Films of the Year, Actor (Alec Guinness), Director (David Lean), Supporting Actor (Sessue Hayakawa); New York Film Critics Awards, 1957: Actor (Alec Guinness), Director (David Lean), Film Budget: $3M Box Office: $15M.

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