World War II was one of the biggest, most devastating events in human history. Looking at a map of all the conflict areas, there were so many fronts to this widespread war that a lot of people don’t really cover or mention. That is what initially attracted me to today’s film, The Bridge On The River Kwai. It takes place in a POW camp in Burma, a country whose action during World War II I was not aware of. It is a story you don’t see very often, which is special in its own right, but once you start watching the movie, it’s the spectacular performances that really make this movie stand out for me.
It all begins in 1943. Shears is an American Naval officer captured after his boat sank during a battle and sent to a Japanese POW camp managed by the vicious Colonel Saito. Everyone at the camp is forced to work on a project for the Japanese, namely a bridge over the Kwai river that will link Bangkok and Rangoon together (the Burma-Siam Railway). He and the other POWs are resistant to the idea of aiding the Japanese, so the project moves along slowly and is plagued with sloppy workmanship and even outright sabotage. Shears himself constantly bribes the guards to get light duty and keeps everything to a snail’s pace on his end. He has a mind to escape, but he is waiting for just the right time. Everything changes once a group of British POWs is sent to the camp. Led by the extremely British Colonel Nicholson, the group of officers marches in defiantly and smugly, whistling the Colonel Bogey March and flaunting their Britishness. When Col. Saito informs the Brits that they will also be working on the bridge, Nicholson reminds both him and his men that under the Geneva Convention, officers are exempt from manual labor. Saito, irate at the insubordination, almost orders them all shot. But, fearing an inquiry of his actions, he instead leaves them to stand out in the heat. They all stand in the blazing sun, not one of them willing to give in. This defiance inspires the other POWs, eventually setting the bridge behind schedule. Needing the POWs back on track and fearing what will happen if he fails to deliver the bridge, he reluctantly excuses the officers from work. The men rejoice and find some relief. Nicholson, however, goes off to inspect the bridge out of curiosity. Unbelievably, he finds it to be a horribly sloppy affair and begins to find ways to make the bridge better (!!). He turns it into his own vanity project, telling the men that it is a matter of British pride that the bridge is built the best it could possibly be (!!). Will the loony Nicholson really try to finish the bridge, unwittingly aiding the Japanese? Will Shears really make his escape from the deadly Burmese camp? Will Saito just lose his cool and kill them both?
There is so much story to cover. It is a sprawling 2 1/2 hour war masterpiece, and there is a LOT of plot. Director David Lean is a master of the epic, and this, the first in his trilogy of war epics, is doubtless one of the most captivating films ever made. For his part, it has to be the way he is attracted to the power in an image. The grand vistas, the long shots of the POWs constructing a bridge to tame a river (spitting in the very face of nature in a way), and even the caliber of the actors all exhibit a proclivity towards a sort of cinematic majesty. His shooting style is not for the subtle, but for those who appreciate the grandiose and the bombastic, he may just be one of the greatest directors who ever lived.
Classic scenes abound in this film! The immortal Colonel Bogey March scene has been parodied in countless films (most notably Spaceballs), to the point that nobody really remembers where the original concept came from. It is such a cheeky British thing to do, and this film is rife with cheeky Britishness. Nicholson’s march from “The Oven”, the sweltering box he is placed in for insubordination, is also a wonderful moment of dignity and strength for the character, although the heat must have gotten to him in there, as not even a day or so later he is working on the bridge anyway (!!!). And when Saito, played by the precise and proper Sessue Hayakawa, explodes with anger and delivers the line, “I hate the British! You are defeated but you have no shame. You are stubborn but you have no pride. You endure but you have no courage. I hate the British!” His face says it all. It’s brilliant. That is how a classic performance is made.
Speaking of performances, I have to say that, and this may be the only time I will ever say these words, William Holden is totally out-classed in this film! Holden plays Shears, a smarmy American officer with a shady past, and he does a spectacular job of venting our frustrations with the whole situation. But far and away the best actor here is Alec Guinness, who completely loses his mind on the river Kwai as Nicholson. He is at once brave and delusional, a gentleman and a cad, a zealous patriot and a traitor. Only a man with real class can pull off such a complicated role, and boy, does Alec Guinness have class. My favorite part of this movie is Nicholson’s body language. Watch him throughout the film to see what I mean. There is not a moment where he loses his poise. Not one. He keeps his head even while he is surely going insane! I love it, and I think you will too.
So if you have 2 1/2 hours that need to be filled with something meaningful and aesthetically pleasing, you could not think of a much better use of that time than watching this film. It is not just great; it is important. You have humor, action, drama, suspense, and madness chucked in there for good measure. What else is there to say? I give The Bridge On The River Kwai 9 1/2 eloquent S.O.B.s out of 10. A high recommendation!
Tomorrow I take a look into The Legend of Billie Jean! Until then!