David Lean is a master of spectacle. This World War II-era film is a deserved classic of cinema with great characters in epic locales. It’s a treat to the eyes and ears and, even though it might be a little slow and old-fashioned, it’s still one of the all-time great films.
The story, based on a Pierre Boulle novel, is about the Japanese army using prisoners of war to build the Burma-Siam railway and the Allied efforts to sabotage it. It opens in the camp run by the stern disciplinarian Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) where a ragtag assortment of POWs (including William Holden as Shears) are laconically carrying out the orders to build a railway bridge across the River Kwai under hellish conditions. One day, a huge number of British army soldiers and officers led by quintessentially stiff-upper-lip Colonel Nicholson (the splendid Alec Guinness in Oscar-winning form) march into camp as the newest prisoners. After a clash of pride between Nicholson and Saito a strange, grudging respect forms and soon Nicholson, out of an excess of pride, has his officers and troops helping to build the bridge, but a better bridge built to British engineering standards. Meanwhile, Shears escapes and reaches safety but is soon recruited into a British mission to sabotage the bridge, based on his first-hand knowledge of the area.
The movie was a huge winner at the Oscars, winning seven of the eight categories in which it was nominated, including best picture, and it’s not hard to see why. The film is really spectacular with huge set pieces involving hundreds of extras in really exotic locations. Today these things could be done easily with CGI, but in 1957 everything you saw on screen had to photographed and that fact makes the images all the more astounding. Anchoring the story, however, are great performances by Hayakawa and Guinness as men of immense pride and pragmatism, who might have been friends in another time and place but are forced by circumstance to be adversaries. It’s a very interesting balance and Alec Guinness is truly magnetic as the perfect army officer whose optimistic belief in civilization, especially in its British form, is absolute. I loved him from start to finish.
The movie does have some drawbacks, in my opinion. For one, it is very long, clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, and it is slow-paced, so you kind of feel every minute of the running time. As impressed as I was by the Guinness/Hayakawa plotline, I found the William Holden plotline somewhat less engaging. I like Holden, but he’s a bit of-his-time in his acting style, in my opinion. The film has a very old-fashioned feel in some of its performances and slightly stagey action, but it’s not an action movie so I can let it go. It also has the ring of unaware racism appropriate to its era in the way the British officers haughtily dismiss the engineering attempts of the Japanese, but it’s hard to be sure there isn’t some intentional ring of irony. I mean, Nicholson is almost over the top in his Britishness while still being charismatic and endearing. I think the filmmakers were sophisticated enough to be poking gentle fun at the attitude of people who were, after all, a generation before themselves while recognizing there is something to be said for uprightness and propriety.
I really liked Bridge on the River Kwai for a lot of reasons, Alec Guinness being far and away the first. I also thought it was absolutely beautiful to look at and the plot was interesting enough that I enjoyed the film’s leisurely pace. The suspense of setting up the charges to blow the bridge and the ensuing risk of discovery worked very well, in my opinion, and the explosion (spoiler alert!) is quite a feat of pyrotechnics for 1957 which stands as strong as most things done today. I thought the film had an interesting philosophy about pragmatism and pride which came out in the good writing and great performances. All-in-all, I think Bridge on the River Kwai is a great example of big-scale classic filmmaking and a lot of fun to watch.