PG Cooper’s Movie of the Month: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Posted: April 28, 2012 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Movie of the Month

*Disclaimer: Review contains SPOILERS!!!

Release date: October 2nd, 1957

Running time: 161 minutes

Written by: Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman

Based on: The novel “The Bridge over the River Kwai” by Pierre Boulle

Directed by: David Lean

Starring: Alec Guinness, William Holden, and Jack Hawkins

Set Thailand during the Second World War, The Bridge on the River Kwai tells the story of a group of British soldiers being held captive in a Japanese prison camp. Among those soldiers is Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). As they arrive, they are informed by Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) that they are to help construct a bridge on the River Kwai. Nicholson retorts that the Geneva Convention prohibits officers who are prisoners of war from doing manual labour. What follows is a power struggle between the two Colonels. Meanwhile, there is a subplot involving an American soldier (William Holden) who managed to escape the prison camp.

The film’s story is great. The power struggle between Nicholson and Saito is extremely gripping. Saito tries everything he can to break Nicholson down. He threatens Nicholson, threatens his men, tortures Nicholson, and even begs him. But Nicholson refuses to back down. At one point, one of the prisoners tells him to give into Saito and make the officers work. He questions why Nicholson is going to all this trouble? It’s a matter of principle to Nicholson. By following the rules of the Geneva Convention, Nicholson is bringing civilization to a savage prison camp. By protecting the rights of the officers, he is keeping them soldiers and not slaves.

Eventually, Nicholson wins. Saito agrees that the officers will not have to do manual labour themselves. They will serve in administrative purposes. At this point, Nicholson takes an active role in the construction of the bridge, helping plan and co-ordinate the work. It’s hard not to get caught up in the work that Nicholson and his men put in. There’s something very satisfying about watching Nicholson and his men help build a better bridge than could have been built without them. True, Nicholson is becoming lost in work that is aiding the enemy, but that’s not what it feels like while it’s happening.

One of the film’s many highlights is the incredible performance from Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson. Nicholson is easily the most fascinating character in the film. He is a proud man, proud of himself, proud of his men, and proud of his country. He isn’t proud in a boastful or arrogant way though. It’s more of a quiet dignity. For example, he’s quite respectful to Saito despite being held prisoner by him. In fact if I had to pick one word to describe Nicholson, it would be respect. This is a character that demands your respect while always remaining tremendously respectful to others. Some of his best scenes are early on during the power struggle with Saito. Despite everything Saito throws at him, Nicholson remains strong. Alec Guinness displays all this flawlessly. The strength he exudes is amazing because it doesn’t feel forced or that he’s even trying. Nicholson comes off has being naturally strong willed.

One of the best things about Guinness’ performance is just how likable he is. The first time I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai I was so enamoured with Nicholson and the way Guinness played him that I didn’t recognize the dangers of his actions. I mentioned two paragraphs ago how Nicholson willingly aids the enemy during war time, and he does. But the thing is, I didn’t really think of it that way. I was so caught up in the character that it didn’t seem like he was doing anything wrong. I didn’t truly see the consequences of Nicholson’s actions until the film’s climax, the same time Nicholson realizes what he’s done. Had Nicholson been a real person, I’d have followed him through anything. That’s how powerful Alec Guinness’ performance is.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. William Holden actually received top billing due to his immense popularity at the time, but the film is definitely more centered on Nicholson. Holden plays an American named Shears who escapes from the prison camp. Shears isn’t noble or proud like Nicholson. He’s a simpler man, who just wants to enjoy life. Holden brings a lot of charm to the part, and he’s very likable. Jack Hawkins plays  British Major Warden who ropes Shears into returning to blow up the bridge. Warden is a good man, but one very dedicated to his job. He’d easily sacrifice any life for the mission. Finally, there’s the Japanese Colonel Saito, played by Sessue Hayakawa. Saito is harsh man, willing to do anything for the job. However he does this not because he’s a bad man, but because he’s under tremendous pressure. If he doesn’t complete the bridge in time, he’ll have to kill himself. Saito and Nicholson develop an unspoken respect for each other, but you feel it all the same. All these characters are interesting on their own, but also work well when compared to Colonel Nicholson.

Director David Lean is a great filmmaker, well-known for the epic scale of his films. The Bridge on the River Kwai is no exception. Filmed mostly in Sri Lanka, the film features beautiful jungle scenery and impressive camera work. The score for the movie is also great, and the film truly has a sense of scope. Lean and editor Peter Taylor cut the film perfectly. Despite a fairly long runtime, the film moves by at a great pace. It’s a slow film, but never boring. David Lean was also great at getting stellar performances from his cast by any means necessary. For one scene, he actually made Sessue Hayakawa legitimately cry.

But from a production stand-point, the most impressive aspect of the film is in the title itself. An actual bridge was constructed for the film. Costing $250,000, standing 90 feet high and 425 feet long, made of 1500 trees over a period of eight months. All this went into creating the largest structure in all of Sri Lanka. All this work so they could blow the bridge up for the film’s climax. And what a climax it is. Today, a stunt like that would have been CGI. Even back in 1957, Lean could have used a model or miniature. But instead, Lean and producer Sam Spiegel actually blew up a real bridge. I can’t understate how important the authenticity of the stunt is.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is also a thematically deep film. There’s a strong message about the pointlessness of war. What’s great about is the film isn’t preachy about it at all. The message comes very naturally. Basically we spend all this time in the film with these soldiers building the bridge. They work on it for months, pour considerable time and effort into it. People die working on this. We watched Nicholson and Saito have a brutal power struggle over this. During the film’s climax, the bridge is attacked by Shears, Warden, and another soldier. Several lives are lost, including Nicholson, Saito, and Shears. And of course, the bridge is destroyed. As the film ends, one of the prisoners looks over the destruction, repeating “madness” over and over again. So many good lives wasted, and for what? Some bridge in Thailand. This isn’t a battle that changed the course of the war or something of that nature, it was just some bridge. The film isn’t just an anti-war film though. It also questions the nature of war and where the metaphorical lines are truly drawn in regards to war. It’s a film that asks what it means to serve one’s country. What’s even better is that it isn’t a film that relies on its themes. You can choose to read into these themes, or to ignore them. The film’s still great either way.

Film buffs always debate what David Lean film is better, The Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia. I love Lawrence of Arabia and understand why some prefer it, but to me, The Bridge on the River Kwai is Lean’s ultimate masterpiece. It’s full of memorable scenes, such as the Colonel Bogey March at the beginning, Nicholson discussing his career with Saito, and of course the unforgettable climax. It’s a deep film, a moving film, an exceptionally well-made film, and it has Alec Guinness delivering one of my favourite performances of all time. The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of my favourite films of all time, one I look forward to watching again and again.

Rating: A+



PG’s Great Movies:

Aliens (added January 27th, 2012)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (added April 28th, 2012)

A Clockwork Orange (added December 19th, 2011)

Collateral (added September 29th, 2011)

The Godfather Part II (added March 29th, 2012)

In The Loop (added November 26th, 2011)

Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 (added February 27th, 2012)

  1. ianthecool says:

    I think I’d have to lean towards Lawrence, but both are excellent. But watching both movies makes you pine for the way movies used to be made. Watching that train fly off the just exploded bridge really makes you wish movies today set up shots like that again instead of throwing everything into a computer.

    • pgcooper1939 says:

      I know what you mean. All the CGI garbage in something like Transformers doesn’t even come close to equaling the greatness in The Bridge on the River Kwai’s explosion set piece.

  2. Heh. I’ll even up the vote total by going Kwai. I think Lawrence is overrated.

    Kwai isnt though, its phenomenal. The one weakness I’d point out is that too much time is given to the Holden portion of the film. I dont mind having that subplot, but it needs to be tightened up. The greatness of the movie is the prison camp/Bridge they should keep the focus there.

    Your paragraph about the theme of the movie is spot on and well written. Pretty much perfect. I now have to delay my MTESS Bridge on the River Kwai by six to eight months so I wont look like Im plagiarising LOL

  3. drush76 says:

    This is a very good review. But I do take umbrage with one of the comments on the article. Why would anyone compare “THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI” with “TRANSFORMERS”? They are two completely different movies.

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