The Bridge on the River Kwai

Rated: PG
Runtime: 2 Hours and 42 Minutes

Reviewer: Dale
Grade: A+

Kubrick, Spielberg, Scorsese, and Hitchcock. If you are making a list of the gods of cinema, I believe you would have to include these men on it. If you didn't, I don't think you could really call it a complete list. These are the men who have left their indelible fingerprints on cinema history, entering the movie industry and not quite leaving it the same way that they found it. Their input has made the theater a better place to be. I think it would be safe to say that.

To this list of masters, I think you would have to add David Lean.

I have, thus far, only seen two David Lean films. But I have to say that the amount of craft in them, the mastery of camera and character and story that he shows in these two films (this one and "Lawrence of Arabia") is nothing short of awesome. He has a control of visual sweep. He does the epic better than any man who has ever tried his hand at the genre. And, most importantly, he does not let the characters get lost in the scheme of his tales. The characters are, in fact, the most impressive part. The characters stand at the center of a David Lean film, as they should. The events do not overwhelm the characters in a Lean film.
Instead, the characters control a great deal of the events onscreen rather than vice versa.
"Bridge on the River Kwai", the best of the two Lean films I have seen thus far, succeeds because of its characters and the men who inhabit them. The story would not work without this, and because of it it works extremely well. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is a story of determination. It is a story of pride. It is a story of keeping face.

And, above all, it is a story of futility and madness.

Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness, in top form) is a driven man. He has read the Geneva Convention and knows that it is wrong for General Saito (the great Sessue Hayakawa) to make his officers work alongside the enlisted men. He defends this point, even though it could very well mean his death. No matter what obstacles he faces, he defends this point.

Later, Nicholson takes the task that his men have been given and makes it a point of pride to excel at it. His men are to build a bridge over the River Kwai, a vital bridge that will transport Japanese men and materials to aid in the War. Some of the men under Nicholson's command want to sabotage the bridge. Not Nicholson. He wants to build a lasting bridge. He wants the bridge to be a lasting achievement that will illustrate British superiority to all those who use it and see it.

At the same time that the battle of wills between Nicholson and Saito is taking place (and as Nicholson is becoming obsessed with the building of his bridge) we are introduced to Major Shears (William Holden, also excellent). Shears is a cynical man. A very cynical man. Very early on he masterminds an escape from Saito's POW camp and ends up at a commando training base in the jungle. Much to his chagrin, and against his wishes, he is drawn into a mission that is meant to go into the jungle and destroy the newly-formed bridge.

These parallel stories play very well off each other. Lean directs the proceedings with an exquisite grasp of his characters, an assured grip over his story, and a brutal sense of truth and irony. The film has some good points, and it makes them indelibly. But it does not pummel one over the head with its points either. Like I said, Lean has an assured grip over this material. It is all marvellously done. There is a great deal to make you think, a great deal to stir your emotions, and some truly powerful stuff here. And the actors are no small part of its success as well. Hayakawa, Guinness and Holden all deliver the performances of their careers. Anyone who knows Guinness only from the "Star Wars" films will forget all about Obi Wan the moment he speaks. He IS Colonel Nicholson. It is not a mere performance, it is a metamorphosis.

In short, this is everything that great filmmaking should be. It is just as sharp today as it was in the 50's. It has not aged at all. Great movies don't. Whatever else "The Bridge on the River Kwai" may be, it is most definitely a great movie.