Runtime: 2 Hours
and 42 Minutes
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
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
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.