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The Bridge on the River Kwai

March 18, 2013

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Director: David Lean
Actors: Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden

Bridge on River Kwai

Synopsis: Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) is in command of a battalion of British soldiers who are holed up in a Japanese POW camp in Burma during WW2. After winning a battle of wits with the occupying Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), Nicholson embarks on the planning and building of a bridge over the River Kwai for the Japanese….

Review: I’m slightly agnostic about the dramatic merit of The Bridge on the River Kwai, but as a spectacle and testament to the directorial might of David Lean – I’m much more of a believer. It’s a gorgeously filmed story, a paean to the beauty of good old-fashioned celluloid, the power of technicolor, and just generally a reminder of how wondrously epic these productions were, conceived of on a huge canvas. The gripping final thirty minutes as the dynamiting of the bridge is carried out, is a masterclass in cinematic storytelling, with the widescreen vistas, the sound of the approaching train, and the psychological scrutiny on all the major players, giving the film a suitably dramatic pay-off.

As commentary on some elements of wartime psychology – cruelty, disaffection, misplaced pride and honour – the film has worth too. The early battle of wills between Colonels Saito and Nicholson is nicely played out, as Saito understands that only with Nicholson’s input will he be able to honour his remit to the build the bridge, and Nicholson realises this too – taking advantage of Saito’s compromised position for his own ends. The dramatic dialectic at the end however – with Nicholson balking at the realisation that the bridge he proudly constructed is about to be blown up – is slightly overblown, with the film wanting to sell its grand thesis of it exposing the “madness” at the heart of war, when I think Nicholson’s emotions are a little more complex. For sure, he forgets that ultimately the bridge is a mechanism for the enemy, but undeniably he’d be allowed a moment’s private disappointment as he sees a living testament to the noble efforts of his weakened forces go up in smoke. (March 2013)

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