Combustible Celluloid
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With: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne, Andre Morell, Peter Williams, John Boxer, Percy Herbert, Harold Goodwin, Ann Sears, Heihachiro "Henry" Okawa, Keiichiro Katsumoto, M.R.B. Chakrabandhu
Written by: Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman, based on a novel by Pierre Boulle
Directed by: David Lean
MPAA Rating: PG for mild war violence
Running Time: 161
Date: 02/10/1957

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Thriller's Crossing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the 1950s and 1960s, many classical filmmakers, including George Stevens, William Wyler, Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor, Robert Wise, and Davie Lean, made the jump from intimate works to giant-sized spectacles. Audiences, critics, the Academy, and even the filmmakers themselves seemed totally awestruck by the new size and scope of movies; all of these filmmakers won Oscars for their gargantuan work. However, in some cases, underneath the size and scope, very little remains.

Lean is a curious case. In his early days, he made some of the most exceptional films of all time, including Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). These films are still startling and visually powerful today, nearly at the same level as Orson Welles' and John Ford's work from the same era. Years later, his Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was a genuine masterpiece of the Cinemascope era, with an amazing use of space and size, silence and noise, all cleverly crossed. Yet none of Lean's other large-scale movies quite stack up. The follow-up, Doctor Zhivago (1965), is an airless romance. The one before it, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), is something in-between.

Watching The Bridge on the River Kwai today, in a new, meticulously restored digital print, yields a series of different reactions. To start, it's a definite crowd-pleaser, with some very specifically rousing, memorable moments planted, from the marching, whistling prisoners, to the blowing up of the bridge. It's almost simplistic. It's not hard to imagine how it became a big hit (the year's #1 hit, in fact). Yet, at the same time, it's a grown-up film, dealing with fairly complex decisions and relationships. It's far more mature and sophisticated than some of our more recent spectacles, Titanic, Gladiator, and Avatar among them.

William Holden is the top-billed star, playing US Navy Commander Shears; he's a seasoned, cynical prisoner in a Japanese prison camp in Thailand during WWII. Not long after our story begins, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) arrives with his troops. Nicholson adheres to the rules of war and checks into the prison camp with a certain nobility. The camp commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), informs him that he and his men will build a bridge. Nicholson reminds him that, according to the Geneva Convention, the officers are exempt from such work. Nicholson endures many hours of punishment to prove this point.

Eventually, Nicholson gets his way and begins taking over the construction of the bridge; his theory is that he can keep up the men's morale if he builds the best bridge they can possibly build. He begins to take pride in his work, almost forgetting the true nature of the situation. Meanwhile, Saito has lost much face in the bargain. Eventually, Shears manages to escape and finds himself in a luxurious military hospital in Ceylon. Unfortunately, he finds himself the unwilling member of a team sent back into the jungle to blow up the very bridge that Nicholson is building. Shears' team also includes Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), the Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne).

So essentially, the war suddenly has three sides, as Shears faces off not only with his former Japanese captors, but also with Nicholson, who understandably wishes to defend the sturdy bridge that he has built with so much pride. Happily, Lean manages to establish all three sides with credibility and sympathy throughout the course of the 161-minute film. Even Saito begins to seem more human in his failings. The audience, I expect, has no choice but to take on the role of warmonger, simply hoping to see the bridge blow up. Then the final line, "madness... madness!" makes perfect sense. There's no clear hero or villain.

The film struggles between these complex ideas and more simple stuff, like the many shots of the shirtless Holden, or the scenes of him frolicking on the beach with a pretty nurse. It's a huge compromise between recouping an expensive film, and creating something artful and lasting. However, even though the visual motif is basically big and beautiful, Lean manages something poetic; he seems to understand that the bridge itself is a kind of gray area between the jungle (also the war, the prison camp, and the Japanese captors), and civilization, order and control. Lean himself probably identified with that bridge as much as Nicholson did; it might have been his symbol of the meeting of art and commerce. Whether that's true or not, he still somehow managed a very pleasing balance.

The film won seven Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Guinness), Best Score, Best Editing and Best Cinematography. Only one nominee did not win: Hayakawa for Best Supporting Actor. (He lost to Red Buttons in Sayonara.) Oddly, Holden was not nominated, although he did win four years earlier for another prison camp movie, Stalag 17. Lean went on to win again for Lawrence of Arabia, and received seven Best Director nominations in all. As for the box office, it was a solid hit, grossing over $27 million on its $3 million investment. Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman were both blacklisted at the time, and so Pierre Boulle was the only official nominee. The correct credits have been restored.

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