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David Lean spent his last three decades shooting five major epic films. Now that Sony has released its stunning new Blu-ray of the 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai, only Lawrence of Arabia and Ryan's Daughter remain unseen in HD.
A Savant review of the 2000 Kwai DVD special edition makes some observations about the movie's "How I Won The War" celebration of England in combat while simultaneously tearing down the notion of glory in battle. All of the "heroes" of Bridge are ironic failures and traitors to their own codes of conduct. As Raymond Durgnat pointed out, the commander becomes a quisling, the man of action a cripple, and the shirking opportunist throws his life away in a pointless suicide charge. Here's the plot synopsis from my earlier review:
British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), having been ordered to surrender at Singapore, marches his ragged company into Japanese work camp 16, a jungle hellhole somewhere in Burma. Waiting for him is Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) an educated commander who would rather paint flowers than run a prison, and whose assignment to force the prisoners to build a railway bridge is way above his executive skill set. He tries bullying and slow torture, only to be humiliated when Nicholson's dogged insistence on the Geneva Convention prevails. But Nicholson then reverses course. He takes on Saito's bridge project as a morale booster for his men, and soon is happily constructing a world-class bridge for his Japanese captor.
Meanwhile, American Navy officer Shears (William Holden) has successfully escaped from camp 16, only to be blackmailed into joining a British commando mission to blow up Nicholson's bridge. Together with gung-ho intelligence man Warden (Jack Hawkins) and skittish commando Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne), the shanghaied Yank parachutes into Burma to keep a fated appointment on the Kwai River.
The Bridge on the River Kwai catapulted David Lean into the '50s blockbuster epic, thanks to the support of wildcat producer Sam Spiegel, who hired blacklisted writing talent and engineered a major shoot in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on the other side of the world. Lean had just finished a movie in Italy and Spiegel was a veteran of remote and risky locations thanks to his earlier The African Queen.
My DVD review pretty much sums up my assessment of this knockout of an epic, allowing me to use this space to offer an additional observation or two before evaluating the new disc. What struck me most about this viewing is the section where William Holden's Shears is 'adopted' by Colonel Green's commando group. The liveliest and lightest material in the picture, the sequences have great fun contrasting Shears' practical plan to sit out the rest of the war, with Warden's gentlemanly effort to force him back into action: "We'd LOVE to have you with us!" The pragmatic, selfish Shears views the war as suicidal insanity; we can see the panic in his eyes when he realizes he's fallen in with a bunch of overgrown boys who approach combat as a spree, a game of cricket. Warden and his gang are real adventurers willing to put their lives on the line. Shears looks afraid that their unhealthy attitude to heroics might be contagious.
All this is fun because Kwai maintains a British point of view; American audiences didn't seem to mind that their representative in the movie is a sly shirker who deals with the enemy for special privileges and continues to impersonate an officer so he can run wild with the Army nurses. Some hero. Shears becomes the butt of a cosmic joke when the mission changes without warning: Expect the Unexpected. Once they're on the ground it turns out that his expertise is of no special use at all. When Shears loses his temper, he kicks a malfunctioning radio into working again. This gives Warden the idea of blowing up the bridge and a Japanese troop train, which only complicates things. Shears gets in deeper and deeper until he's helping command the mission and volunteering to put his neck on the line. Total commitment is indeed total insanity -- the pragmatic survivor runs to death instead of away from it.
Lean purposely sets up details to misdirect us. Two scenes introduce suicide pills called "L" pills, for use if the commandos happen to be captured. We're accustomed to expect a detail so carefully established to "pay off" later on. As Col. Nicholson walks the bridge in anticipation of the first train to cross, Col. Saito is seen pulling a small knife from his jacket. Does Saito plan to murder Nicholson, so as to take all the credit for the bridge? Any competent Japanese investigating officer would surely learn that Saito had allowed Nicholson to run the entire project, whether Nicholson was alive or dead. The upper command might even congratulate Saito for grooming Nicholson into such a cooperative and productive prisoner, so the little detail with the knife seems a bit of a red herring.
Warden loses his jaunty attitude after the mayhem down on the riverbank, crying to his female bearers that he had to kill everybody so they wouldn't be captured. We see that one of Warden's mortar shells kills Nicholson, but that might have been a mistake. Everybody else was shot by the Japanese, so what exactly is Warden bawling about? The moment is confusing because it perfectly matches the action as described in the book. In Pierre Boulle's novel the attempt to blow up the bridge fails. Warden uses his mortar to kill everyone below -- the Japanese and his captured commandos. Did Lean shoot both endings?
And finally, I still believe that Nicholson has made up his mind to hit the detonator to blow up the bridge at the end. He's hit by the mortar shell and accidentally falls on the plunger, but before that he says, "What have I done?" and takes a deliberate step toward the detonating device. I think John Milius' observations in his interview show that he hasn't studied the last confusing moments closely enough.
The Bridge on the River Kwai shouldn't need defending but I've been reading reviews that sell it short, apparently for not looking like it was shot yesterday and not being, in some benighted opinions, as good as Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, most new pictures look absolutely flawless on Blu-ray, but truly exceptional ones are just as rare as they ever were. Col. Nicholson's mysterious personality is at least as interesting as that of Lawrence, without all the references to psycho-sexual maladjustment. Kwai is a highly relevant rumination on war fashioned out of pure showmanship material. It plays insightful games with the concept of heroism but also makes sure that it has a big bang for the finish. The promise of spectacular destruction kept 8 year-old Savant, who couldn't follow the story, watching intently for almost three hours. It's got plenty of travelogue material, a mid-section with service humor and a pretty girl in a bathing suit for the trailer. David Lean is a serious filmmaker but he also protects his expensive, piece-of-the-action star: William Holden gets to perform a jaunty escape and a grueling survival episode as well as talk tough and strut about in the jungle with a machine gun. Everybody wins. Silent film star Sessue Hayakawa received a second burst of fame. Alec Guinness won his Best Actor Oscar, and only had to play one role to do it.
On top of all that, the movie looks so striking that people routinely assume that it was filmed in 70mm and presented in Stereo sound. David Lean was a very formal film director who always edited his movies with exactingly precision. When he wants things to be confusing, he doesn't resort to blurry handheld shots or crazy angles. We're more likely to feel things happening, as when Col. Nicholson's body on the detonator stretches out across the CinemaScope screen, mimicking the bridge collapsing behind him. It's a fine, great picture and it's a good thing that Sony is doing its best to maximize it for video.
This Sony restoration is quite a big deal, and far more successful than one performed in the 1990s. As Kwai is one of Columbia's flagship titles, it received an extensive going-over. At the AMIA convention earlier this year I saw excerpts from the film introduced by Sony VP Grover Crisp. He explained a new and interesting wrinkle that affects the film's screen shape. David Lean originally planned the film for the first iteration of CinemaScope, which had a 2.55:1 Aspect Ratio. That's when CinemaScope prints had smaller perforations to allow magnetic tracks to carry the audio. By 1957 the format had narrowed to 2.35:1, to allow room for a standard optical soundtrack (among other reasons). Kwai release prints all had a sliver of picture area cropped from both sides to make up the difference. Mr. Crisp explained that for this new restoration Sony opted to present Kwai as David Lean thought it would be shown. This accounts for the added bit of "air" on both sides of the screen. The CinemaScope movie is now wider than ever.
Grover Crisp showed us flaws in the original cinematography that were sourced in the original CinemaScope optics. He pointed to a highlight on some bamboo in the extreme left of the frame and showed us that it had a 'ghost' echo image caused by an aberration at the extreme edge of the anamorphic lens. I'd figured out the CinemaScope Mumps all by myself, but this was getting into deep detail.
Sony's 2-disc Blu-ray Collector's Edition of The Bridge on the River Kwai is the exceptional HD presentation we were hoping for. The new restoration benefits from advances in digital manipulation, which in many scenes is able to improve faded color, remove flaws and steady out unstable frames. Given its age the movie will never be perfect but I see great advances over the earlier transfer. I'm also happy to report that they've tamed the stereo soundtrack. Kwai was never released in stereo; a multi-track remix performed for the1990s restoration seemingly swamped the audioscape in crickets noises, unbalancing what had been an original mix so good, it sounded like stereo. When we heard the first laserdisc with this mix back in 1995 or so (my guess), we called it The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Crickets Edition. Either I'm fooling myself, or the new tracks have the bugs under control. Malcolm Arnold's score contains a martial theme to counterpoint the Col. Bogey March, but isn't used to hype the action-suspense scenes -- a David Lean choice that makes Kwai all the more believable on a moment-to-moment basis.
The new transfer carries the altered main titles. I'm still adverse to the practice of revising credits to acknowledge the contributions of blacklisted talent -- and I often write about the negative effects of the blacklist. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson's names were reinstated in the 1990s due to pressure from the film guilds. The result was a brief demonstration of the industry's awareness of the blacklist. But as time goes by this credit-revising practice will only serve to obliterate the historical truth of the blacklist era. Viewers will look at the movie, see the names and not realize that they had ever been suppressed. The right thing to do would be to preface the movie with a card acknowledging the blacklisted writers. This would leave the film unmolested, so that viewers would see only Pierre Boule's name come up by itself. When a major film is given an expensive restoration, studios sometimes add new restoration credits. But they add them at the beginning or the end, never on the film itself. Changing the film screws around with film history.
Sony has added to their extras. The old features are all here, including Laurent Bouzereau's very good longform docu, a vintage 1957 featurette, the John Milius appreciation piece and that dumb old USC short subject telling us illiterate folk 'how to read a movie'. The new extras include an illustrated trivia track called Crossing the Bridge that is okay but a little slow. It frankly can't hold a candle to the great trivia track-with graphics on Sony's earlier A Passage to India Blu-ray, made when Home Video departments still had budgets. A snippet of William Holden voiceover audio from the Kwai premiere is reasonably interesting. Holden and Alec Guinness both appear on The Steve Allen Show, which turns out to be one of those faked non-interviews. Allen interacts with a pre-filmed interview as if he were talking to Holden and Guinness in Ceylon; the actors leave gaps in their answers so Steve Allen can pretend he's asking the questions.
The Blu-ray disc also contains the extras on the DVD, plus some trailers and a still gallery. The packaging is a fancy book with holders for the two discs (the DVD disc also contains a Standard-Def transfer) and a 32-page color insert booklet with essays, photos and publicity information.
For Savant's full analysis of the movie, don't forget to read his earlier review of the DVD special edition,
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.