David Lean is best known for his sweeping historical drama like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and anyone who appreciates the audaciousness of those grand epics will definitely be enthralled by The Bridge on the River Kwai (1959). At 161 minutes, Bridge has plenty of time to tell the hugely engrossing story of a British troop captured by a Japanese commander during World War II and put to work building the titular bridge.
The story, however broad the scope, centers on human drama rather than on battle scenes. Alec Guiness is absolutely amazing as Colonel Nicholson, an officer with so much respect for military order that he'd rather stare death in the face than budge on any protocol. Sessue Hayakawa plays Colonel Saito, the sadistic Japanese officer whose resolve is eventually broken down by Nicholson's stubbornness. William Holden plays Shears, an American POW, whose escape from the prison camp eventually leads to the final confrontation. Jack Hawkins plays Major Warden, a driven british officer who approaches his mission to destroy the bridge with the charm and enthusiasm of an Oxford playboy. All of the performances, including those of the legions of soldiers, are fantastic. Each actor carves out a singular, full-bodied character that will stay with you long after the film has ended. The script, also, is nearly flawless. Originated by then-blacklisted scripter Carl Foreman (High Noon) and worked over by many others, it contains so many incredible moments and lines that it puts most other scripts to shame.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is not a mystery and the ending is inevitable (although I won't reveal it here for the benefit of those who don't know it, even though the climactic images are staples in every Hollywood awards show clip parade) but the situations within the film are full of suspense and anticipation. Early on Nicholson, citing the Geneva convention's wartime code, refuses to allow his officers to work alongside the enlisted men building the bridge, which the Japanese need to link a railroad line crucial to their war efforts. Nicholson is locked in a sweltering metal box for over a month, refusing time and again to change his position on this issue until, terrified that the construction of the bridge is falling behind schedule, Saito attempts to offer a compromise. He does this in one of the most memorable scenes I have ever come across. Fresh from the box Nicholson is barely able to stand or speak but his total lack of cowardice and his complete refusal to change frustrates the pampered Colonel to no end.
Eventually, after a few more weeks in the box, Nicholson gets his way and Saito, now well behind schedule and fearing for his own life, agrees to let Nicholson command his own troops on his own terms. Nicholson, proud to a fault, determines that his men (who in his absence have been sabotaging the completion of the bridge) will build the best bridge possible. This strange turn of the story is characteristic of a film with rich and complex characters that sometimes contradict themselves and what we think of them. We cheer Holden's cynical sarcasm but we respect Guiness's stoicism and, at times, we sympathize with Saito's pathetic struggle. All of the performances are top notch, but Guinness in particular stands out. His Colonel Nicholson is so real and yet also completely iconic, a line that Guinness and few others could straddle easily.
The video looks very good. The image is a little bit too sharp, but it might just be that the detailed anamorphic images are too dense for a normal TV. The Technicolor processing has left the film a little dark, since that process best emphasized bright colors and most of Bridge is brown and green. Still, the cinematography is stunning and the film looks great.
There are two Dolby Digital English language tracks: 2.0 and 5.1. The 2.0 Sounds great but the 5.1 achieves a crispness and dynamic quality that really brings out the wonderful sound design. There are also French, Spanish, and Portuguese soundtracks.
Also included is an isolated music track, which is a fantastic addition. Malcolm Arnold's score mixed with the celebrated "Colonel Bogie's March" is a certified classic.
There are two editions of Bridge, both with the same version of the film. The 2-disc set adds a long list of additional features: Exclusive Documentary: This hour-long documentary combines interviews with historians as well as many of those integral to the making of the film. An excellent example of context, the doco spends plenty of time discussing the history of the story, the creation of the script, casting, production, and the influence of the film. Really a wonderful supplement.
Original Documentary: This ten-minute feature was made soon after the film's Oscar successes. It's entertaining and the black and white location photography is fascinating. After becoming so familiar with the colors of the film this alternate view is great.
An Appreciation by Filmmaker John Millius: I was fully expecting to hate this ten-minute feature since Millius is a blowhard with more than a few hack jobs on his resume. However, the Apocalypse Now! co-writer is a huge military buff and his insight into the actual building of the bridge (actually, he says there were more than one) adds a tragic element to the film.
USC Short Film with Introduction by William Holden: A short piece about adapting literature to film, this doco adds yet another dimension to this amazing set.
Trailers: Included are Bridge, Laurence of Arabia, Fail-Safe and The Guns of Navarone. A nice mix.
Photo Gallery: Actually, a montage set to music, this also features lots of beautiful posters and lobby cards.
Talent Files: A little light on text, but when your cast and crew includes Lean, Holden, Guinness, and more, the word "talent" sounds like an understatement. Perhaps it should have been called "Genius File".
Bridge on the River Kwai is the first film that I've been tempted to start off my review with "It is my honor to present to you..." It's one of a handful of films that can be considered a monumental classic. It ranks number eleven on the British Film Institute's list of 100 top British films and number thirteen on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 top American films. It won seven Academy Awards and has spawned countless imitators that emphasize human emotions during wartime over flashy battle sequences. What no one else can recapture, however, is the air of dignity surrounding the captured soldiers and that makes Bridge so necessary and so fascinating.