Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
(Note: This review is of the two-disc set that includes the docu and extras. The title is also available as a one disc movie-only package.)
One of the biggest megabudget movies of the '50s, The Bridge on the River Kwai is
a grandiose and slightly schizophrenic war movie, and an extremely entertaining one. Sporting top-rank
writing, acting, and direction, it marked David Lean's graduation from an English director of
respected 'art' films, to the status of international super-director.
British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), having been ordered to surrender at Singapore, marches his ragged company into work
camp sixteen, 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 skillset. He tries bullying and slow torture, only
to be humiliated when Nicholson's dogged insistence on the Geneva convention prevails. But Nicholson
then 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 and undertake a jungle trek to a fated appointment on the Kwai river.
A richly textured movie experience, The Bridge on the River Kwai still packs a wallop 43 years after it
premiered. The script is a big improvement on Pierre Boulle's sober novel with its twist ending. Boulle
barely sketches the commando mission, and what became a blockbuster concluding setpiece in the film, is in
the book a throwaway one-page non-conclusion. Nobody questioned the fact that Pierre Boulle won an Oscar
for his English language screenplay, and it was a good thing he decided not to pick it up in person, because
he (reportedly) didn't write or speak English! In reality, The Bridge on the River Kwai was yet
another '50s film written by blacklisted talent, in this case Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman.
It is a remarkable production. For 1957 audiences used to seeing studio backlots or tame Hawaiian
beaches standing in for deep and dark Jungles, The Bridge on the River Kwai was a revelation.
The forests of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) are almost primeval in their majesty, and populated with breathtaking
sights, the most memorable of which is the sky filled with thousands of giant fruit bats.
The principal actors really seem to be up to their necks in muck. William Holden looks particularly
convincing suntanned and sweaty, and Hawkins does an excellent job as the gung-ho 40-something Oxford
Don-turned adventurer. Lean extends his flexible eye toward the Japanese, who are neither merciless
monsters (as in the racist Blood Island series of films made concurrently in England) nor ineffective saps
for the British to knock over. Colonel Saito is the villain, but his adherence to a code of Bushido
he clearly has no personal stomach for, is almost touching. He has failure written all over his face
from the moment he tries to bully Nicholson.
Some British humorists, the Goon Show in particular, liked to lampoon The Bridge on the River Kwai
in takeoffs with titles like "The Bridge on the River Why?". There is even a Kwai reference in
Doctor Strangelove when Mandrake (Peter Sellers) talks about losing his leg working on "bloody
Japanese puff-puffs." The humor stems from the fact that even in victory, England fairly
soundly lost World War 2. Never invaded, they nonetheless forfeited most of their vast empire and were
crippled as an economic power. With few bright hopes on the horizon, 1950s Britain concentrated
on re-celebrating the good times and glories of WW2 even more desperately than American movies.
Unemployed, class-restricted, and being dragged into a socialized society, the 'emasculated' British male therefore
needed the boost of reliving great victories, even if some whitewash was indicated. Like all war
movies, the thrill of perilous combat is intoxicating on its own and perhaps many viewers care
to look no further than the action and the adventure, and the realistic, tense conclusion.
Kwai successfully caters to the action crowd, while dishing out a mixed bag of anti-war messages.
The only klunker is William Holden's lame pronouncement that "the real thing to
do is not die like a man but live like a human being." In a script full of adroitly insinuated
messages, that one stretches his character a bit far. Shears is excellent as a goldbrick imposter, and even as a reluctant
commando, but his conversion to humanist philosopher needs a Woody Allen "Author's Message" sign blinking over it.
The themes of Kwai are sophisticated, but it is a tossup as to exactly which ironies the
makers wished to stress. Parallel storylines (the bridge construction, the commando mission) dovetail
beautifully and sketch a bushel of intriguing personalities Warped by War. They're deep enough to discuss
at length, a rarity in an action film.1
The superior commander becomes a collaborator. The man of action becomes a cripple and murderer of
his own men. And the cynical, shirking slacker throws his life away in a vainglorious heroic gesture.
Warden, Nicholson, and Shears all follow the dictates of their consciences and the letter of their military
roles - and all become 'traitors' to themselves and their comrades.
Some of these character details have been highly debated, and the ammunition is there in the text and
the images to allow some interpretation, but David Lean tends to be pretty specific in his ambiguities.
Combine that with some knowledge from the book, of details unstressed in the movie, and a
couple of the bigger controversies disappear.
Is Nicholson just confused? Or a quisling? Or insane? Why really does he collaborate?
When Colonel Nicholson says that the morale of his men is more important than futile resistance, he has a point.
The previous population of the camp all had died, but at the conclusion, most of Nicholson's company are
in fit shape. Yet that makes them all the more able to build more Japanese bridges. Perhaps his aiding
and abetting the enemy is legally clear since he was ordered to surrender, as he reasons. The command might
agree that he has really saved all those soldiers' lives. The verdict on Nicholson depends on whether an
officer's first duty is the welfare of his men, or fighting the enemy. At first sight, this is a problem on which
Lean never passes judgment.
But there is another detail Savant spotted in Kwai that signals the director's opinion of Nicholson's
exact state of mind. When he addresses his troops at the end party, there is a gap in the curtains at
the far left side of the screen. While Nicholson is talking about their great achievement, sharing the
screen with him is the 'hot box' in which Saito had locked him for days on end. It peeks through and is
perfectly framed by the opening in the drapes, as if saying, 'here I am..." Savant interprets that shot as Lean's
way of telling us Nicholson behaves as he does because he was locked up in the box - that he is the slightly
dingy, classic Englishman in the phrase, 'Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.' Nicholson
is not responsible for his bad judgement, and the sight of the hot box is a reminder of his torture.3
What should the commandoes have done to avert disaster at the end?
Practically anything would be an improvement. The ironies stack up when the mission's key man can't
deal with Colonel Green's rule number one: Expect the Unexpected. Young Joyce sits alone on the blasting
mechanism and resists blowing the bridge even when all the Japanese troops know where he is. He
also puts his trust in Colonel Nicholson as would an ordinary soldier, instead of carrying out his
mission like the nighttime bandit he really is. As soon as the ignition cable is in danger of being
cut, it's time to Go Boom, and not one moment later, train or no train.
Does Nicholson purposely fall on the plunger?
Yes and no. John Milius, who giggles like a schoolboy at the delicious mayhem in Kwai,
says in his 'appreciation' (one of the disc extras) that he believes Nicholson's dying fall onto the detonator
lever is totally accidental. A lot of people seem to think this, but events in the film very clearly indicate
otherwise. Nicholson absently says, "What have I done?" and then there is a cut to the plunger. Cut back to Nicholson, who
very purposefully starts off for the plunger before being felled by a mortar shell. Presumably riddled with
shrapnel and concussed, he stands and faints, and falls again. When he hits the detonator, he is either directing
himself toward it, or it was a lucky fall. The romantic writer Milius prefers to believe that Nicholson's devotion to the bridge was
such that he could never destroy it, but the film shows him trying to blow it up with obvious resolve. Savant
believes that the emotions of the ending of The Bridge on the River Kwai are so strong that viewers relate to its tense events
very subjectively ... more evidence of superior David Lean storytelling.
(big book spoiler)
In the book, the entire mission fails, an irony that puts the lie to the valiant war cliches
that readers expect in adventure literature. After all the effort and sacrifice, the Japanese capture the
plunger and two of the commandoes, and the train crosses the bridge safely. The Warden character lobs in
a series of mortar
shells, killing everyone on the beach around the detonator - his own men along with the Japanese. This
he does on purpose, so they can't be taken alive and divulge the secrets of the commando force. Like a cruel joke
on the reader, the bridge remains intact, something that David Lean clearly knew was unacceptable for commercial
reasons. A quickie production can use the conceit of promising a big payoff and then withholding it for
intellectual or thematic
reasons. Art movie audiences might go for this but it's obvious that the basic draw with Kwai is seeing a bridge
The mayhem at the end is slightly changed in the movie. Shears is shot by the Japanese after a suicidal dash
across the river. So is Joyce, when he tangles with Nicholson instead of blowing the bridge. But like the book,
it is Warden who kills Nicholson with mortar shells expertly lobbed in from afar. We know he is
aiming at Nicholson because afterwards Warden wails apologetically that "He had to do it," while the Burmese
bearer women shrink back from him fearfully. David Lean retains the book's brutal craziness of soldiers killing their own
comrades. The movie maintains its balance: part artsy meditation on the folly of war, part matinee "golly gee"
Special mention must be made of the supporting character of the
doctor, played very well by James Donald. Being the devil's advocate to Nicholson is a
thankless role, as is serving as an audience surrogate witness to the end action. One is so caught up in
Lean's perfect storytelling that most people forget the doctor is even there, watching everything from the hill.
The underappreciated Donald also does great work in The Great Escape and
Quatermass and the Pit.2
Columbia's DVD is a great show in a terrific package. The case is an elegant pocket-book like contraption
that Savant hasn't seen before. It has cute fake bamboo covers. The movie is on one disc and the extras on
another. The transfer looks a bit ruddy and faded up top but it improves after the first reel or so.
Savant saw Kwai in Technicolor in
Beverly Hills in 1977 and it looked great. Originally it was in 35mm with mono sound, but the sophisticated
audio mix sounded as good as Star Wars. The 70mm 'restoration' a few years back was a big
disappointment. I took my kids to the Cinerama Dome to see it and the print was washed out, grainy,
and practically unwatchable. Pretty soon these older films will only exist on video ... and if that
screening is any yardstick, digital projection may be the only way audiences will see them.
The disc's menus are elegant and pleasing, with animated bamboo doors opening to reveal new selections. Laurent Bouzereau's well-measured documentary shares space with a pair of featurettes from 1957
and a tedious USC (boo!) film about how to 'read' a movie, using Kwai as an example. Trailers are
included for this film as well as Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone and Fail Safe.
2000 was the watershed year for DVD - with many big, long awaited titles finally coming out. The Bridge on the River Kwai
is an excellent movie and an excellent DVD. It looks sensational on a big widescreen monitor. Perhaps
the first-quarter release next year of Lawrence of Arabia will prompt Turner/Warner to come out with
Doctor Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter, and complete the David Lean blockbuster quartet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Bridge on the River Kwai rates:
Supplements: Docu, featurettes, trailers, commentaries, and more.
Packaging: Pleasant 'Little Golden Book' case
Reviewed: December 2, 2000
1. ... as first written by the brilliant Raymond Durgnat in his excellent
Films and Feelings. The character ironies are his inspiration, not Savant's.'Paradox cut Paradox', Durgnat
says, referring to ironies stacked on ironies that create intriguing stories. Return
2. James Donald was seemingly cheated out of the attention he deserved. He has a pivotal
role in The Vikings, but his subplot is strangely dropped without resolution, just as it is
coming to a head. Donald
disappears from the film in what seems an obvious cut made by producer Kirk Douglas to keep all attention on his
own character! Return
3. David Lean was never above expressing ideas through blatant symbolism or similies.
Remember the flowers in Doctor
Zhivago? When Nicholson collapses onto the detonator, his life fades away while he stretches across the
screen, just like the bridge, implying that the death of the bridge is his own death. It's a great, naturally
expressive David Lean touch. Return
4. An unheralded but quite good movie that illustrates a successful use of a similar twist is
Richard Quine's 1970 The Moonshine War. In it Patrick McGoohan is a corrupt G-Man who joins forces with bootleggers in
Kentucky to steal liquor from the hayseed locals. Early on he shows us a big gun he keeps in a suitcase, with a name
like Lulubelle or something. It's a BAR rifle, and it's given such a big buildup that we wait anxiously for it to
finally come into play in some big action scene. The movie sets it up beautifully, with McGoohan getting
Lulubelle ready, etc., but the gun turns out to be a giant red herring in the surprise finale (which Savant won't
reveal). In this case, audience expectation (demand) was thwarted, but the crowds Savant saw it with applauded
the cleverness. It's a ruse someone should try again (instead of telegraphed twists like
The Sixth Sense. Wouldn't it be a surprise if Arnold Schwartzenegger, no matter how hard he tried, went
through an entire action film without shooting anybody? Return
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1997-2001 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Index of Articles.