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.
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.