World War II Marathon: The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)


Film #11 in the World War II Marathon!

Screenplay By: Carl Foreman & Michael Wilson
Directed By: David Lean

Those who have been reading my work for some time, or know me, should have figured out by now that I am not the biggest David Lean fan. I adore his earlier work, but his material from The Bridge On The River Kwai onward inevitably feels bloated and falls flat. They are still good films that I enjoy on a technical level and some parts of his stories still draw me in. But, I’d much rather have the younger David Lean, the man who kept his tales more personal, taut and far less epic. Great Expectations is my favorite film of his, maybe his best as well, and it represents Lean’s ability to create impressive visuals and still tell a great story. The Bridge On the River Kwai isn’t Great expectations, but it’s no Doctor Zhivago either. It falls somewhere in the middle, it’s better than most of his other epics, but nowhere near the level of his earlier work.

Comparisons aside, I was impressed visually with The Bridge On the River Kwai. But, that is a staple of David Lean, his eye for panoramic sights and excellent cinematography. In those aspects The Bridge On The River Kwai most certainly delivers, even if it is a little rough in areas, such as the train falling off the bridge for example. It didn’t look all that great, nor was the long shot used to convey the careen wasn’t the best of choices. Those quibbles aside, The Bridge On The River Kwai does look great and has an economy of motion in its camera work that won’t be seen in Lean’s following work.

In some ways the story in The Bridge On The River Kwai is engaging, but in other areas it falls apart. The character of Commander Shears feels false throughout, you can see that he really is the idiotic brave and because of that Holden’s attempt to make him into a layabout comes across as forced. It’s partly Holden’s missteps as an actor, but it’s also the way the story puts forth the story of Shears. The prison camp itself is frankly, a joke. I remember my grandfather telling me that if his buddies who were captured in World War II had been allowed to reside in a camp like the one shown here there would be a lot more of them alive today. Much like The Great Escape, what was actually a harsh and brutal place is treated like a barely trying place. The movie tries to make it seem harsh, but it never does so in action or results, but in dialogue that never amounts to anything. I don’t buy the excuse that this would have made the Japanese monsters and that wasn’t the point of the film. It wouldn’t have made them monsters, it would have made them soldiers doing their job and it would have made the Colonel’s attempts to moralize his men much more profound.

To go along with the above, I found the tune of Colonel Bogey March to be irritating to an extreme level and nauseatingly used at the end. Prisoners of War marching from one prison camp to another delightfully whistling a diddy made me have the feeling that I was watching a Saturday morning cartoon version of war, but then that is severely selling some of those shows short. My last major beef with the film was the act that led to the destruction of the bridge, and the one area where I felt like the character of Col. Nicholson was done wrong. His falling down unconscious onto the trigger of the explosives was a combination of too ironic and melodramatic, especially when coupled with the films last words.

It’s about time for me to get into more of what I liked about the film, because it isn’t sounding that good so far. Alec Guinness was wonderful as Col. Nicholson. His portrayal was hard to watch, because he is everything we should hate about a character, woefully ignorant of the realities of war, the truth of his situation, the results of his actions and how far gone he actually is. It is a testament to the skill of Alec Guinness that he takes Nicholson to so many places and none of them ring false. His portrayal was also the one true and clear theme I found in the movie, what war does to the sane mind. The Bridge On The River Kwai receives plenty of accolades, but for me it is essentially a one man show in how Guinness takes the entire film on his back and runs with it.

At this point I am sure that David Lean fans hate me, but that’s okay, I’m used to the hate. I do recommend The Bridge On The River Kwai, although it is not the masterpiece most make it out to be. It is a well made picture that features one amazing performance and some beautiful cinematography, but falters in far too many places to ever be great. Maybe William Holden with his shirt off will sell you further on this film, because that’s all I have left.




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