The Bridge on the River Kwai – Review

9 Mar

World War II is a topic that no one can really stay away from, which is fair enough because there’s so much to do with it. There’s been a huge amount of movies, games, and books dedicated to certain moments throughout the war, be it real or fictional. There are some, however, that really stand out and one of them is David Lean’s 1957 war epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. While it is a work of fiction, it’s based off of a true event, but nonetheless, it stands as one of the greatest war films ever made but also one of the most complex.

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Lt. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and his British troops find themselves in a bind when they end up in a Japanese labor camp commanded by Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Nicholson and Saito soon butt heads when Saito orders everyone, including the officers, to start work on constructing a bridge over the River Kwai. Nicholson soon finds himself watching over the construction and believes it to be an accomplishment for the British, but also a way of raising the morale of his men. Meanwhile, escaped American prisoner, Commander Shears (William Holden) is put in charge of a mission to destroy the bridge and the first train scheduled to cross it. As Shears’ team gets closer, it becomes clearer that Nicholson will do whatever it takes to complete and protect the bridge, even if it means betraying the Allied forces that he is a part of.

What’s so impressive and difficult about this film, especially considering the time it was made, is that there are no real good guys or bad guys. The Japanese Saito runs the camp with an iron fist and mistreats certain prisoners, but deep down he’s a man who appears weak facing the code of honor and winning the war for his country. Nicholson appears to betray his own country to protect the bridge even though he’s doing it for reasons he thinks are for the long running good of Britain and his troops, making it easy to sympathize with him. Meanwhile, Shears is a liar, lazy, and cold towards other people making him more of an anti hero, despite him being an American soldier fighting for the Allies. It’s incredibly interesting seeing these morally ambiguous characters clash throughout the movie, and it makes them seem like real people.

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While it is ultimately the actor’s job at making the characters seem real, it would all be for nothing if nothing else had the air of realism about it. This movie feels very grounded in reality and part of what makes it feel that way is how huge it is, and I’m not just talking about the close to three hour run time. What I mean is that the jungle seems vast, the bridge looks gigantic, and everything just pretty much feels epic. This makes sense since Lean would go on to do his masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia just a few years later. That’s one thing that I just couldn’t get enough of in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean’s sense of space translates so well to the screen, especially with this being the first film that he shot in Cinemascope.

I look at this movie like it’s a two part type of deal. The first part is pretty much just in the Japanese labor camp with Nicholson and Saito trying to outdo one another. The second part deals mostly with Shears and the other British troops making their way to the bridge to destroy it. While the second part definitely has more action, I prefer the first part more because I loved Alec Guinness’ performance and his character. The second part had a lot of meetings and walking through the jungle that made me kind of fidget during. It all still comes together really well in one of the most memorable and intense climaxes in film history.

Simply put, The Bridge on the River Kwai deserves its place in just about every film textbook you can find. It’s a triumph as a character study, an adventure story, and a war epic. While the second half seemed to drag a little bit and got a tad derivative, the movie as a whole took a lot of chances in its viewpoint of soldiers from around the world during World War II. It’s a fantastic film that deserves to be watched way more than once.

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