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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957)



Reviews and Comments

David Lean, king of the epics, coughed up the first of his bona fide classic latter day epic films in 1957 with the grand-scale The Bridge On the River Kwai. For me, what's most intriguing about this war film is that it's not about the war. Bridge is about a rigidly dignified British officer (Alec Guinness), a less than honorable American soldier (William Holden), and a fanatical Japanese prison commander (Sessue Hayakawa), all thrown together in a Japanese prison camp and forced to cope with each other. The war is off-screen. The intense conditions of the camp is at the forefront. Often the best character pieces are set in harsh circumstances, for it is then that people show what they are made of -- all the facades and false fronts afforded in ordinary circumstances are cast away in favor of the innate drive to survive.

It is quite simply fascinating to watch the relationship between these three (and the other supporting characters) develop and evolve. Hayakawa's Colonel Saito is particularly noteworthy, for a lesser film would have made this character the two dimensional wartime badguy. Guinness' Colonel Nicholson, the highest ranking British officer at the prison camp, has resolute intentions. Neither he nor any of his men will work until Saito respects and obeys the Geneva convention, despite harsh physical and psychological torture. But when Saito gives in, Nicholson works hard enough to embarrass the Japanese and make a monumental statement of the rightful pride and greatness of the British army.

But Nicholson, however intact his honor and integrity, is a flawed individual. He's the tragic hero of this drama. He makes the crucial mistake of being so preoccupied with building his monument that he forgets its purpose.

The plot, pacing, and acting is outstanding. The impact of this film is daunting. It is thus a disappointment that the film, like Guinness' character, has a tragic flaw. In the last fifteen minutes, Bridge suddenly becomes about the war. What was up until then a riveting human drama becomes awash with "loftier" purpose -- suddenly, Bridge On the River Kwai becomes an anti-war film. The political commentary compromises the payoff of the conclusion, and the final line, "Madness! Madness!", spoken after all the chaos has been wreaked, is grating to hear and leaves an unpleasant taste.

I've read a lot of reviews that say Bridge is an anti-war film through and through, examining the degeneration of men's minds that war causes. I have to disagree. Until the last fifteen minutes, the film is about real men in tough times. As I say, the war is treated as a backdrop, and even if the underlying anti-war sentiment were part of the film's purpose, it should have remained an underlying theme and not burst to the forefront in the film's final moments and pre-empted a reasonable dramatic conclusion.

If I belabor this point too much, it is simply because it is one I feel strongly about and yet do not see often expressed. Now that I've done so, pay it no mind. The Bridge On the River Kwai, flawed or not, remains a genuinely great film, one of the best war films and one of the best character films ever made.