A stunning epic examining the morals and madness of war
The war film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” blasted to smithereens the glamour and heroics of just about all previous war films, as it brought a fresher, deeper reality to the genre. Like other war films, this intelligent look at the absurdity of war is filled with battles - but this time they don’t take place on a battlefield. Instead they are fought internally, within each of the film’s leading characters and subtly between each other. The film begins as we are taken through dense vegetation, makeshift graves, and a railroad, all leading up to a regiment of British soldiers whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” while entering a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. As the film’s theme music intertwines with the whistled tune, it is clear this is going to be a substantial epic. And to top it off, it is filmed in panoramic, widescreen Cinemascope. The explosive impact of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was felt at the Oscars, and it won seven Academy Awards - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Music. It is rated #36 in AFI’s list of “The 100 Greatest American Films Of All Time”, and is a magnificent film that stands the test of time.
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” takes place in 1943, in Burma during WWII. The British prisoners are led by “Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson” - a by-the-book officer and stickler for discipline and rules. Their captor is the sadistic Japanese "Colonel Saito”, who was given orders to build a bridge over the River Kwai in twelve days, on which the railroad from Burma to Rangoon will be connected. If he fails he will be required by custom to kill himself, so he employs every tactic necessary to meet his deadline, including using British officers as labor, violating the rules of the Geneva Convention. A battle of wills, a clash of power and dignity between "Nicholson” and "Saito" follows, and over the course of the next two hours and forty two minutes, a display of the madness of war is enthrallingly presented.
The outstanding script was based on the 1952 novel, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, by French author Pierre Boulle. This fictional story uses the Burma Railway as its setting, which was an actual railway built by thousands of POWs, many of whom died while building it (it became known as the Death Railway). The screenplay was written by two McCarthy Era blacklisted screenwriters who each worked in secret - Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Foreman was hired by producer Sam Spiegel to write the script from the book. He was already an Oscar nominated writer (including one for “High Noon” - a film previously featured on this blog). Once director David Lean was hired, he was unhappy with Foreman’s work, and Wilson was hired. Wilson had won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for “A Place in the Sun” (also previously in this blog), and his final version is used in the film. Because Foreman and Wilson were both blacklisted, screen credit went to the book's author Boulle (who had nothing to do with the screenplay), and Boulle won the Oscar. Almost thirty years later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences officially recognized Foreman and Wilson’s work on the film and (posthumously) awarded them each an Oscar. Their names were also added to the film’s credits.
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” was directed by the incomparable David Lean. He was the force behind many unforgettable screen images and momentous films like this one. The shots in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” are so well selected and executed, it’s obvious this was done by a filmmaking wiz. Just look at the opening sequence. Within the first ten minutes, in an entertainingly unforced fashion we are shown just about everything we need to know - the place, characters, and clues as to the upcoming conflict. Lean fills a frame unlike any other director. His use of foreground, middle and background are something to behold - and evident in the opening sequences. Just after the opening credits we see two men digging a grave. As they talk, you can see the British troops the size of ants in the background at the top of the mountain, marching towards the camp. It is jaw-dropping. As is Lean’s use of the land in the film. He shows us ravishing and expansive landscapes (the scene in "Warden's" headquarters makes me gasp), and somehow makes them feel ominous. This film shares a common thread with many of Lean’s films, as it shows characters going through mental awakenings while on a journey, in sweeping settings. "The Bridge on the River Kwai” was filmed on location in a remote village in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which helped create a vivid and alive world. The shoot lasted eight months and the cast and crew were plagued with illness, snakes, insects, leaches, and oppressive heat. Ceylon locals and crew members were used as extras.
David Lean had an extensive career as a film editor before directing. He began directing films in 1942, and in 1945 earned his first Academy Award nomination for the classic, “Brief Encounter”. He followed that film with two more British classics, "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist”. In 1955, he directed “Summertime”, starring Katharine Hepburn, which was his first British-American film. The British-American “The Bridge on the River Kwai” followed, ushering Lean into a new phase of making resounding epics - a phase that would last the rest of his career. This film also made him known in America. He was nominated for a total of seven Best Director Academy Awards, winning two (“The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia”), earning him the distinction of being the only British director to win two Best Director Oscars to date. He was also nominated for three Best Screenplay Academy Awards, and once for Best Film Editing (for his final film, "A Passage to India” in 1984). While he directed less than twenty films, almost all could be featured on this blog of classic movies, and his three masterpieces alone, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, and "Doctor Zhivago”, earned him legendary status. He was married six times, including marriages to actresses Kay Walsh and Ann Todd. David Lean died in 1991 at the age of 83.
Iconoclastic Austro-Hungarian independent film producer Sam Spiegel is the person who spearheaded “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. After reading the book, he hired Foreman to write the screenplay and Lean to direct (after many other directors turned the project down). He and Lean did not get along (they were both known to be difficult) but somehow their combination worked. It must have suited Spiegel since he believed that conflict was pivotal to generating great work. Spiegel won his second of three Academy Awards with “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (Best Picture Oscars are awarded to the producer). His first win was for the 1954 classic, “On the Waterfront”, and his third Oscar was for another Lean collaboration, the 1962 Best Picture winner, “Lawrence of Arabia”. Spiegel was also nominated for the 1971 film, “Nicholas and Alexandra”. He is one of the most important independent film producers in history, and produced two dozen films. His other classics include "The African Queen", "Suddenly, Last Summer", "The Last Tycoon", "Betrayal", "Tales of Manhattan", and "The Strange One”. In 1964 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him their honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his contribution to cinema. He was married three times. Sam Spiegel died in 1985 at the age of 84.
The film stars William Holden, as “Lieutenant Commander/Major Shears”, an American prisoner in the camp. With Holden’s trademark boyish charm in play, the charismatic “Shears” is distinct from his British counterparts, adding conflict and a cynical humor into the mix. You somehow always root for him, as Holden is immensely likable. His scene with the nurse on the beach is a stellar example of his magnetism, and he even gets the chance to flash his million-dollar smile once or twice. The American character of “Shears” was added to the film (it was not in the book), as the filmmakers felt they needed a top American box-office star. At the time, Holden was at the top, having recently won his Best Actor Academy Award for the 1953 classic war film, “Stalag 17”. In return for his somewhat small role, he negotiated to receive 10% of the film’s profits. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” turned out to be the highest grossing film of the year, making Holden the highest paid actor in the world. Lean took a liking to Holden, which was rare, as the director was known for not particularly liking actors. I wrote more about William Holden’s life and career in the “Born Yesterday” post on this blog. Check it out to find out more about this enormous star.
Jack Hawkins also gives an exceedingly likable performance as “Major Warden”, a British officer who “convinces” “Shears” to join him on a mission. The virile “Warden” could easily be dull and flat, yet Hawkins endows him with understanding and humor, making him a delight to watch. And his chemistry with Holden is delectable. Like Holden, Hawkins brought weight to the film, as he was an acclaimed actor and one of the top stars of the 1950s in Britain. Jack Hawkins began on the London stage when he was ten years old, and started making films in 1930. In 1953, with the film "The Cruel Sea”, he became a star. He would appear in American and British-American films starting in the late 1950s, which brought him international fame, especially “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, and the Oscar winning 1959 epic, “Ben-Hur”, in which he co-starred opposite Charlton Heston. Hawkins was a heavy cigarette smoker, and by the late 1950s he began having vocal problems. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1965, which lead to the removal of his larynx in 1966. With no voice, he mostly appeared in roles with less dialogue for the remainder of his career (which lasted until 1974), and his voice was dubbed by another actor while he mouthed his lines. Though he portrayed many types of characters, he is often remembered for his roles as Generals and Colonels. His other classics include "The Prisoner”, "Lord Jim”, "No Highway in the Sky", "Zulu", "The Intruder", "Waterloo", "Theater of Blood", and "The League of Gentlemen”. He was married twice, to actresses Jessica Tandy and Doreen Lawrence. Jack Hawkins died in 1973 at the age of 62.
Alec Guinness gives a mesmerizing performance as “Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson”, an officer who descends into madness while trying to eke out humanity and order in wartime. Displaying the strength and professionalism of an officer with the highest morals, Guinness brilliantly underplays “Nicholson”, letting us feel his inner turmoil. This is a powerhouse performance, exceptional in its subtlety and depth. One fleeting moment which demonstrates Guinness' astounding artistry, is when "Nicholson" is brought to "Saito's" office and informed it's a special holiday and officers won't be required to do manual labor. Guinness' reaction is underplayed magnificence. For his moving portrayal, Guinness won a Best Actor Academy Award. It would be his only competitive Oscar win out of four career nominations. Even though he and Lean grew to have a somewhat strained relationship over the years, he would appear in a total of six of Lean’s films, and Lean came to think of him as his “lucky charm”. Guinness is a rare breed of actor who disappears completely into his characters, leaving no visible trace of himself. Thus, he didn’t really have a screen persona per se, but continually gave incredible performances.
British born Alec Guinness began his acting career on stage, only to become one of the highest regarded Shakespearean actors in his day. His film career began in 1946, in another David Lean classic, "Great Expectations”. Guinness’ third film was "Kind Hearts and Coronets”, the first of a series of Ealing comedies in which he appeared (including "The Lavender Hill Mob”, for which he earned his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination). Largely due to those comedies, he became one of the most popular stars in the UK. His first American film came in 1956, opposite Grace Kelly in “The Swan”. What followed was “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, which made him internationally famous. He received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his immortal "Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi”, in the original 1977 blockbuster, “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope”. Guinness also appeared in its first two sequels, "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back", and "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi”, all of which he disliked and described as “fairy-tale rubbish”. His final nomination was for his supporting role in the 1987 film, “Little Dorrit”. Guinness also received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination for writing the 1958 film “The Horse's Mouth”, in which he also starred. Among his many other accolades: he won a Tony Award in 1964; one honorary and three competitive BAFTA Awards; was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1959; and was given an honorary Oscar for his body of work in 1980. In addition to his ongoing stage career, he accumulated just over 60 film and TV credits, and among his other classic films are “Doctor Zhivago”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, “A Passage to India”, ”Scrooge", "The Ladykillers", "Our Man in Havana", "The Fall of the Roman Empire", and "Murder by Death". He was married once, to actress Merula Salaman, until his death. Sir Alec Guinness died in 2000 at the age of 86.
Sessue Hayakawa plays “Colonel Saito”, the commanding officer of the Japanese POW camp. “Saito” is scary, brutal, and perceived to be capable of anything. As the film proceeds, Hayakawa does a fantastic job showing his character's humanity and inner turbulence. Watch his expression in the scene when the British officers plan the bridge. He says so much with so little dialogue. For his portrayal, Hayakawa earned his one and only Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Sessue Hayakawa might not be known today, but he was a major silent screen star and the very first international Asian movie star. Born in Japan, he moved to the United States when he was eighteen years old. He was seen in a play by one of cinema’s earliest film producers and directors, Thomas H. Ince, who gave him his start in movies in 1914. Within the year he was a sensation, and in 1915, with the Cecil B. DeMille film “The Cheat”, he became a movie star and matinee idol, often playing an exotic, “forbidden lover". He would become the screen’s first big sex symbol, and at the height of his career the highest-paid performer. In 1919 he formed his own production company where he wrote, produced, directed, edited and starred in his own films (twenty three of them). He was known at the time for his reserved acting style, which you can still relish in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. He left Hollywood in 1922 (some reports say due to post WWI anti-Japanese sentiment), and worked a bit in Europe. He eventually returned to Hollywood, and in 1931 appeared in his first sound film, “Daughter of the Dragon”, opposite Anna May Wong. His thick Japanese accent didn’t go over well with audiences, and he once again left Hollywood. After making films in France and Japan, he returned to Hollywood in 1949. He continued to work steadily in films and on stage until he retired in 1966. Some of his notable films include "Tokyo Joe", "Three Came Home", "Green Mansions", "The Geisha Boy”, “Yoshiwara”, “The Dragon Painter”, and “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, which has become his most remembered role. After his retirement he returned to Japan and became a Zen Buddhist master and a private acting coach. In 1914 he married Japanese actress Tsuru Aoki (who co-starred in several of his silent films) and they remained married until her death in 1961. The two were known for their parties in the 1920s, and their Hollywood home which resembled a French castle. Sessue Hayakawa died in 1973 at the age of 84.
I must mention the film’s music. As stated above, at the film’s start the men are whistling the English song, “Colonel Bogey March”, which was written around the start of World War I. During World War II, troops added their own lewd lyrics to the melody ("Hitler Has Only Got One Ball") which made producer Spiegel leery of using it. Lean came up with the idea of having the men whistle the tune, which turned into movie magic, and “Colonel Bogey March” became forever associated with “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. British composer Sir Malcolm Arnold was given only ten days to write a complete score for the film, and he did a masterful job. He wrote a countermelody to the march, which he titled "River Kwai March”, and the two together are glorious. When used, his sparse score adds pomp, emotion, and that larger-than-life feel which helps heighten the film. For it, he won his only Academy Award. He composed just shy of 100 scores, for films such as "Suddenly, Last Summer", "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness", "The Thin Red Line", "Hobson's Choice", and "I Am a Camera”. He was married twice. Malcolm Arnold died in 2006 at the age of 84.
This is an enormously entertaining film that is visually stirring, mentally rousing, filled with banner performances, and is one you certainly don’t want to miss. Enjoy “The Bridge on the River Kwai”!
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