Wednesday, August 3, 2011



After the frivolous fun of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, the Academy took a sharp turn when it named David Lean's world war two action drama, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, as the best film of the year.  And with its epic sweep, big stars, long running time and excellent Cinemascope camerawork in exotic locations, it was an obvious choice, and set an epic pattern for director Lean that he would follow for his next two films: 1962's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and 1965's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.
The film began as a novel published by Pierre Boulle in 1952 that was based on his own experiences in the war.  It was an enormous international best seller that caught the attention of screenwriter Carl Foreman, who eventually got producer Sam Spiegel to make a deal with Columbia Pictures.  After running through a succession of possible American directors (including Howard Hawks and John Ford), the English David Lean was chosen. When Foreman and Lean clashed over the script, Micheal Wilson was brought in to finish it.   The shoot was long and arduous, but the film was a sizable hit, bringing in over 15 million dollars on a budget of around 3.
Director Lean began his film career as an editor at the Gaumont British Film Corporation in the 1930's.  In 1942 he co directed (with Noel Coward) his first feature, IN WHICH WE SERVE, a war time propaganda film.  He continued to direct highly regarded films in England, adapting Charles Dickens novels (GREAT EXPECTATIONS, 1946, OLIVER TWIST,1948) and Noel Coward plays (BLITHE SPIRIT, 1945 and BRIEF ENCOUNTER, 1945)  His first Hollywood film was 1955's charming SUMMERTIME, with Katherine Hepburn.  THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI would be his first to win best picture (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA would also win), and his first in Cinemascope.  Cinemascope was an anamorphic wide screen process first developed in 1953 that was used as a way to entice viewers away from their TV screens by providing something that could only be seen properly in a theater.  Many directors disliked the technique, because it required them to fill up much more of the frame when shooting, and it all but prevented the use of extreme closeups of actors, but Lean took to it immediately; in KWAI he displays not only beautiful scenery(it was shot mostly in the jungles of Sri Lanka), but unforgettable images like a haunting sky diving scene, or a moment when the sky fills with thousands of jungle bats.
Set in 1943, the film tells the story of two men, American soldier Shears (William Holden) and British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness), who are both being held in a Japanese Jungle prison camp in Japanese occupied Thailand.  The camp leader, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, who manages to transcend his stereotypical role and bring some dignity to it), is trying to build a supply bridge to Burma using prison labor. When Nicholson refuses to let his officers do manual labor, pointing out to Saito that it's against the Geneva Convention, Saito at first punishes him by locking him in brutal solitary confinement, but later relents and agrees to Nicholson's conditions.  Once released, Nicholson throws himself into the job of building the bridge.  Meanwhile, Shears miraculously escapes and makes his way back to British territory, only to find himself coerced into returning with three other soldiers on a mission to blow up the bridge.   Inevitably the two men find themselves at odds.

William Holden

The role of the American Shears was originally written with Humphrey Bogart in mind, but he was under contract to another studio.  William Holden had to be talked into it, and he finally agreed after netting a hefty wage and 10 percent of the profits.  Interestingly, in 1953 he won an Oscar for best actor playing a similar role in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17, so this wasn't a great stretch for him.  Still, I enjoy his brand of laid back cynicism (how cynical? In the opening scene he bribes a guard with a watch he just stole from the man he buried!), and he makes a believable (if reluctant) action hero.  Even if his scenes away from the prison camp are less compelling than the ones that are, he still has enough movie star magnetism to keep things interesting.

Alec Guinness

Alec Guinness was also reluctant to take the role of Colonel Nicholson, partly because nine years earlier he and Lean had fought while making OLIVER TWIST.  Still, he accepted and wound up winning a best actor Oscar for the role.  I consider him excellent as a complex character who's loyalty to his country comes up against what he sees as his duty.  When we first see Nicholson, he is marching his men through the jungle as they whistle a jaunty tune (the "Colonel Bogey March") in complete defiance of their situations and surroundings; we immediately see the respect the men have for him and his unfailing adherence to military order.  Although he looks a little foolish when he demands that Colonel Saito stick to the Geneva Convention, we can't help but admire him for standing up for his principles, even when that means suffering in solitary confinement (when he is first put in solitary, his men all sing "For he's a Jolly Good Fellow", a moving moment).  It is when he is released that things get complicated; he clearly sees the building of the bridge as something that transcends the war, since it will last after the war is over.  (It also allows him to satisfy his sense of British superiority by doing a better job than the Japanese were).  Clearly, Lean and his writers see a lot to admire in him, as he effectively leads his men to build an impressive bridge in a short time, even as the morality of his actions seem unclear.  The speech he gives to his men after the bridge's completion is honestly heartfelt, but, behind his veneer of classic English pride, Guinness subtly shows a  touch of madness to it as well.  It is at the film's climax, which finds he and Saito battling against Shears and his men to keep them from blowing up the bridge, that the realization of what he has done finally strikes Nicholson.  After he has caused the death of Shears, he gets a devastated look and asks, "What have I done."  Almost immediately afterwards he is shot, and his final living act is to land on the plunger that blows up the bridge.  The meaning of his last line is open for debate: while it is understandable for him to feel guilt about the death of Shears, does that also include guilt for having built the bridge?  Is his dying act of destroying the bridge intentional or inadvertent?  Lean and his screenwriters leave this open to debate, and arguments could be made for either side (which I'm sure were made in the lobby afterwards).  Although the ending is perhaps too abrupt, I still find it fascinating in its ambiguity, as it intentionally leaves open the question as to whether Nicholson is a hero or a traitor. 
Equally interesting is the contrast between the American Shears and the English Nicholson; Shears fakes injuries at the camp to avoid work, while Nicholson bravely stands up to Saito even when it means being locked in solitary.  Shears is only pretending to be an officer, while Nicholson clearly worked hard to get where he is.  Most importantly, Shears winds up doing the right thing (blowing up an enemy supply train) for the wrong reason (he is forced into it by the British military), while Nicholson does the wrong thing (aiding the enemy) for the right reason (he feels duty bound to do so).  All of this means that this is a war  film that lacks a typical noble hero, which I feel is a strong point after so many simplistic war films with one dimensional characters were made before this one (and would be made after it, too!). 
I should also mention that along with being a thoughtful film, this is also a truly exciting one, especially in the tension of the final scenes.  The moment where Shears and his men realize that the wire that connects the bombs to the bridge is visible to Nicholson is suspense worthy of Hitchcock!  And, while it does have some padding at over two and half hours, Lean usually keeps things moving nicely.


This is a really tough call for me, because 1957 saw the release of another excellent war film, Stanley Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY, and while I think THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI is a fine film, I think Kubrick's is even better.  I'm also a big fan of THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and 12 ANGRY MEN.  Still Lean's film is far from a poor choice.