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Bridge On The River Kwai, The (1957)


Super easy to identify with a sign that big
Super easy to identify with a sign that big

Genre: Adventure War Drama (USA, UK)

Starring: Alec Guinness (Star Wars The Lavender Hill Mob), William Holden (Sunset Blvd. Stalag 17)

Directed By: David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia  Doctor Zhivago)

Overview: A platoon of British P.O.W.s are put to work to build a bridge over the river Kwai. The British Colonel Nicholson immediately comes at odds with his captor, holding fast to the rules of the Geneva convention, whereas veteran American P.O.W. Shears instead attempts escape.

I've just discovered how hard it is to write an overview for this film. Clocking in at nearly three hours, there's really many different story arcs in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and the main plot - the actual construction of that famous bridge - doesn't even really begin to unfold until half way through. Some epic films take a long time to 'get to the point' of its tale, to the excitement or the juicy drama, but The Bridge on the River Kwai is certainly not one of those built-up-slowly stories. It's a thrill-a-minute with elements of all four major character arcs: Man versus Man, Nature, Society and Himself. Looking at it that way, The Bridge on the River Kwai is all too short a film even with that epic length.

For those of you who don't know about this important, and IMHO, solid pick for 'Top 10 Best War Films Ever Made' list, let me give you a spoiler-free run down. After their surrender, a platoon of proud British soldiers march, whistling, into the Japanese P.O.W. camp. It's obvious that conditions are harsh, but led by the proper, well-mannered and Geneva Convention-touting Colonel Nicholson, there is hope yet for the men under him. The camp is run by Colonel Saito, a stubborn Japanese man who cares little for the Geneva Convention and orders his prisoners, including the officers, to work. Immediately Nicholson pulls out his Convention and cites that the officers shall not. Saito slaps him with the book, and throws him in a sweltering and deadly solitary confinement until such a time as Nicholson will order his men to work. The two are now engaged in a battle of wills.

 And if that wasn't enough there's a whole escape / commando mission plotline too.
And if that wasn't enough there's a whole escape / commando mission plotline too.

On the other side of the camp are some now-veteran American prisoners, used to Saito's madness and his quest of building a railway bridge over the river Kwai - a bridge which would be integral in completing the Burma-Siam railway, allowing the Axis to gain great supply line strength. It is the Americans' plan to attempt a difficult escape, regardless of the British intent of staying put.

And that's just a teaser of what's to come in this epic tale that takes us through the trials and tribulations of Colonel Nicholson and his particular perspective, played to perfection by Alec Guinness in what I dare say is his second most famous role in his cinematic career. The American Major Shears is played by the serious-yet-slick William Holden who also gives a powerhouse performance.

What makes The Bridge on the River Kwai so special, besides indulging each scene the time it deserves, is how little this film is about actual combat. The Longest DaySaving Private RyanA Bridge Too Far, these are all fantastic fight-heavy films, but they tend to have a more masculine appeal. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a war movie that isn't fundamentally about war, it's about emotions. For Colonels Nicholson and Saito, it's a story about two powerful men pitted against each other in psychological warfare. For Major Shears, his ordeals follow the more physical. Because of these two parallel storylines, there's something for everyone, and rather than being about 'the big mission', The Bridge on the River Kwai is about men facing difficult trials, ones more about themselves than bridges, jungles or supply lines. Add the fact that it doesn't drift into the vainglorious, and the theme of the futility of war is as strong as in any great war movie, including those I've mentioned above.

 Nicholson and Saito - Two guys you don't want as enemies.
Nicholson and Saito - Two guys you don't want as enemies.

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 9 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 86% (Kwai Haven't You Seen This Yet?)

Of course if all that that doesn't impress you, let its track record speak for me:

The Bridge on the River Kwai sits at #83 on IMDb's Top 250 and is the winner of 7 Oscars including:

Pierre Boulez, Carl Foreman & Michael Wilson for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
Malcolm Arnold for Best Music, Scoring
Peter Taylor for Best Film Editing
Jack Halyard for Best Cinematography
Alec Guinness for Best Actor
David Lean for Best Director
And, might I slip in, Producer Sam Spiegel for a Best Picture win.

| | | | | | | | |

Completely agreed. This thrill-a-minute ride is certainly a strong contender for inclusion among "10 Greatest War Films of All Time". The best aspect of this film didn't just lie in packing such a memorable punch, but also building each of the characters so well. Personally, the importance of the movie is all that more because Sony-Columbia couriered me a copy of the film's blue ray disc for me to review it at my blog.

Every time I watch this film, I remember just how great it is. This is another film that I never, ever get tired of no matter how often I see it. It's no coincidence that when I started going through the 1001 list that this was in the first 10 I watched.

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