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The Bridge on the River Kwai
Drama, Adventure, War
IMDB rating:
David Lean
William Holden as Shears
Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson
Jack Hawkins as Major Warden
Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito
James Donald as Major Clipton
Geoffrey Horne as Lieutenant Joyce
André Morell as Colonel Green (as Andre Morell)
Peter Williams as Captain Reeves
John Boxer as Major Hughes
Percy Herbert as Grogan
Ann Sears as Nurse
Heihachiro Okawa as Captain Kanematsu (as Henry Okawa)
Keiichirô Katsumoto as Lieutenant Miura (as K. Katsumoto)
Storyline: The film deals with the situation of British prisoners of war during World War II who are ordered to build a bridge to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway. Their instinct is to sabotage the bridge but, under the leadership of Colonel Nicholson, they are persuaded that the bridge should be constructed as a symbol of British morale, spirit and dignity in adverse circumstances. At first, the prisoners admire Nicholson when he bravely endures torture rather than compromise his principles for the benefit of the Japanese commandant Saito. He is an honorable but arrogant man, who is slowly revealed to be a deluded obsessive. He convinces himself that the bridge is a monument to British character, but actually is a monument to himself, and his insistence on its construction becomes a subtle form of collaboration with the enemy. Unknown to him, the Allies have sent a mission into the jungle, led by Warden and an American, Shears, to blow up the bridge.
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A rather odd story,but entertaining
I thoroughly enjoy this film,though I find it to be a rather odd story.Looking at it realistically,I find it hard to believe that a British commander,or any other commander,would give in to the will of the enemy under any circumstances,but I realize that even films based on true events can never be told 100% accurately,so I have no problem seeing as a great fictionalized account of true events.All the performances were excellent,particularly those of Alec Guiness and Bill Holden.If you are looking for a different type of war story,you have a winner in this one,but I would advise not reading up on how things really happened on The River Kwaiuntil after viewing it.It may make the film a disappointment to you.
Nothing less than a masterpiece...
About as Oscar-worthy as any film made in the '50s is David Lean's gripping BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Based loosely on a real-life incident, it tells the story of an imprisoned British officer (Alec Guinness) who loses sight of his mission when forced to build a bridge for the Japanese that will enable the enemy to carry supplies by train through the jungle during World War II. Guinness plays the crisp British officer to perfection, brilliant in all of his scenes but especially in his confrontations with Sessue Hayakawa. William Holden has a pivotal role as one of the prisoners who escapes and enjoys his freedom for awhile before being asked to return with a small squadron to destroy the bridge. Jack Hawkins and Geoffrey Horne have colorful roles too and all are superb under David Lean's direction.

The jungle settings filmed in Ceylon add the necessary realism to the project and there is never a suspension of interest although the story runs well over two-and-a-half hours. The film builds to a tense and magnificent climax with an ending that seems to be deliberately ambiguous and thought provoking. Well worth watching, especially if shown in the restored letterbox version now being shown on TCM.

Some of the best lines go to William Holden and he makes the most of a complex role--a mixture of cynicism and heroism in a character that ranks with his best anti-hero roles in films of the '50s. He brings as much conviction to his role as Alec Guinness does and deserved a Best Actor nomination that he did not get.

The Forest and the Trees
Before I write IMDb reviews, I try to do as much research about the subject film as time allows. As part of my research, I always read a sampling of other user reviews in order to taste the prevailing sentiment of the film, pro, con, and indifferent. Many of the most negative reviews about this film concern the alleged falsification of history by the film. Although I was disappointed with this latest viewing of the movie, I don't agree with these reviewers. The film is a work of fiction that is loosely based on a true, historical event, and that is how it is to be viewed. I recently watched "The Best Years of Our Lives", another film, much more to my liking, that is centered on World War II but focused on an entirely different aspect of that war, the daunting adjustment of combat veterans to a civilian life of "peace" back home. As in the case of this film, that film was a work of fiction based on very real situations, but neither film was intended to be a factual work of non- fiction. The actual combat disability of actor Harold Russell in "Best Years of Our Lives" is very real, but he doesn't portray himself or his own, personal story in the movie. In this case, no one is denying that Allied prisoners were treated much more harshly by their Japanese captors than depicted here or implying that the real colonel, upon whom the story is based, collaborated with the enemy as Colonel Nicholson did.

My biggest problem with this film is that it opens with a very dramatic battle of wills between Colonel Saito and Lt. Colonel Nicholson and ends with an even more spectacular finale, but I found myself fairly bored in between. While the scenery of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was quite spectacular, much of the dialogue was dull and even banal. The Siamese (Thai) women were very pleasant to behold, but there seemed to be a huge gap between the captivating beginning and the sensational ending.

Alec Guiness, who was very reluctant to take the role of Nicholson, was outstanding as was Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito. Many notable actors, including Charles Laughton, refused the role of Nicholson because they didn't understand his motivation, a view which should be appreciated. Others believed the material, based on a French author, to be viciously anti-British, which is also a reasonable interpretation. I was unimpressed by the rest of the cast, and I consider myself generally to be a fan of William Holden. His exchange with the bribed Japanese guard was nothing short of ridiculous. I was actually embarrassed for poor Bill, who didn't seem to be emotionally involved in his role here.

For the commendable performances of both Guinness and Hayakawa, for the beautiful cinematography by Jack Hildyard, for the film's trademark whistling of "Colonel Bogey's March", and for an unforgettable ending that was worth the long wait, I rated it a 7 out of 10. I must add that I don't believe that fighting the Japanese and the Germans in the most effective way possible during World War II was "madness" as this film seemed to suggest at the end. I strongly and respectfully disagree with that position.
Unrealistic Hollywood style cartoon
I have a deep admiration for David Lean as the director who pushed the boundaries of film making far beyond, and set the marker not only in technical aspects of the craft, but often in atmosphere and feel of the film. His movies are beautiful to watch and that's why sometimes we can't see how bad the cake tastes from all the icing and decorations. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is like that, sticky sweet but ultimately nauseating. Every time a movie parts from reality we observe a genre, and the intention of film maker, along with symbolism it's trying to project. War movies in particular have to be true to the bone (unless they're parodies) because they represent the bestiality of mankind, and duality of man. This film tried to portray those essential elements but fell into Hollywood blender and came out silly and unrealistic.

First and foremost, anybody who even remotely knows anything about Japanese tradition, military culture social and military codes and character of Japanese man, can only laugh at pitiful Colonel Saito who is not only without any remorselessness, but looks like a powerless teacher on the first day in a new school, being played like a flute by honorable Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness),who not only survives days, locked in a tin box in tropical heat and humidity, but wins every concession for his troops he can think of, making the poor Colonel Saito cry at the end of one of his parades of will?!? Japanese soldiers and camp commanders were "very well known" for their compassion, sensitivity and sensibility which was expressed many times during the war, especially in Wake Island massacre, Manila massacre and Bataan Death March, so even the hint of Colonel Nicholson's behavior would result in quick decapitation. William Holden with his tanned biceps glowing in the sun is a true picture of starved Japanese prisoner, and his escape, along with return through the jungle in 50's style loafers (observe the scene where he and his band of sturdy man are being washed by Burmese women prior to attacking the bridge), is down right preposterous. Building a bridge as a monument to his ego is possible way of expression for "open only in a case of war" type of character Col. Nicholson apparently is, but convincing other prisoners to join in that venture simply on "let's show 'em" premise, in those times and circumstances is not likely to happen. To complete the three-ring circus, Japanese soldiers show solidarity and play along, so at the end you're not sure what did you just see. The battle of wills, winner makes history film, anti-war film, or simply a Hollywood action movie/spectacle without any plausibility or logic? Judge for yourself. Oh, and 5 stars are only for cinematography and Holden's loafers.
In early 1943, World War II British prisoners arrive by train at a Japanese prison camp in Burma. The commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), informs them that all prisoners, regardless of rank, are to work on the construction of a railway bridge over the River Kwai that will connect Bangkok and Rangoon. The senior British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), reminds Saito that the Geneva Conventions exempt officers from manual labor.

At the following morning's assembly, Nicholson orders his officers to remain behind when the enlisted men are sent off to work. Saito slaps him across the face with his copy of the conventions and threatens to have them shot, but Nicholson refuses to back down. When Major Clipton (James Donald), the British medical officer, intervenes, telling Saito there are too many witnesses for him to get away with murdering the officers, Saito leaves the officers standing all day in the intense tropical heat. That evening, the officers are placed in a punishment hut, while Nicholson is locked in an iron box.
Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000)
August 7, 2000: I just want to say how sorry I am to hear of

the passing of Sir Alec Guinness. He was always one of

my very favorite actors, and he always astounded me with

his quiet, understated brilliance. From the Ealing comedies to "Star Wars" to his late work for British television, Sir Alec never ceased to endow his characters

with charm and muted nuance. But of all his performances, his Colonel Nicholson in "Bridge on the River Kwai" remains perhaps his most remarkable achievement. So, it's fitting that this is the film for which he

received his Academy Award. Film-goers around the world

are very fortunate that Alec Guinness left behind such a

large and impressive body of work.

Good night, sweet prince, and flocks of angels sing thee to

thy rest.

" All that effort and loss of life, madness, simply madness "
When this film appeared, in 1957, it naturally garnered many an award and much personal acclaim for director David Lean. The story itself, originally written by none other than noted French writer Pierre Boulle, who wrote the book, Planet of the Apes, was pleased with the finished project. The story is very loosely based on the actual construction endeavor, called building the Kwai bridge, is herein incorporated to include the British prisoner of war camp, run by the Japanese during World War Two. A culturally traditional, hard-nose commandant, one Col. Saito (internationally acclaimed Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa) has been given the task of constructing a railroad bridge over the river Kwai and is further ordered to have it completed by a given date. Failure is not an option. To his camp arrives an equally stubborn and somewhat arrogant British officer, one Col. Nicholson, (Alec Guinness) with several hundred POW soldiers. Already in the camp is a small detachment of American and allied soldiers who have been assailed and threatened to build the bridge. Among them is, Commander Shears (William Holden) an American POW who manages to escape the hell hole and makes it safely to a British base. Though Saito and Nicholson begin a battle of wits as to who is in command of the camp and its men, Shears is confronted by another British officer, Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkings) who asks him to return to the site of the bridge, to help him blow it up! James Donald plays Maj. Clipton, a British medical officer who watches as the various conflicting officers strive to give logic to insane goals. Every audience who views this movie, has to decided for themselves who among the officers, makes any sense to a mad-cap project. The film should be a testament to the insanity of every war. ****
A Disgraceful Insult to the People who Died and Survived the Real Railway of Death
It was my late father, who was a Far East Prisoner of War, which included a stint on the Kwai Bridge, who pointed out everything that was wrong with this film. And EVERYTHING is what is wrong with it.

The bridge was bombed by the Americans, and that is why the two inner spans of the current bridge are of a different shape to the outer two. Note again, the bridge was bombed from the air, it was not blown up by Alec Guiness's dead body falling on the blast box.

The notion that the Japanese would have been swayed by a British officer who sweated out a week in the cage is utter nonsense. My father said they would have beaten him till he submitted, and if he happened to die...well, too bad.

My father also pointed out that the notion that the Japanese engineers didn't possess the know-how to build a railway bridge to cross the Kwai River, and had to rely on British engineers is utter drivel.

If you can bear to insult those who died on the Railway of Death by watching this film, do not take the film seriously. It's rubbish!
An Intimate Epic
"The Bridge on the River Kwai" is neither an anti-war, nor a pro-war (if there is such a thing) film. I'm not really sure just what such designations actually mean. "Bridge ..." is richer and more personal than a simple depiction of epic events. In "Bridge ...", the epic supports the intimate. If you miss this, you miss a lot. "Bridge ..." is about the human heart first, and war second.

After 47 years, it remains a powerful illustration of our failed hopes as human beings. (something sorely lacking in the more technically pre-occupied action films of today.) Oddly, it's an able companion to the less cinematic "A Streetcar Named Desire", or "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" -- full of irony -- brilliant, subtle, and ultimately believable because we've all, in one way or another, experienced the feelings and the fears of the principals.

You can't miss, entirely, this interpretation if you watch the film carefully, and open your senses to the quieter moments: Saito weeping alone having lost the battle of wills, or sending a letter home (Even a brutal camp warden can do that -- nation, race, codes of honor notwithstanding); Saito's confession to Nicholson that he had wanted to be an artist but that his father thought he "belonged in the army"; the scene on the completed bridge, which Saito begins, looking at the sunset and quietly declaring - "beautiful!", with a detached Nicholson attributing the observation to the bridge (his obsession); Nicholson, in turn, speaking of his thoughtful realization that he is "nearer the end than the beginning", and wondering, aloud, what the sum total of his life has meant "to anyone or anything". . . Rescued by the bridge, Nicholson, at last, has something of value to leave behind.

. . . Neither, are the supporting characters free of the ironies of our existence. Shears yearns for a world in which there's no place for war, but who's final act is the ultimate act of war -- killing the enemy close-up, with a knife, and ending his own life in the same cause as did the prisoner he buried, and who's name he could not recall. Joyce, the recruit, who's pre-war occupation consisted of checking and re-checking columns of figures, wants the challenge of "thinking". The denouement of his aspiration nearly costs Warden his life and, ultimately, costs him his own.

The climactic irony (Shakespearian to be sure) comes with Nicholson's realization that he has been living in "his own" and not "the world's" reality. A "friendly fire" mortar round, exploded behind him, shakes him back to "the way things are". . . "What have I done?", he asks before he falls on the plunger that will explode his own -- his only -- "beautiful creation" (ironically, again, his enemy's confirmation).

We all strive to create, or just contribute to, a world in which our dreams can flourish. This includes the powerful, who approve the wars, and the powerless, who fight them. But, often, we find the realities of that world make the dreams of our part in it impossible to realize: The "madness" which, above the carnage, Clipton desperately verbalizes.

"The Bridge on the River Kwai" is a true classic because it can be so many things to so many people -- and it is timeless: The kids and many adults will enjoy the action, the historians will enjoy critiquing its accuracy, veterans will re-visit the comradeship of the "trenches", and film buffs will revel in the picture's rhythm, drama, and well-executed technical elements.

In the final analysis, the settings, costumes, historicity, etc. are only "helpers" (however beautifully provided by Lean and company). Its bigger theme -- the aspirations of the human heart, and the painful surrendering of those aspirations -- are what we are most urgently invited to experience in this extraordinary film. 10 out of 10.
Among the Best.
This may be the best war movie -- if that's what it is -- that was ever put together. I don't think it would be made today. It was expensive and there were no women in it to speak of, and any committee member with an MBA reading the script would wonder why there wasn't more action. Further, the movie hasn't got any magnificent computerized graphics going for it. And we hardly see any blood. And nobody's head gets blown apart. And there's not a foul word in it.

David Lean has pulled off a neat stunt, making a superb film with a good script, great performances, effective location shooting, a subtext that provokes thought, a marvelously believable set of characterizations -- and no gimmicks.

It begins traditionally enough, with red mud and brilliant green foliage, and an authentic prisoner of war camp into which Nicholson's captured battalion marches proudly. The first real hint we get of the film's originality is when the men are marching in place to Colonel Bogey's march and we get one or two shots of feet stomping up and down on the wet gravel. One pair of feet wears only half shoes. The toes are pointing out of the right shoe. On the left shoe, the upper has separated from the sole, and it flaps up and down as the foot inside it drives into the earth. Not only is the shot THERE but it's lingered over, just long enough.

William Holden is running through the bushes, trying to escape from the camp, disturbing flocks of bird that chirp madly at him. One of his Japanese pursuers shoots him and he tumbles into a turbulent river. In any Hollywood movie, the drop would be done by a stunt man in the usual manner -- head over heels, arms flailing, off the cliff. Not here. Holden falls feet first, hands and palms held out at his sides, as if expecting to land on a trampoline. He simply doesn't FALL like a professional.

The film is loaded with grace notes like this. It's difficult to imagine a director willing to take the time to fine tune his film like this today because both the people making films and the viewers themselves are impatient to get on with the story and reach the next scene that has sex, blood, or comedy in it. I wonder if it's coincidental that people now categorize themselves as fans of one or another basketball team instead of a baseball team. Watching a baseball game calls for patience while the batter digs his cleated shoes into the dirt around the plate. Basketball is all momentum and no patience is required.

I won't go on about the movie except to say that it's masterly in almost every respect. But I guess I will mention one more thing of the sort that impressed me, dealing with characterization. Throughout the movie, we've been told and shown that Nicholson cares for nothing so much as the bridge itself. He began by thinking of it as a way to keep up the men's morale and a reason for keeping discipline, but it has come to have functional autonomy, eclipsing everything else in importance. Note the way Guiness's eyes light up in the day-for-night scene when he's told that similar bridges built of English elms have lasted for three hundred years. "Three hundred years!", he marvels.

Likewise, the supporting character of Joyce, on the commandos, is shown as being uncertain of whether he could use his knife in hand to hand combat or not. When an armed Japanese soldier appears at arm's length, Joyce freezes and Jack Hawkins dashes in to kill the man.

These two traits -- Nicholson's obsession with the bridge and Joyce's inability to use a knife -- are set up so that the final (and only) confrontation between Nicholson and Joyce can take place the way it does. Nicholson screams, "Blow up the BRIDGE?", grabs Joyce's legs and pulls him down to the sand, preventing Joyce from reaching the detonator. Commandoes be damned, nobody is going to destroy his bridge. Hawkins and Holden shout from the opposite bank of the river, urging Joyce to "kill him!" But Joyce can't kill him without using a knife, which we know he will be unable to do.

It's a perfect payoff for what we've learned about the two men.

Did Nicholson deliberately throw himself on the detonator as he was dying or did he fall on it by accident? Who cares. If he did it deliberately it would be a heroic act since he finally "came to his senses." But an accident would be more in keeping with the ironic tone of the rest of the film. At the end, everyone and everything of importance is dead except Clipton the humanitarian doctor who tells us unnecessarily that this is "madness" -- and those floating vultures with their Olympian view of these goings-on.

It's a gripping movie from beginning to end, a magnificent job by everyone involved.
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