William Holden
Alec Guinness
Jack Hawkins
Sessue Hayakawa
James Donald
Geoffrey Horne
Andre Morell
Peter Williams
John Boxer
Percy Herbert
Heihachiro Okawa
Keiichiro Katsumoto
Ann Sears

David Lean



The Novel


Time: 159 mins.
Rating: PG
Genre: War/Drama/History

Won Academy Awards for Best Actor (Guinness), Cinematography, Director, Film Editing, Score, Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.

Even though this film won many Best Picture awards the year it was released, and is considered a classic, I wasn't very interested in sitting through it. The fact that it's directed by David Lean, a genius in my book, and stars Alec Guinness, one of the greatest actors ever, still didn't sway me because I'm really not a fan of the war genre. Now one can debate whether or not this is a traditional war picture, but since it has soldiers, it is to me. However, once it came out in a special edition DVD, I decided to give a try.

I'm sure glad I did. It is a powerful drama about the fight for survival, the demand for dignity and the dangers of pride. William Holden and Alec Guinness are both soldiers struggling to live through another day. They each give outstanding performances as men whose goals are diametrically opposed, putting them on the opposite side of the bridge, so to speak. The suspense builds throughout the film, leaving the audience to wonder who will be successful in their quest – the man who wants to build the bridge as a testament to British skill and grace under pressure or the man forced to lead a mission to blow it up to put a kink in the Japanese war effort.

The film opens in 1943 in the jungles of Burma with the burial of several POWs and the arrival of a whole new British battalion of prisoners, led by the ever correct Colonel Nicholson (Guinness). Tired of working, Commander Shears (Holden), an American naval officer, looks on from the medical tent. He's managed to "convince" Major Clipton (Donald), the chief medical officer, to put him on sick leave for a while. It's clear from Nicholson's first meeting with the colonel of the camp, Saito (Hayakawa), that things are going to get ugly fast. Nicholson seems to be under the impression that Saito is concerned with the well-being of his men and is honorable enough to uphold the laws of the Geneva convention. He is quick to discover that Saito has only one concern – the building of a trestle bridge over the River Kwai by the middle of May. The British soldiers are to be his slaves, working as long as necessary to make sure the bridge is ready in time.

There will be no special treatment for the officers of the regiment. All men will work equally. Nicholson outrightly refuses to comply and almost winds up getting all of the officers killed. Instead, they are forced to stand in the hot sun all day without food or water as punishment for their pride. Saito figures that one day would be enough to force Nicholson to cave in. He couldn't be more mistaken. Shears is stunned by his stubbornness and tries to worn Nicholson that if he keeps this up he'll discover the only way to actually escape from this camp – finding oneself 6 feet under. Not about to lose face in front of his people, Saito locks Nicholson up in a metal box that practically cooks anyone unfortunate enough to be inside alive. It makes no difference to Nicholson. He will not surrender. Saito has never met anyone like this before. Torture usually always works.

"I'd say the odds against a successful escape are about 100 to one. But may I add another word, Colonel? The odds against survival in this camp are even worse."

In the meantime, the soldiers are attempting to build the bridge, but are doing a piss-poor job of it. They may be forced to work, but that doesn't mean they actually have to accomplish anything. Not about to die in the camp, Shears and two other prisoners decide to try to escape through the jungle. Shears is the only one to make it out alive. Tired of the battle of wills with Nicholson, Saito finally gives in. Anything to get the bridge built in time. However, the insanity continues, with Nicholson and his officers taking over the architecture and construction of the bridge. They aren't just going to build a mediocre bridge, but one that will stand the test of time, that's a testament to their superiority and skill. Never mind that it will greatly aid the Japanese cause.

Shears, on the other hand, is in pure heaven, recovering in a military hospital in Ceylon. All he's waiting for is a medical discharge so he can get back home. Unfortunately, there seems to be a little problem with his true identity. In order to cover up the mess, he's forced to "volunteer" to join a British commando unit and lead them back to the POW camp so they can blow up the bridge, currently being built by Nicholson and his men. Shears is extremely disappointed, but since he has no choice and is the only person to make it out alive, he gears himself up for the trip back into the jungle. Along with Major Warden (Hawkins) and two other men, the group parachutes in and begins a long trek through the dense vegetation. Problems occur along the way, but the little group finally makes it to the bridge with just enough time to spare. Why just blow up the bridge when you can take out the opening ceremony train? They work all night to set up the explosives and prepare themselves for battle. Of course, there's a few things they don't count on, mainly the pride of Colonel Nicholson. In the end, the mission is a success, but few of the men would consider it one.

Though Guinness got the Oscar, which was well deserved, I think Holden and Hayakawa gave amazing performances as well. This is the first film I have ever seen with Holden. I've heard a lot about him and now I know why. He's just mesmerizing. The power struggle between these characters is the heart of the film and what makes it so incredible. If it weren't for them, this would have been an average, somewhat boring war picture. The script is good, but it's only an interesting story because of the acting and the fact that it's true (as much as any film "based on a true story" is.) Nicholson has to be an unrelenting bastard because his men need him to be. If he doesn't stick up for them, the heat will be turned up in their current hell. You have to admire his audacity, as much as you fear his pride. I know if I were to ever need a commanding officer I'd want one like him, but I fear I would be more like Holden's character trying to shirk my duties.

It's clear that Lean was honing his talent for character driven epics, which would culminate in his directing two of the other greatest movies ever made LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DR. ZHIVAGO. Of course, the rest of the cast and crew are first rate as well, otherwise it wouldn't have won all those Oscars. The jungle is impenetrable, the sun unforgiving and the hopelessness palpable. You truly feel trapped in that miserable little camp. Lean definitely knows how to capture the essence of a place. The movie drags a little in the middle, there's only so much bridge building one can watch and be interested in. For the most part, this is a gripping film that everyone should least once. I highly recommend this film even though I don't generally like sitting through pictures of this sort. If you have to watch a war film, you might as well take in one of the best.

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