The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 war drama film directed by David Lean and stars William Holden, Alec Guinness, and Jack Hawkins. The film is based on the 1952 French novel of the same name. It won 7 Academy Awards, which included Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Guinness, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Taking place in Burma in a Japanese prison camp, British prisoners of war are assigned to construct an important railway bridge over the River Kwai. Colonel Nicholson, the leading British officer, remains defiant against the leading Japanese commando, Saito. Nicholson cites the Geneva Conventions that prevent British officers from manual labor, but Saito instead punishes the British officers and seals Nicholson away in a dinky box known as The Oven. Meanwhile, U.S. Navy Commander Shears, a prisoner on the island, manages to escape. He is later recruited into a British commando to go on a mission and destroy the bridge.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a war film lacking bloody warfare or jingoism. It focuses on individuals and their mentalities. Alec Guinness is the gutsy and ambitious Nicholson, who sweats and gets smacked in the face by Saito. Saito is aggressive, but desperate because his life is at stake. British major Warden's hot-headed mentality reflects upon his desire to play with explosives. Sure, the film never sees headstrong soldiers duking it out on the battlefield, but there's no denying that it also brings some rough-and-tough excitement. Nicholson's feud with Saito always keeps interest, and watching the British commando team traverse through the thick jungle gives the film its adventurous edge.
I have griped a lot about many of the Best Picture winners being too long, and The Bridge on the River Kwai is quite lengthy as well at 161 minutes. This is one of those rare times where a Best Picture victor actually benefits from its long running time. A story like the one in this film takes time. It takes a while to warm up to Colonel Nicholson and also to understand the attitude and motivations of Saito. The long trip through the dense jungle for the British commando is a humid and tiresome journey, and if we want to be fully impacted by it, we have to feel the same way. None of these men want to sit around and talk about life's goals for hours on end. Shears, Nicholson, and Saito want to walk the walk, even though the walk is long and weary. It's a struggle that we as an audience can easily invest in, and it's a struggle that engrosses us from start to finish.
- The ending. Everything that happens in The Bridge on the River Kwai builds up to an explosive (literally and figuratively) finale that is truly among the greatest endings in cinema. I do not want to say that the film is only as good as its last 10-15 minutes, but that when you grind through the two and a half hours it takes to get to the end, it's a powerful blow that will be ringing in your head for days. It's a headache that you will love to have.
- Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson. Guinness might always be best remembered as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope, but I do not believe there is another role he played that was as masterful and/or memorable as Colonel Nicholson. Nicholson is the most intriguing character in the film, and we so interestingly study him for the whole 161 minutes. Guinness never has to bark lines or force unnecessary testosterone. He is as down to Earth as any upper tier officer in the military can be, and that's why we keep a sharp eye on him.
- I would be grasping at straws to claim that there is a significant low in The Bridge on the River Kwai. This is masterful craft from David Lean from just about every angle that you can look at it. The acting is superb, the story is engaging and simple enough so that you could not get overly confused, and it is a film that still holds up incredibly well today. The movie is exciting without having to rely on bloody war battles or hand-to-hand combat. The characters are three dimensional and realistic. If that all wasn't enough, the film does not feel anywhere near as long as it actually is, provided that you can fully engage yourself into it early on.
I have seen The Bridge on the River Kwai twice now, and the second viewing was even better than the first time. This is a film that I can confidently say cannot diminish in quality no matter how many viewings. To say The Bridge on The River Kwai is a great film is a slight understatement. This is undoubtedly one of the most magnificent films of the 20th century and one of the best Best Picture winners of all time. It gets everything right, and then some. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a true work of cinematic art.
Recommend? Yes. Do not let the run time dissuade you.
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