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Worth A Look: 5.71%
Just Average: 5.71%
Pretty Crappy: 2.86%
Sucks: 5.71%

2 reviews, 23 user ratings

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Bridge on the River Kwai, The
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by Slyder

"Pride, Honor, Courage, Arrogance… in war, it all leads to one thing..."
5 stars

It’s been 52 years since the release of this landmark film, and in all that time it has not lost its power. The Bridge on the River Kwai has rightfully earned its status as a classic. Directed by the master of epic filmmaking, David Lean, the damn thing is a bloody great achievement, both technically and in storytelling. There are very few anti-war films of this type, and by that I mean the ones that get inside your head and play not only with your head but with you sense of morals and esteem. Most anti-war films rely on the physical depictions of the brutalities of the battlefield which by itself makes for ample evidence regarding the view of war as a destructive folly. Yet very few have actually relied on their characters themselves to present you with a psychological insight into what they believe and what they think and how the decisions or attitudes they take trigger enormous consequences to those around them. Internal conflict is the name of the game here, and Lean and his merry crew used this very tool to absolute perfection. Rare is the film in which you can say that every Oscar it won was thoroughly deserved.

Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle whom in turn was inspired by historical accounts regarding the building of said bridge during World War II, the movie follows a regiment of British POWs headed by sturdy yet fiercely determined Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), where they have been assigned into a Japanese Prison Camp in southern Burma. There we meet two important characters, American POW Commander Shears (William Holden), who likes to enjoy what little life there is on the camp rather than work as a slave for the Japanese, even to the point of bribing Japanese officers so he can be as much as he can on sick leave. The other is the Camp’s commanding officer, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), a tough, honorable and disciplined soldier but with a penchant for brutality. As the British POWs famously arrive in the camp defiantly whistling the Colonel Bogey March, Colonel Saito and Colonel Nicholson immediately engage in a battle of wills. Saito wants all the British soldiers to work no questions asked on the construction of a bridge on the river Kwai which is a key development point for the Japanese supply route in that area; Nicholson wants however the stipulations in the Geneva Convention honored, his officers not be given labor duties and that his soldiers be treated humanely. While this is happening, Commander Shears along with two others plan an escape from which only Shears is successful and barely so. Meantime in the camp Colonel Saito tortures Colonel Nicholson and his officers for them to give into his command. However at the same time, Saito has received pressure from High Command regarding the building of the Bridge, and that if he doesn’t finish building it, he’ll suffer public dishonor and be forced to commit ritual suicide. Yet by giving into Nicholson’s demands, he would suffer a personal loss of face and possibly with his men. So, reluctantly he gives into Nicholson in exchange for his assistance into the building of the bridge. Unbeknownst to Nicholson however, and for obvious reasons, the Allied forces, via their own Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) hire on the recently rescued Shears to guide a team of special forces for an incursion back into Burma to destroy the soon to be completed bridge since it constitutes and important military target. And let the clash of egos and viewpoints begin…

To be honest I find it rather amusing that this film is called David Lean’s “breakthrough film”, for the man had already achieved success and respect amongst his peers thanks to his remarkable adaptations of works by Noel Coward (In Which We Serve, Brief Encounter) and Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist, Great Expectations). The correct thing to say would be that this was the movie that gave him his first true financial success, placing him on the map for the rest of the world to be aware, and deservingly so.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is an astounding film. Astounding in the sense that it absorbs you into its intricacies and executions without you never even feeling it; its power is always subtle and stealthy, creeping into your mind unbeknownst to the mind itself, and in the end, when it all finally explodes, it leaves you with a sense of bewilderment and confusion. If a movie was to be defined by a single word, then “subtle” would be the word to describe this film. This is probably the most subtle film I’ve ever seen. You won’t notice it on first viewings, but once repeated viewings are made, it gradually reveals itself. Everything that happens in the screen quietly screams the flawed and insane qualities of its protagonists, yet they’re delivered in the most normal of ways that it even manages to convince you that what they’re doing is the right thing, even if it’s just plain wrong. Every scene is important in building up a world full ambiguities and shades of gray, and it’s done in the most transparent of ways.

The film targets the very notions of honor and pride, their values and meanings, and how each one of these collapses when applied to war times. For Saito, honor and obedience is everything, it bestows respect and order, and if you lose it, it means dishonor to yourself and to your family in front of your peers; there is no “licking of wounds” here, that type of dishonor is only punishable by death. Warden and Nicholson believe in discipline and rules, following orders down to a T regardless of consequences, and refusing to give into the enemy even if they are captured. This latest notion is the driving motivation in Nicholson’s case, for he believes that neither he nor his men should be subject of humiliation by the Japanese. He wants respect, and he wants to prove that even in captivity he and his men are better than his enemies. The idea is nice and noble in principle, but in the commotion of carrying this ideology out, he completely forgets about the war that is being fought outside in the world. It’s a crucial mistake to which of course leads to the inevitable clash at the end of the movie.

The closest thing to a hero here is Shears, who desires nothing more than to live in freedom and not bound to such absurdities, because all they do is imprison a man inside himself, in his own ego, to the disdain of his peers and even at the expense of them. Shears however is not without his flaws, since he also is somewhat of a cowardly soul with an “aw-shucks” attitude, and only resorts to taking the part of a hero because it’s the easiest way to snatch a ticket to ride home as well as the easiest way to get a dose of the limelight and the women too. This also explains his somewhat contradictory dilemma regarding why an enlisted man like Shears would desire to go home so badly; because the need to be a hero regardless of the consequences overtook his sound yet fragile common sense. So Shears also has his ego issues, but unlike Saito, Warden, and especially Nicholson, he’s actually aware of them.

All this mixture of meanings and interpretations of courage and pride and arrogance just lead to one thing: madness… as the camp’s Doctor Major Clipton (James Donald) helplessly and incredulously mutters time after time by film’s end. The ending has taken some shots by critics since it’s one that’s rather too ambiguous. I disagree with this point of view, because for a film that is dealing with such latitudes, I can’t see how else it could’ve possibly ended. This was the one true ending for this film, and the ambiguity serves its point perfectly because it encapsules the whole film’s message as whole right there at that moment. It captures the total aftermath of what the madness of war brings. War is hell not only because it rips men to shreds, but because it these men offered themselves to be destroyed by their one-sided views of courage and honor. If these values led these men to their demise, then it could also lead many others to this same conclusion. To lay waste such amounts of human life for the good dealings of a bunch of ego-centric bastards just wanting to see who’s got the bigger dick is simply inexcusable. And who ends up losing and dead and buried? We do, and you do.

Kudos to Pierre Boulle for his work, and for Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson who translated Boulle’s work into a impressive screenplay, and for David Lean whose direction is solid totally focused and brings this examination of human folly to life in all its fullest and ugliest (Foreman and Wilson initially were denied credit due to them being blacklisted by the US Government; it wasn’t until 1984 when the Academy and the studio restored full credit, posthumously unfortunately, to both Foreman and Wilson respectively). If there’s any flaw in the story itself is the huge liberty it takes with the actual story it draws inspiration from, but then again, it is to be expected from cinema to sometimes take liberties from what actually happened in history.

From a technical standpoint, everyone involved in this movie does career-best work. The cinematography by Jack Hildyard is top notch, capturing the beautiful landscapes of the Burma jungles, made all the more alive by shooting through bright luminous colors. There’s a reason for that as well since by doing that, it also heightens and accentuates the heat and the undercurrent madness that simmers underneath; excellent work by Hildyard, who was at that time Lean’s right hand man before Freddie Young assumed camera duties later on. Malcolm Arnold’s musical score is excellent and his use of musical irony is just simply brilliant, and Peter Taylor’s editing is top notch.

The cast is excellent all over. The most obvious standout is none other than Alec Guinness as Nicholson; his portrayal of the stubborn yet completely insane commander is simply flawless. It’s hard not to see why his men trust his judgment no matter how flawed it is, he shows genuine worry for his men, and wants to see them be treated fairly, but most of all, he’s completely charismatic. He has this aura of him that makes him impossible to root against and his deceivingly wise tone of voice is capable of convincing you of what he’s doing is the right thing to do. And when in his last gasp he becomes aware of what he’s done, his reaction is simply one of the most striking moments in cinema history. An Oscar for Best Actor was never more deserving. Matching him in intensity is Sessue Hayakawa as Saito; long ago a star of silent films before his career was derailed by the advent of sound, Hayakawa makes a great comeback in this movie. His portrayal of Saito as a proud man only to be disgraced by another madman (Nicholson) and being reduced to being like a dog that’s been given a good whipping is simply mesmerizing, showing complete intensity and honesty. Hayakawa was also deserving of his nomination as Best Supporting Actor. A cut below these two is William Holden as Shears, and he plays him with suave gusto and also with a sense of rebelliousness that fits his character perfectly. Jack Hawkins and James Donald also provide memorable supporting work as the Warden who in certain ways is an equal of Nicholson, and Major Clipton respectively. Clipton is probably the only soldier in the entire movie that knows how insane his superiors and his captors are, yet he himself is obviously powerless at the madness that unravels before him.

Some will contend that Lawrence of Arabia is arguably Lean’s greatest film (an opinion which I also hold as well), and it seems rather unfortunate that this film has rather been overshadowed by its grander and bigger cousins. However, there are some that will point to this film as Lean’s true masterpiece, and it’s easy to make the case why here, the movie is a solid and completely well-oiled machine, subtle and effective without being pretentious, with Lean’s cinematic eye firmly on target and his propensity to indulge in his grand scope held firmly in check. Regardless of opinions, this movie is nevertheless a classic in its own right, and one of the definitive anti-war movies ever made. See it, enjoy it, and who knows; perhaps you’ll learn a thing or two. 5-5

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=5271&reviewer=235
originally posted: 11/29/09 18:47:05
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User Comments

9/10/16 Anne hard to describe...incredible photography 2 stars
3/01/15 manalone923 lol 1 stars
5/14/12 Ed Totleben, Jr. Not completely factual but one of the best damned war movies ever made!!! 5 stars
9/28/11 C.M. Chan One of the best 5 stars
6/08/10 Flathead King Great war film with memorable characters and impressive direction from David Lean. 5 stars
5/29/10 bored mom A fucking awesome play between Guinness and Hayakawa. This is also way better than Toko-ri. 5 stars
3/02/10 Richard Brandt Santayana:"A fanatic is one who redoubles his efforts after losing sight of his objective" 5 stars
4/26/07 Baraka Njuguna Dat Shixx wuz strate.....wuzn't all dat! 3 stars
11/24/05 Kelly pretty darn good 4 stars
4/12/05 Indrid Cold They don't make them like this anymore, but that's not a bad thing necessarily. 4 stars
4/05/04 R.W. Welch The acting here makes most movies look like amateur night. 5 stars
11/28/03 john best boy's adventure movie ever made 5 stars
11/04/03 Danger_Ehren Okay war movie 3 stars
6/26/03 l k 1 stars
6/24/03 snowconehead because he is 5 stars
5/05/03 Dave Why does David Lean have to be so fucking brilliant? 5 stars
3/02/03 alien assassin One of the best war films ever 5 stars
1/18/03 Hi there One of David Lean's best. 5 stars
1/16/03 hi there This and "Lawence Of Arabia" are two of my favorite David Lean movies. 5 stars
1/14/03 kitfo best acting in a war movie ever 5 stars
12/25/02 rotten s. milk This and "Lawrence Of Arabia" are the highlights of David Lean's career. 5 stars
10/14/02 Charles Tatum Brilliant WWII actioner 5 stars
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  18-Dec-1957 (PG)
  DVD: 15-Apr-2008



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