Plot – British POWs are forced to build a railway bridge across the River Kwai for their Japanese captors, not knowing that the allied forces are planning to destroy it.
Director – David Lean
Released – 1957
The best way to describe The Bridge on the River Kwai is two opposing war movies combined, with one part of your more typical war movie affair, while the second asks you complex questions about morality, loyalty and legacy, with the answers to these questions usually left for the audience to come up. Not only this but the, unlike more war films where you’re given a clear indicator of the winners and losers, here the film leaves isn’t as clear on who won and lost, but rather leaves you wondering if a lot of what had transpired was in vain and reminding you that war comprises a lot of smaller battles, including internal ones inside the hearts and minds of all the players.
Central to the film is the performance of Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, who’s refusal to let himself and his fellow POW’s become less than the model solder, drives him to complete the bridge on behalf of the Japanese, a move that comes dangerously close to collusion with the enemy, but Nicholson sees it as honourable and a way to leave his mark. This was the film that gave Guinness his Oscar and its entirely deserved. His performance is nuanced and intense, wonderfully capturing the moral descent and detachment from reality the Colonel is experiencing.
William Holden also does an expert job as the more heroic yet flawed Shears. A man more concerned with alcohol, women and escaping the war, yet when push comes to shove he steps up and gets the job done, even if he is slightly forced into it. The performance of Sessue Hayakawa is also rather enjoyable, as the strict Japanese commandant, he helps to flesh out a character that could have quite easily been a stereotypical bad guy. His unhappiness with being placed in charge of a POW camp and the lack of progress is clearly weighing on him and reminds you that sometimes the only difference between the Allies and the Japanese was the colour of their uniform.
Famously hard to work with, Lean’s direction doesn’t disappoint, his eye for a good shot and excellent set pieces helps make the film progress at a good pace and a treat for the eyes. And although it’s on record that he and Guinness didn’t get on during filming, this didn’t affect the performances of Guinness or the rest of the cast, which are memorable across the board.
Overall, The Bridge on the River Kwai is an incredibly powerful and moving anti-war movie that shows just what people will do to stay alive, even if it means working with the enemy. The acting, directing, cinematography, everything about this film is perfection and was well deserving of its Best Picture win.
If you liked: Saving Private Ryan, A Bridge Too Far, The Guns of Navarone