I am often asked what my ten favorite movies are. This is a very hard question to answer because I love so many of them that it is tough to narrow it down to just ten. However, there are a few movies that I can say without a doubt are in my top ten. Casablanca would be one; American Graffiti another. Another film that has a reserved spot on my all-time top ten list is the 1957 David Lean epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. I remember first seeing the film in high school and not thinking much of it. However, later I watched the film on video (sans the distractions of a high school classroom) and I loved every minute of it. When it played as part of the reopening of the Cinerama, I relished the opportunity to see the film on the big screen and it became one of my most enjoyable movie-going experiences.
The first thing everyone remembers about The Bridge on the River Kwai is the British soldiers marching into Japanese Prison Camp whistling that now famous tune. The tune has become so associated with the movie, that many people might believe it was written specifically for it. This is not true. The tune is actually called “Colonel Bogie” and the filmmakers originally intended to have the soldiers singing it. However, since the words to the song would never get past the censors, they settled on the whistling and the film is all the better for it.
The soldiers are in the command of Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness), an officer who is so dedicated to the rules of war that he carries a copy of the Geneva Convention around with him. The camp his men have been brought to is commanded by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) who could not give a damn about the rules of war. Saito needs Nicholson’s men to build a bridge over the river, connecting a rail line that is essential to Japan’s success in the war.
Saito orders all the British soldiers—including officers—to work on the bridge. Nicholson, however, is determined to follow the rules of war which forbid officers from doing manual labor. So begins the psychological battle for power between the two Colonels. “Are they both mad?” asks Major Clipton (James Donald), the British medical officer. Eventually Saito’s need to have the bridge finished on time forces him to give in and he agrees to put Nicholson and his officers in charge of constructing the bridge. Nicholson seizes the opportunity to build the best bridge possible, never thinking that he is collaborating with the enemy. Nicholson is so determined to complete the bridge on time that he even goes so far as recruiting the sick and injured as well as the very officers he was so determined would not work in the first place.
Meanwhile, the film also focuses on the story of an American commander named Shears (William Holden) who is in Saito’s camp at the beginning of the film, makes a heroic escape, only to go back as part of an operation to blow up the bridge.For Shears, this is like escaping from hell only to be sent back. The operation is led by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), who seems to come from the same mold of soldier as Nicholson. “You and that Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind.Crazy with courage and for what? How to die like a gentleman, how to die by the rules. When the only important thing is how to live like a human being” Shears argues. The operation proves to be one of the most exciting commando operations ever filmed.
The screenplay for the film was written by Carl Forman and Michael Wilson, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote Planet of the Apes). Since both Forman and Wilson were blacklisted in Hollywood, credit for the screenplay was given to Boulle.This led to a rather ironic moment at the Oscars when Boulle—who did not speak a word of English—was given the award for Best Screenplay. The problem has since been fixed, Forman and Wilson were given their screen credit now appears on the film.
The character of Shears was not in the book, but in order for the studios to lend some financing to the film, they insisted that the film must have an American star. The filmmakers’ first choice was Cary Grant, a great actor but he would have been wrong for the part. William Holden delivers a brilliant performance and it is hard to believe he was not nominated for an Oscar for his efforts. On the other hand, Alec Guiness was nominated and did win the Oscar for Best Actor. It is said that Guiness did not get along at all on the set with director David Lean, but they must have gotten along some because Guiness would star in each of Lean’s next two films: Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, as well as the director’s final film, A Passage to India.
Also receiving an Oscar nomination for the film was Sessue Hayakawa. Hayakawa was one of Hollywood’s first big Asian stars during the silent era, but disappeared due to language problems following the arrival of sound. It is said that he struggled with his dialogue in Kwai, but thanks to some crafty editing and a lot of patience on the filmmakers’ part, you would never know it.
Of course, the film’s most famous character is the bridge itself.The bridge was built over the eight months of filming and then destroyed in the now equally famous explosion.There was a lot of pressure on that shot. If for some reason something went wrong—such as the cameras not rolling or the bridge not blowing up properly—the entire work on the film so far would have been useless.
While many people call Lean’s next film, the four-hour desert epic Lawrence of Arabia, to be his best, I am firmly convinced that The Bridge on the River Kwai is the legendary director’s masterpiece. It is a classic, it gets an A+.