The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Bridge on the River Kwai

When you're talking about great prisoner of war movies, that conversation is inevitably going to come down to two movies. For me, it's an easy distinction, an easy pick for which one is the best. That's one of my two favorite movies ever, 1963's The Great Escape. What's the other classic P.O.W. film? One of Hollywood's all-time greats, 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai.

It's 1943 in western Burma and a battalion of British prisoners has arrived at Camp 16 along the Burma Railway. Allied prisoners are being used all along the railway to help build the tracks and bridges it needs to move supplies up and down the country. The commandant of the camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), has been given a quick deadline in order to build a bridge over the river Kwai, but he quickly hits a roadblock in the form of the ranking officer among the Brits, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). Both men are career officers, both of them stubborn and strong-willed that they know what is right and how to do it. What follows is a battle of wills as the two commanders see who will crack first with the deadline fast approaching. Unbeknownst to both of them, Allied intelligence has caught wind of the bridge across the river. A former prisoner, Shears (William Holden), of the camp is working with an experienced commando, Warden (Jack Hawkins), to lead a team back into Burma and take out the bridge. 

That David Lean, he was a halfway decent director, winning two Best Picture Oscars in his storied career. One win was for Lawrence of Arabia. One was for River Kwai. My favorite? You're reading that movie's review right now. It is a film remembered as one of the all-time greats, and it deserves that status. The portrayal of war, its message about war, the instantly recognizable Colonel Bogey March (listen HERE), the phenomenal casting, the on-location shooting in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the gorgeous filmography, and a great musical score overall from Malcolm Arnold. The scale is gigantic, but the story remains personal. It is a giant movie with an ability to never lose its focus or get too far away from where it wants to go. On my most recent viewing, I thought (more than I remember) there were some slow/sluggish portions in the 161-minute movie but not nearly enough to fault an otherwise pretty perfect movie.

The name evades me, but I remember seeing another British actor say in an interview "I didn't understand the Nicholson part until I saw Guinness' performance." That's how good Alec Guinness is in his Oscar-winning performance. This is an incredible acting job, a layered character that is baffling at times to understand. Colonel Nicholson is a fascinating character because his word, his beliefs and his stubborn make-up are everything to him. If he believes he is right, he IS right. This is a career soldier willing to put his life on the line to stand by his beliefs. A career officer, he knows nothing else other than the army. His dynamic with Hayakawa's Col. Saito is the guts of the movie, two officers believing they're right and seeing who will blink first. Who needs the other more to accomplish their goal? A late scene where Guinness' Nicholson discussing his career illuminates what drives the man. He wants to leave something that will be remembered. He does, but what if it helps the Japanese war effort?

What a cast! Guinness rightfully deserves first mention, but that's only the start. William Holden's character, Shears, is underwritten some, but it is a necessary, still very interesting character to move the action along. Holden is one of my favorites, and I liked his Shears, especially when a big twist is revealed near the halfway point. Jack Hawkins is just solid as Warden, the unlikely commando officer, an interesting similarity to Nicholson in the very, very British officer category. Hayakawa at times gets lost in the conversation, but he too is highly memorable as Saito, rough facade, terrified/worried inside at a possible failure. James Donald (also starring in The Great Escape) is the viewer, playing Major Clipton, the medical officer, trying to figure things out, to understand what's going on. Also worth mentioning is Geoffrey Horne as Joyce, the young, inexperienced commando trying to prove he can handle the job.

Also look for Andre Morell as Colonel Green, a key officer in Force 316, and Percy Herbert and Harold Goodwin as two British soldiers in the camp, Grogan and Baker.

Without resorting to hitting us over the head with a message, Lean does an understated job of delivering an anti-war message. What is it? Well....war is crazy. This isn't a horrifically violent movie, and the portrayals of a Japanese P.O.W. camp are pretty tame, but 'Kwai' effortlessly lays out all these different responses to war. Shears = Survival. Warden = A job. Clipton = Chaos and confusion. And Nicholson? A career. There are some moments of humor, usually pretty dark, mostly cynical, but Lean's movie (working off a novel by Pierre Boulle) presents the lunacy of war and simply lets it breathe. Decide for yourself who is right, if anyone.

So let's talk about that ending. No real SPOILERS here, but still, I'm talking (hopefully vaguely) about the finale. Great movie overall, one of the best ever. The ending to 'Kwai' is maybe top 5 finales to a movie ever as Force 316 (Warden, Shears, Joyce, a Siamese guerrilla and several Siamese girls) attempts to destroy the bridge at its grand opening. With nothing given away, there's a twist that is too perfect to describe. The last 35-40 minutes are phenomenal, and it only gets stronger in the final 15 minutes when the twist is revealed. Talk about tension built to an almost unbearable level. You can't believe what you're seeing, especially when Nicholson makes an amazing decision. It is a finale that leaves you drained and hammers home Lean's anti-war message. In the end, what is accomplished and at what cost? Boulle's finale is a doozy, a true whopper, if you read the novel.

Sometimes movies just work, a synergy of everything assembled clicking together. It is a beautiful movie, and Arnold's score works in unison with that visual, especially when Warden, Shears, Joyce and Co. finally arrive deep in the jungle at the bridge site. It is the first time we're seeing the completed bridge, and there's something simple and beautiful about the structure. Arnold's score soars, and all the pieces fit together. I think that's the beauty of it. This is my favorite David Lean movie overall, and it deserves its status as an all-time classic.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): ****/****


  1. when they kept cutting to the escaped holden with the girl it took me right outta the suspense but i kinda dug this movie

  2. Yeah, the forced "love story" felt out of place, definitely.

  3. Really like the Nicholson-Saito stuff and Guinness's performance. The commando scenes aren't as good, though still entertaining. Excellent flick that holds up to rewatches.