My father is not a big moviegoer, but there are a few films that he considers seminal viewing experiences for everyone. 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' is one of them, and when I was much younger, he repeatedly recommended the film to me as "the best he'd ever seen" until I finally watched it some time during high school. Whether I was influenced by him or not, I did really enjoy the film, but it was several years (and several more viewings) before I ever began to see or understand what it was that struck a chord so deeply with him, much less moviegoers and critics the world over.
Of course, tons of awards, huge box office numbers and of course my adolescent approval are not always accurate measures of a film's actual quality. And in the meantime, several theatrical and DVD releases have come and gone, culminating in Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's gorgeous new Blu-ray, which gives the film a clarity and luster that it may never have had, and bolsters arguments for its greatness with a fairly massive spate of bonus content. So the question remains: Is 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' as great a film as has always been considered? This week's "Shelf Life" aims to find out.
The Facts: 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' was first released on October 2, 1957, and earned more than $27 million against its rumored $3 million budget. The film won seven Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director for David Lean, Best Actor for Alec Guinness, Best Adapted Screenplay for Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman and Pierre Boulle, Best Score for Malcolm Arnold, Best Editing for Peter Taylor, and Best Cinematography for Jack Hildyard. Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but he did not win. Additionally, the film won three BAFTAs (including Best British Film) and three Golden Globes (including Best Drama).
Currently 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' retains a 95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, owing its imperfect score to two critics, one of whose (initials "PH") dismissive, two sentence review fails to sufficiently defend his or her contrarian view. (Although I generally try not to comment on reviews like these, the capsule write-up quite frankly feels like exactly the kind of dickish, smug write-off that a British critic would give a film that brought a successful English actor and director to Hollywood.) Otherwise, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and ranks Number 11 on the British Film Institute's list of greatest British films.
What Still Works: An adaptation of the novel 'The Bridge Over the River Kwai' by Pierre Boulle, Lean's film was never intended to be an accurate depiction of any real-life events, but like the source material, it uses the historical backdrop of the construction of the Burma Railway to tell a compelling story about a battle of wills, a matter of principle, and a test of resolve. In all three regards, the film is a triumph: even without the WWII context, the clash of cultures and personalities between Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) and Colonel Saito (Hayakawa) would be fascinating, but the fact that Nicholson uses the letter of the law to bolster his own sense of proud resilience makes their conflict that much more dramatic.
As Saito says to Nicholson, "You are defeated but you have no shame. You are stubborn but you have no pride. You endure but you have no courage." In terms of Nicholson's obstinacy, his observations are all true, although through the filter of Saito's own pride and determination they seem like manipulative insults. But as an audience we are not granted the convenience of easy identification with one character or another; rather, we see each of the main characters' perspectives with equal weight, and more importantly, with equal legitimacy, and as a result we care about the outcome of these conflicts (and the film as a whole) without necessarily being aggressively invested in one point of view over another.
Cinematically, Lean was always adventuresome, and never settled for imagery that was less than epic, and on 'Bridge' he's no different. The bridge itself isn't a model or matte painting but an actual, full-size bridge that the director started building almost a year before production, when he hadn't yet cast any actors. His ability to capture the beauty and the arduousness of the natural world that encircles the prison camp, as well as the routes taken in and out of it by Commander Shears (William Holden), is something simply spectacular to behold. And the fascinating transition the story makes in its focus, from that initial battle of wills between Saito and Nicholson to the efforts of Shears and his team to destroy the bridge, works effortlessly, even if it sometimes seems meandering in its forward momentum.
What Doesn't Work: As terrific as the movie mostly is, at two hours and 41 minutes, it could probably be a little bit shorter, although I admit I'm hard-pressed to suggest any scenes which could or should particularly be pared down. (Perhaps a few of the scenes involving the organization of Shears' team could be considered superfluous.) But even though that almost bifurcated structure seems slightly unwieldy for audiences the first time they see it, it really does come together in a profound and moving way at the end, particularly as Nicholson succumbs to his own pride to maddening effect before realizing precisely what he is doing, and what he should do.
What's The Verdict: Like there was ever any mystery, 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' holds up like gangbusters, and quite frankly deserves every ounce of the acclaim it has enjoyed for the past five decades. Again, SPHE's new Blu-ray makes the film look better than ever, really giving some of those shots a truly glorious clarity, but it's the direction and storytelling, and especially the characters that make the film such a marvelous piece of entertainment, a character study, and a cultural commentary all at once.