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The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
first viewing

Are they both mad? Or am I going mad?...Or is it the sun?

This is one of those classic British films that are frequently shown on lazy Sunday afternoons and during holidays. I'm talking of films like The Great Escape, Zulu, The Dambusters and The Italian Job. And like all of those films, I had somehow avoided catching this one up until now. And what a great film I've been missing out on

It's a fantastically riveting film. A film which is the true embodiment of the term 'epic'. Too many are graced with that title undeservedly, but based on its size, scale and ambition this is certainly worthy. It truly is a thrilling spectacle helmed by David Lean, the first of his proclaimed 'epics' (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter and A Passage to India would follow)

While this is technically a 'war film' there is actually very little combat or violence on show. Instead the main confrontation is a psychological battle between two opposing colonels; prison camp commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and commander of the captured British soldiers, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). Neither man feels he can afford to lose his ground to the other, and will do whatever they feel is necessary. Nicholson in particular willingly endures great torture for his principals. It is surely greater pain and hardship than he could possibly have suffered if he had just agreed to build the bridge, but that doesn't matter to Nicholson.

And the reason this battle of wits is so engrossing is the performances of both Hayakawa and Guinness. Alec Guinness gives a wonderful, powerhouse performance as Colonel Nicholson. He really creates a very believable 'hero.' He is extremely determined, a heroic leader and is willing to suffer great pain for what he believes is right. I put hero in quotations however as I wonder at times if he crosses the line between heroic and determined, into selfish and demented. To stick to the principals of the Geneva Convention he puts the health of his fellow officers at risk, even resulting in the death of one of them. While he may in some ways be a great example of what a colonel should be, he is also a very flawed individual. Guinness is just about matched step for step by Hayakawa's turn as Saito.

By the end the relationship between Nicholson and Saito has developed so much that there now seems to be a kind of understanding and respect between them. It's also a little bit heartbreaking when you realise that Nicholson actually has been pushed over the edge into madness. What was once a noble undertaking, aimed at keeping up the spirits of the men and showing off the strength of the British spirit, has now become a dangerous obsession for Nicholson. There is a thin line between courage and insanity, and a thin line between doing solid, professional job and aiding the enemy. Sadly Nicholson crosses both.

The film also has an absolutely thrilling conclusion. Before the explosive finale, mounting tension is built as first the plan is put into motion, and then Nicholson starts to uncover the planned bombing of the bridge. And after so much building of tension throughout most of the film it finally explodes.

There is some truly gorgeous cinematography on show here, courtesy of Jack Hildyard. Through a mixture of some stunning locations and lush colours it looks tremendous; it creates a very dirty, dusty aspect as well as feeling rather claustrophobic at times. And last but not least all of these elements help to bring to life a fantastically written script.

The film garnered 8 nominations, eventually scooping 7, and for me each was richly deserved. Along with the Best Picture prize the individual winners included Alec Guinness, Jack Hildyard and David Lean himself.

Conclusion A tremendous film and an amazing accomplishment by Lean. With great direction, writing and acting I can certainly see why it rates as one of the all time great war films. It's so close to a 4.5 rating but as it's the first viewing I'm going to be a little harsh.