by Nathan Sacks
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film with strikingly few flaws. It was labeled a classic immediately upon release, and its critical reputation has remained more or less intact since. It was not only the biggest box office success of 1957, but also won nearly every major Oscar that year—Best Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Score, Editing, and Cinematography. In every way, it has held up well. It is a shining example to the potentials of commercial cinema and a rebuke to those who think true greatness cannot operate with a large budget under the Hollywood studio system. The challenge, then, in discussing this most canonized of films, is to say something new about it.
Director: David Lean
Producer: Sam Spiegel
Writers: Pierre Boulle, Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson
Cinematographer: Jack Hildyard
Editor: Peter Taylor
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne, André Morell
Genre: Adventure / Drama / War
Countries: UK / USA
US Theatrical Release: December 14, 1957
US Distributor: Sony
Kwai will always be best-known to casual cinema fans for David Lean’s vibrant, moving camera, his staging of thrilling action scenes, and his amazing eye for the beautiful jungle settings. Surely Lean deserves all the credit for this and more. But the greatness of Kwai begins with its script, which is among the best of its time. Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman worked on the screenplay, separately and at different periods in the film’s gestation. It was adapted from Pierre Boulle’s novel (Boulle also wrote Planet of the Apes, which Wilson would also adapt for the screen).
Foreman and Wilson were both victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Wilson was labeled an uncooperative witness by the HUAC and had then left for France, where he attempted to circumvent the blacklist by writing for European productions under various pseudonyms. This worked, but only because Wilson was among the greatest wordsmiths of his era. The large majority of blacklisted screenwriters were not this lucky. Neither Wilson nor Foreman were credited for the film; the screenplay was said to be “written by Pierre Boulle,” who did not know English and did not contribute even a word to the adaptation, but nonetheless won the Oscar for it.
Wilson was previously responsible for one of the few notably pro-Communist films of the era, Salt of the Earth. But Kwai lacks that pro-Communist sentiment, although there are certainly strains of anti-imperialism throughout. And not just from an anti-Japanese standpoint, either; one of the remarkable things about this film is how ultimately critical it is of British interventionism and colonialism. Alec Guinness’ Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson is the embodiment of this critique, although that does not become clear until the exciting climax.
The script for Kwai is great, the dialogue so rich and simultaneously descriptive (without feeling expository) and revealing of character. Arguably, Wilson would surpass it with his script for Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, which is perhaps the most endlessly quotable and delightful screenplay of its era. Both of these works are so rich and substantive that they should be taught in high school English classes next to Shakespeare and Dickens. Lawrence is probably the superior work, but only barely. Even if Lean had never directed anything else, he would still deserve his reputation as one of the world’s greatest directors for even two films of this incredible caliber.
The Bridge on the River Kwai begins with a British regiment voluntarily surrendering in a Japanese prison camp led by the proud Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). The reasons for their surrender are bureaucratic and strategic, but nevertheless Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) follows the rules to the letter. Immediately, a bond seems to be forged between Saito and Guinness, who are united by their matched sense of duty and feelings that unseen superiors are using them callously.
The film is lengthy, at 161 minutes, but does not feel it because it still carries a traditional three-act structure. The first act depicts the power struggles between Nicholson and Saito, as the former refuses to allow officers to help build a strategic bridge for the enemy. Nicholson is so devoted to the rules of law and the Geneva Convention that he risks the safety of everyone around him and is locked for weeks in an iron box in the hot sun. At the same time, an American POW named Shears (William Holden, my all time favorite actor), sick of digging ditches for his friends, attempts to escape the camp. The second act begins with Saito finally relenting and allowing Nicholson and the other officers to supervise rather than provide manual labor. Nicholson responds by taking on the bridge project with a fervor and drive that seems curious, even latently treasonous to his fellow officers. A deep bond forms between Saito and Nicholson, and we learn about Saito’s motivations and the strictness of the Japanese military. At the same time, a team of British Commandos in Ceylon devises a plan to blow up the bridge. The final act consists of the commando team’s infiltration of the camp and their attempts to blow the bridge that Nicholson took such pains to build. This is among the most thrilling and action-packed sequences in cinema history, and it is the point at which all of the character and plot element converge, and then take off in unexpected directions.
The performances in the film are perfect. According to Alec Guinness’ autobiography, he was not Lean’s first choice to play Nicholson. Charles Laughton was originally intended to play the character, which is hard to imagine, especially in those scenes where Guinness is sick and emaciated from his imprisonment. The great thing about Guinness is that he really sells this character’s innate sense of goodness and duty, which makes him still sympathetic when that same sense of duty causes him to do wrong. Nicholson is the hero for the film’s 2.5 hours, and becomes the villain only in the last 10 minutes, and it makes perfect sense for the character’s arc. Whenever some think piece drags on about how television is superior to the movies these days because it allows more time to develop the characters, point them to a film like this. It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend with Nicholson because Wilson and Foreman’s script, and Lean’s camera, draw him sharply and vividly in a manner of minutes.
Hayakawa is similarly great, though his acting style is more internal and guarded. Where Nicholson’s motivation is his duty, Saito’s motivation is his fear of failure, particularly the severe Japanese view of failure. At one point, he makes clear to Nicholson that if the bridge is not completed by a certain date, he will be forced to kill himself. Hayakawa was a trailblazing Japanese actor in the silent films, an era when those roles were mostly played by Whites in makeup. He played many vicious and terrible stereotypes in those days, but his performances always bore dignity and humanity. This is his greatest role, and he and Guinness are unforgettable together.
William Holden is great too, as the American who refuses to hold any illusions about the necessity of war. The Bridge on the River Kwai may not be exactly anti-war, but its position is that war is rarely necessary, and it drives good men to madness too often. What else could the film’s famous final words mean? (I won’t reveal them here, but they are worth the wait.) The Bridge on the River Kwai gives lie to the notion that Hollywood blockbusters always have pat or happy climaxes. The conclusion here is nothing like a Disney happy ending: it is messy, chaotic, and shocking, but also very exciting and thrillingly filmed by Lean and edited by Peter Taylor, and contains one of cinema’s great non-CGI explosions.
The Bridge on the River Kwai has no flaws, so what else is there to say about it? Only, “go see it.” Like Lawrence of Arabia, this film is a classic for a reason. It needs to be seen, studied, and pored over by future generations. That it is also as audaciously entertaining as any action movie you will ever see is simply another factor that contributes to its greatness.