As regular readers know, I have been watching all the movies that received the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1957 winner, The Bridge on the River Kwai, directed by David Lean and starring William Holden and Alec Guinness.
A World War II prison camp movie, the film pits British resolve against Japanese honor. At heart, though, the film is a critique of war in general and what it does to the men involved.
The other competitors for Best Picture that year were Peyton Place, Sayonara, 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution.
The film takes place in a Japanese POW camp in Southeast Asia, where we meet Commander Shears (William Holden), an American who has survived harsh treatment that killed many others.
The prisoners are being forced to build a bridge over the River Kwai, in order to complete a supply line to be used by the Japanese. At the beginning movie, few prisoners survive, and Shears is determined to stay on sick leave as long as possible, to avoid the backbreaking labor that could lead to his death.
Then, a captured British unit arrives, led by the particularly determined Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who immediately gets into a battle of wills with the head of the POW camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Eventually, under the British commander's example, the prisoners rally, building a bridge that Colonel Nicholson begins to see as an opportunity to build morale among his troops and to serve as a lasting testament to the capabilities of the British soldier.
In the meantime, Shears, who has escaped, finds himself drafted to lead a small group of soldiers back to the prison camp, with the goal of blowing up the bridge.
The action of the film, like the book, is loosely based on the true story of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey and his confrontations with the real-life Saito. The real-life Saito was much more reasonable than portrayed in the movie, and Toosey spoke up on Saito's behalf at the war-crimes tribunal after the war, saving him from the gallows. The author of the book had been a prisoner of war in Thailand and based Colonel Nicholson on various French officers.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is remarkable for being one of the first postwar films to depict the Japanese as anything other than two-dimensional. Colonel Saito is prideful, yes, but subject, just as the British soldiers are, to the will of his commanders. Hayakawa portrays him as a man whose rough exterior hides a vulnerable side, as he copes with warring internal forces, forced to compromise his own principles in order to please his superiors.
The three-hour movie falls neatly into two halves: the first half being the contest of wills between the two officers and the second half being the building of the bridge. Thus, the first half is much darker, with the second half feeling almost like a dark comedy. It's almost a combination of two types of war movies: the type that depicts a hero rising about a devastating trial, and a satirical examination of the human foolishness and pride that always enters into human conflict.
Guinness is perfectly cast as the British commander. Though not a physically imposing man, he projects a confidence in his erect posture and clipped voice that makes his Colonel Nicholson a force with which to be reckoned. Likewise, Holden is well cast as the American who has a brash sort of appeal but turns out to be a very complicated character.
If the screenplay writer, Carl Foreman, had his way, Humphrey Bogart would have played Shears, but Columbia Studios refused to allow Bogart out of another project. Cary Grant was briefly considered as Colonel Nicholson, but he had flopped in a serious role in the 1950 movie, Crisis, which concerned producer Sam Spiegel. The role was offered to both Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier, who turned it down. Even Guinness initially passed up the role, saying, "I can't imagine anyone wanting to watch a stiff-upper-lip British colonel for two a half hours." Fortunately, he reconsidered.
David Lean, whose final film, A Passage to India, would earn him another Oscar nomination (though not a win), was not the first choice to direct. Howard Hawks was asked but declined, fearing a box-office failure
Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman were on the black list and thus went uncredited, with the sole writing credit going to Pierre Boulle, who wrote the original novel in French. Thus, Boulle won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, even though he spoke no English! In 1984, the Oscar was retroactively awarded to Wilson and Foreman, although Wilson did not live to see it. Foreman died the name after it was announced. When the film was restored, their names were added to the credits..
Shot on location in Ceylon, in a lush landscape, the film easily evokes the time and place of the story. Shooting it on a sound stage would have been next to impossible. Hundreds of Asian extras also help with the authenticity. The bridge cost $250,000 to build and construction was begun before anyone was cast. During the filming, director Lean nearly drowned when he was swept away by a river current but was rescued by one of the actors, Geoffrey Home. Assistant director John Kerrison was killed and a make-up man badly injured in a car crash on the way to one of the locations.
This movie takes a critical look at the war, so that viewers are likely to come away from this film uttering the words of one of its characters: "Madness! Madness!"
Rating (out of 5): ****
War is not a game of cricket.