Review written by John McGinn
Outside of a small village in Sri Lanka the village chief surveyed the massive bridge he and his villagers built in the rugged and unforgiving jungle. The villagers had spent over eight months building the bridge by hand with only the help of elephants to create a ninety feet high, and forty five feet long bridge, which at the time was the largest structure in the then British Ceylon. The village chief and his villagers believed the bridge would live on for eternity only for the bridge to be destroyed only a short time later. Yet the chief was correct the bridge would live on just not in real world, but in the cinematic world being part of one of the most authentic action sequences created in film history.
The road to the climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai was a painstakingly long one cost a tremendous amount of money, man power along with many near death instances. When the famed producer Sam Spiegel picked up The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle, and no sooner had he started reading the real life story of the Japanese use of prisoners of war to build a railway from Singapore to what is now Myanmar that the producer new he was destined to bring the book to life on film. Spiegel quickly secured the rights to the novel, and locking a deal with perhaps the best director at the time, and perhaps one of the best and influential directors of all time in David Lean. That left the all-important task of casting the leads in his film in James Donald, William Holden, Alec Guinness, and Jack Hawkins, which wouldn’t come easy for the famed producer or director as they would disagree in particular with Alec Guinness. While Donald and Hawkins quickly agreed to be a part of the project Guinness was reluctant to take on the role of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson as he had up to that time been a primarily a comedic actor, and didn’t think he was right for the role of the war weary Nicholson who is driven mad by his imprisonment by the Japanese yet Spiegel wouldn’t take no for an answer as he truly believed Alec Guinness was the perfect fit for the role, and neither did David Lean, but through his sheer doggedness Spiegel convinced his director, and got Guinness to finally agree to the project. Now Spiegel getting William Holden would be a different matter. At the time Holden was the biggest, and one of the most sought out actors in Hollywood thanks to his outstanding performances in films like Stalag 17, Sunset Boulevard, and The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Spiegel again with just his stubbornness and determination, and nearly a year and half got Holden to be a part of The Bridge on the River Kwai as Major Shears, and casting his stars would be a walk in the park compared to the production of Spiegel’s passion project.
Many of his peers, and even Columbia Pictures suggested that Spiegel produce his film, and especially the climax on a Hollywood back lot, and small scale models like many films at the time were made, but Spiegel and director David Lean wanted the audience to experience what the soldiers forced to live through as well as creating a climax that would be remembered for years, and authenticity could bring that feel to film. Through delays, a ballooning budget that reached three million dollars leeches as well as numerous near death incidents, and the titled bridge nearly being destroyed before Lean could reach the climax, and what a climax it is. Spiegel as well has having the bridge build he had tracks laid down, and bought authentic train cars to use for the climactic scene using no models or special effects Spiegel and Lean only had one shot at filming the climax or all the crews time, and work would have been for nothing. Six cameras were used to film simultaneously to capture the scene from every angle as the bridge exploded bringing to an end the tumultuous production that was The Bridge on the River Kwai.
I guess some who unfortunately haven’t heard of or seen The Bridge on the River Kwai would like to know some details about the plot of the film. It is basically simple enough. The film is based on actual events taking place during World War II in Japanese controlled Burma (Myanmar) where a prison camp filled of British soldier’s will be forced to build a railway and bridge that will lead into India, which Japan has eyes on. The plot follows Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and Commander/Major Shears (William Holden) as the two men make two drastically different decisions as one wants to build the best bridge possible that will stand the test of time, and the other who is out to destroy it. That’s all I’m saying about the plot except during World War II, the late 1940’s and during the 1950’s many American war films took sides, and were overly patriotic, which wouldn’t change until the 1960’s and after with films like The Great Escape, Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Lawrence of Arabia that chose not really to take sides, but to focus on other thing like the people fighting the wars, and the toll it took on them. The Bridge on the River Kwai is perhaps the first war film to do so, as there is no real bad guy or right and wrong answers just circ*mstances each character is forced into. Even the ending dialog “Madness! Madness … madness!” by Major Clipton (James Donald) is ambiguous. Some believe David Lean, and Sam Spiegel are talking about war itself, others just about the characters actions in the film or perhaps they are talking about both, but there is no wrong answer to the question.
He played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. I have no doubt that is the first name, and maybe only name or film that comes to mind when people think of Alec Guinness. That one role in the original Star Wars trilogy would have him remembered in pop culture lore for the rest of his life and beyond yet it is also funny because playing Obi-Wan Kenobi was far from his best acting performance or film. There were his performances in Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Tunes of Glory, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, which all had better performances than his role in Star Wars, and better films as well. Guinness’s performance as Nicholson is remarkable. The intensity that Guinness brings to the role can be seen and felt through the film, helping to cement Guinness as a serious actor that would open more doors for him as an actor as well as win him an academy award for best actor. Guinness even overshadowed the great William Holden who again delivered an outstanding performance. James Donald in his supporting role Major Clipton gives a memorable performance as the voice of reason or conscious in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
In a day and age where directors and studios rely heavily, perhaps too much on sets, models, special effects, and CGI it is almost inconceivable that a modern studio would allow the freedom that Spiegel and Lean were given or that they were able to bring to life their vision without models, sets or special effects, which makes the production of The Bridge on the River Kwai that much more remarkable. Then there is the David Lean who brought was the master of epic films that include Great Expectations, Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Passage to India. His direction of turbulent ship that was The Bridge on the River Kwai from the actors to the crew was wonderfully orchestrated. David Lean would go on to win an academy award for best director and picture.
There are certain films, performances, and moments that should be remembered, and The Bridge on the River Kwai has all three of those. The Bridge on the River Kwai should be remembered by film students as how produce a film, and by audiences as a one of those films they have to see along with the likes of The Seven Samurai, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, All Quiet on the Western Front, Schindler’s List, and Paths of Glory to name a few as The Bridge on the River Kwai has an emotional and moving war story filled with outstanding performances by Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, James Donald, Sessue Hayakawa, and William Holden as well as beautiful cinematography, and remarkable directing by David Lean making The Bridge on the River Kwai one of the best films of all time, and a must for anyone who loves war films or is simply a film lover.
5 out of 5 Stars