The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Alec Guinness as Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai

Bridge Over Troubled Water

When you think of the war movie genre many of the most popular movies focus on the action, be it the secretive operations of a crack force to blow up oil dumps or prisoner of wars staging an audacious escape attempts. And whilst it would be fair to say that director David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai" has an action element it is more than just a movie about the battle. In fact "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is a war movie about the madness of war, the madness of rules and expectations and how it affects those caught in the middle of it. Of course with it being a David Lean movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is also a visual treat with brilliantly constructed scenes and top notch acting and as such does deserve its regular place high up in the list of great war movies.

Having surrendered to the Japanese Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness - The Ladykillers) and his men are taken to a Prisoner of War camp in Indochina where they are ordered by Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) to assist in building a bridge over the river Kwai. But with Saito expecting the British Officers to also help it brings on a battle of wills between him and Col. Nicholson who refuses to order his officers to do manual labour. The men admire Nicholson's resolve and when he finally wins out over Saito loyally do what he says and that is to build the Bridge but to do it with pride and make it a monument to Britain. But soon it becomes apparent that Nicholson's obsessive ness in getting the bridge built is that it has become a monument to him and his leadership. Meanwhile an escaped prisoner called Shears (William Holden - Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing) finds himself heading back into danger alongside Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkins - The Cruel Sea) and Lt. Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) as they head to the Kwai to blow up the bridge.

Jack Hawkins and Geoffrey Horne in The Bridge on the River Kwai

"The Bridge on the River Kwai" can be split into 3 parts with the first being the battle of wills between Col. Nicholson and Col. Saito as Nicholson stands his ground over Saito's blatant abuse. We watch as Saito expects Nicholson and his fellow officers to do manual labour and work on the bridge despite officers doing manual labour contravening the Geneva agreement. And so we have Nicholson's British resolve refusing to back down to the point it borders on madness as lives are put in danger. All of which highlights how crazy war can be as Nicholson expects others to risk their lives for a set of morals and rules which be believes in.

This battle of wills between Nicholson and Saito is played out as Nicholson is placed in the oven, a tiny corrugated hut as punishment until finally Nicholson wins out over Saito in a moral victory. All of which leads to the next element of madness as Nicholson then embraces the bridge building seeing it as a way to keep the moral of the men up and keeping them drilled as a unit. Now in one sense this part makes sense as we watch the men come together building this bridge with a sense of pride but at the same time we see how this goes from being a way of keeping the men busy to something more personal for Nicholson, a lasting memory to his leadership. And as such we watch how his determination to have the bridge finished on time not only turns him into a Japanese collaborator but also shows his selfish side as he gets men off their sick beds to work.

And then you have the third party which interweaves its way through the story of Nicholson as we have American Shears who miraculously manages to escape yet on reaching safety and recuperated is then forced into returning as part of a mission to blow the bridge up. But the madness is not just from Shears being forced into returning but the sheer determination of Maj. Warden to complete this mission despite being injured and bleeding heavily. All of which leads to more madness as everything comes together for an explosive end.

All of this combines not only to create a thoroughly entertaining story which has more depth than your run of the mill war movie but also one which explores issues not seen in most war movies such as the madness of war. And as such whilst we get plenty of action and elements which you expect from war movies, such as dangerous escapes, gun fire and so on we are just as entertained by how Col. Nicholson changes, how he takes over the running of the bridge building and rather amusingly sidelining Col. Saito in the process.

Because so much of "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is focussed on the character of Col. Nicholson much of the movies success comes from an unsurprisingly brilliant performance from Alec Guinness and I say unsurprising because Guinness was a genius actor. In the first part he plays Nicholson in a very stiff upper lip way, he is a proud Brit who refuses to be broken even when a prisoner and it is all very believable. But it is just as believable when we watch Nicholson win the battle of wills and take over the construction, making the natural humour of Saito being sidelined work without making it feel wrong. So strong is the performance of Guinness that the performances from William Holden, Jack Hawkins, James Donald and Geoffrey Horne are all over shadowed despite no one putting in anything other than a great performance.

Plus of course there is also the fact that "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is a David Lean movie and it is an epic movie with brilliant sets, stunning camera work and a sense of scale you don't see in most movies. But the best thing about this is that whilst "The Bridge on the River Kwai" has all of Lean's epic style it is minimal on padding. Every scene has a point be it moving on the story or building up a character and so there is never a dull moment where the camera lingers too long or some superfluous sub plot encroaches. It's because of this that at 161 minutes "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is one of the most packed movies you will watch, but because everything is important time just flies by.

What this all boils down to is that "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is not only a top war movie but also a top movie. It not only serves up some of those expected elements of the war genre but it also serves up something more original which is the madness of war. Plus of course with it being a David Lean movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is epic but not drawn out epic like some of his movies but one which is packed full of story and character building.