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The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)::rating::5::rating::5

It may have all the aesthetics of a big, burly action epic, but don’t get it twisted:  The Bridge on the River Kwai is a nuanced, character-based drama, and a philosophical rumination on the absurdities of human nature.  Yes, Kwai has explosions and combat, but even those are just an extension of the cerebral debate that rages at its core.  In the end, this is a film that’s unafraid to ask questions without obvious answers.  Director David Lean fades out on a note of surprising melancholia.  Bold, brawny filmmaking may have won Kwai a boatload of Oscars, but it’s this deceptive braininess that has made it an enduring classic.

We’ll circle back to that in a bit.  For anyone who’s never experienced this cinematic milestone, let me give you the Reader’s Digest version of the plot:  As WWII rages, a battalion of British troops are herded into a Japanese POW camp.  They’re so deep in the Burmese jungle, escape is believed to be impossible.  As such, the camp commandant (Sessue Hayakawa) urges his captives to throw themselves into work.  Conveniently, a rail bridge needs to be built across the Kwai River, thus linking Burma to Rangoon.  Colonel Saito, the commander, promises the men they will be treated well, provided they complete the task on schedule.

Almost instantly, a battle of wills springs up in the camp.  Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), the British commander, is aghast to learn that his officers will work manual labor alongside enlisted men.  Not only is this against the Geneva Convention, it’s just…uncivilized.  His senior staff will do no such thing.  In retaliation, Saito loads Nicholson into a hotbox, where he can broil until his spirit breaks.  Only, Nicholson doesn’t break, and days begin to pass.  This puts Saito in an impossible situation:  Does he simply give in and look weak?  Or, does he risk that Nicholson dies in solitary, and possibly end up with a prisoner uprising?

Meanwhile, Commander Shears (William Holden) watches this personality clash from his infirmary bed.  He’s a charming, shifty American, who manipulates Saito’s system to ensure his own survival.  If that means bribing the guards, faking illness, or digging graves for his fallen comrades, then so be it.  As Nicholson goes in the cooler, Shears can only shake his head in disgust: What good is such fanatical devotion to duty if it no one lives to tell of it?

Finally, there’s Major Clipton (James Donald).  He’s the British doctor, and the film’s sturdiest voice of reason.  As such, Clipton can scarcely believe the lunacy at work around him.  Saito and Nicholson are fatally proud and stubborn, even at the risk of hundreds of lives.  Shears is maddeningly passive and self-serving, two callous traits that could prove equally destructive.

The film’s turning point comes when Shears makes a daring escape.  Somehow, he navigates the jungle thicket, and gets rescued by Burmese civilians.  They get him to a British army hospital, where he eventually gets strong enough to subsist on a diet of dry martinis and blonde nurses.  Just as Shears is about to settle into this cushy existence, some British officers show up with a wacky plan.  Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) proposes to lead a commando team back into the jungle to blow up the Kwai River bridge.  As Shears recently stumbled across this terrain, he would be the perfect guide.  At first, the American is nonplussed at the idea of traipsing back into that humid hellhole.  Still, the Brits make an offer he can’t refuse, and back in they go.

A moral and philosophical quandary emerges when Nicholson overcorrects in the name of his troops’ morale and safety.  He resolves to construct the bridge as an enduring monument to British precision, thus ensuring his men will survive the war.  As Clipton points out, Nicholson’s sudden exuberance and perfectionism borders on treason.  Still the colonel responds with a shrug:  If they have no choice, why not give it their all?

The Kwai River bridge serves as a hub for all these differing views on loyalty and courage.  Nicholson, Saito, and Shears all see different things upon its completion.  For anyone who hasn’t seen Kwai, I won’t give away the finale, except to say that it’s startling in both violence and emotional ambiguity.  War films of this era were reliably one-dimensional, so it was an act of bravery to end such a bold, epic tale in such a way.  In a scene littered with floating corpses and charred ruins, war itself is the true enemy.

On a cinematic level, Kwai is a masterpiece on every front.  Lean would begin a stretch of ambitious, masterful films (Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago would follow) that would feature many of the same hallmarks as this one:  Lush cinematography (Jack Hildyard would win the Oscar), memorable music (ditto Malcolm Arnold, who would score a hit with “Colonel Bogey March), and legendary performances.  Holden is perfectly cast as the casual, carousing Shears, who slowly runs out of angles to work.  Donald, who would also memorably play another POW in The Great Escape, is also outstanding as the perpetually exasperated Clipton.  Hayakawa gives depth to Saito, making him more than just a brutal, scowling monster.  With all that said, Guinness would deservedly win the Oscar for his turn as Nicholson, a man whose pride, obsessiveness, and inflexibility point him to the same doom as Saito.

Truth is, I can heap praise on Kwai for another 1000 words, but let me boil it all down for you.  This is just one of those movies you have to see.  Lean, working with blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, delivers an intricate masterpiece that was ahead of its time.  On the surface, this looks like a straightforward war film, or maybe a thoughtful character study.  Watch it a few more times, and you’ll see that it’s actually a lot more than either of those things.

161 min.  PG.  AMC+.

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