Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Bridge On The River Kwai

 The BFI ( British Film institute ) has this film at number eleven of the greatest British films ever made. The AFI ( American Film Institute ) has it as the thirteenth greatest film made, ever. Which ever way you look at it The Bridge on the River Kwai is without question a great film. When you look that such greats as The Godfather, Gone With the Wind, and Citizen Kane are deemed to surpass it then one just knows, when watching it, they are viewing something of genuine greatness.

 When I say The Godfather surpasses it then it is high praise indeed!  Kwai may be thirteenth, and The Godfather third, but in all reality there is so little between them it is almost impossible, if not pointless, to say why with any certainty. I'm saying this just to put into context just how great Kwai is as it deserves to rated as one of the very best films of all time. It reminds me of my uni assignments. An A+ was 20/20, whereas an A was 18/20. If The Godfather is an A+ and 20/20 the Kwai, is a 19/20. There really is so little between them as they are both as flawless as a film can get.

 The film is based on the novel by Frenchman Pierre Boulle. I have read it, but a least twenty years ago now. I didn't actually think much of it then, but must read it again being somewhat older, and hopefully wiser. I have never actually seen the movie in its entirety before. When it played on telly many moons ago, and I was much younger, its length and pacing, was too much for me to see through to the end. Things have certainly changed because the other night I sat in absolute awe of this greatest of films.

 I rented the double disc which has a thirty minute documentary on one which goes into the making of the film. It is well worth seeing because it is incredible the troubles this film ran into. When you realise as much you can only marvel at how the final product turned out. It is testament to all involved and their professionalism. Many great films have under gone such problems, and we can only wonder how such quality came out of adversity. Casablanca is a classic example, how good a film is it when compared to the behind the scenes goings on?! I do recommend a viewing of this short piece because it is certainly interesting especially if you watch it immediately after the film. It is interesting to note that Pierre Boulle was not consulted in anyway scriptural. The film is only based on his novel and not a straight making of it, ( even though it follows it fairly faithfully ).

 I've always been aware that Alec Guinness was awarded an Oscar for his performance in Kwai. But what is interesting is he was never considered for the role being quite literally the last resort!! When you watch the film with that in mind it really shows how fortunate it was for posterity he actually got the role. I have been a particular critic of the Oscars over the years. They are deeply flawed and too political in nature at times ( as are all the other major awards ). But they do often get it dead right. Alec Guinness' Oscar win for me personally is one of the greatest ever. Period.

 Kwai is a great film but it is Guinness' performance that makes it. It is unquestionably his film and rates as one of the greatest acting performances ever filmed. There have many Oscars awarded for sub-standard performances, and Oscars awarded for performances that weren't an actors best, but with Guinness it was dead right and shows how Oscars should be awarded. For the right
performance at the right time. 

 Alec Guinness may have put in a stellar performance but he was a pain to direct!! David Lean was a fine director with some very good films under his belt. Guinness felt the book was too anti-British and yet Lean did not. He and Guinness clashed many times over how his role as Nicholson was to be played. Guinness wanted Nicholson to be light hearted and amusing. Lean wanted him to be a quintessential English 'bore'. Lean prevailed, and it is to his credit as his view was correct. He got the best out of Guinness even if he wasn't happy with the character. He deserved his Oscar undoubtedly but Lean must take a huge amount of credit for Guinness' success.

 Interestingly Lean got so annoyed with Guinness that when he was finished he told him to 'fuck off' and was glad to have an American actor in Holden coming as he'd be less trouble!!! Holden provided one problem though because he had a very hairy chest and had to have it shaved each day before shooting!! He was apparently highly embarrassed by this. I have always been somewhat cold toward Holden as an actor. He is superb in Kwai but the AFI has him in their top twenty American actors and yet Paul Newman isn't there. I rate Newman a far superior actor than Holden, but that is the thing with best ofs etc, as they are only opinions and not set in concrete. They are really nothing more than fun ways of judging.

 Sessue Hayakawa, the Japanese actor who plays Saito was over sixty at the time and considered too old for the role. Having watched him I could not believe he was over sixty!! I think he is superb even though as an actor he brought his own problems. The main one being his lack of English as he was a mainly mainstream Japanese actor. He had enough to learn his lines but what he didn't realise was he had to know when to use them in a scene!! Lean pulled his hair out as he had to prod Hayakawa to say his lines at the correct times. It all seems farcical and I can only wonder at how this film was ever made!

 In its day Kwai was an incredibly expensive movie to make. It's $3 million budget seems almost laughable now but in 1957 it was huge money. This was well before CGI and there were no special effects of the type we take for granted today. This makes the film have an almost timeless air as Kwai hasn't dated visually as many films have from the same era. Again the behind the scenes stuff is really interesting. The blowing up of the brigde they only had one chance of capturing for instance. There were scenes that had to be filmed in the river itself and Lean was almost drowned at one stage. The train in the final scenes actually de-railed and all sorts of drama ensured to get it back on the tracks so the bridge blowing could be filmed.

 The bridge itself may look good but I believe is engineering nonsense. Apparently the makers wanted a bridge that was more asthetically pleasing than those actually constructed during the war. The film is riddled with historical in-accuracies which in their time caused much controversy, but I say that being based on a novel, and not actual fact, then its artistic license prevails. As a film it makes no pretence to historical acuracy. It certainly isn't demeaning to those who were prisoners of the Japanese as Boulle based the novel on his own experiences as a prisoner of war.

 Normally I'm a stickler for historical accuracy if a film is based on historical events. Kwai is very loosely based on the Burma Railroad. Much controversy arose when it was released regarding the portrayel of Nicholson. In the film he is depicted as collaborating with the Japanese in building the bridge. He does, but he has the motive of keeping the men disciplied, and to prove a point to the ( initially ) sadistically minded Saito. For right or wrong. Saito himself mirrors very well the prevelant Japanese view to prisoners of war. If they surrendered then they shamed themselves, and hence forfited thier rights.

 The film also doesn't depict the awful conditions the prisoners were kept and worked under. In 1957 it was deemed unsuitable for audiences to view such condiotions. It is somewhat sanitised and much of the critism of the film must be dis-counted as it is strictly fictional. Even though Nicholson helped the Japanese build the bridge in all reality under the real  circumstances the sabotage and deliberate slowness of the work did happen. The allied soldiers done their unmost under the conditions to not co-operate.

 The whole film is superb from start to finish. For me it has two stand out scenes. The first being when the prisoners are marching into the camp whistling that famous of tunes the Colonel Bogey March. It is a Great War tune that apparently had some quite ribald lines. It was whistled as they entered the camp as an 'up you' to the Japanese as the lyrics were mocking of Engalnd's enemies. The secongd great scene is towards the end when Nicholson and Saito meet on the bridge. Nicholson goes into his army carrer with his back turned to Saito. Guinness argued with Lean over having his back turned but Lean prevailed saying it would turn out just right. I think he is right and I think cinematic history has proved him so also. It is for me personally one of most favorite cinematic scenes.

 Like all the truely great films it not only has several great and memorable scenes it has a memorable line. Who can ever forget 'Madness, madnes' as the very final words of the film after the bridge has been destroyed? Nicholson may find something of re-demption in questioning himself as he falls onto the detonator saying 'what have I done?', but 'Madness, madness'' sums up the whole film in two words.
 The Bridge on the River Kwai is certainly a film with an interesting history behind it. It follows the novel very well except the book sees the bridge un-demolished. I strongly suggest you get the two disc set and watch the documentary on the making. After you do you'll only sit back and admire the film even more. It was made under some trying conditions in Sri Lanka, and yet the end result became one of the greatest films ever made. What a triumph over adversity, and when you realise that Alec Guinness was virtually a last gasp choice for the role of Nicholson you can only shake your head in wonder because of the fact he put in one the very, very best Oscar winning roles EVER.

  I absolutely loved every minute of this film. It has a run time of 161 minutes but it is perfectly paced. At no time does it drag or bog down. It is one of those films that you don't want to end!! For all the controversy in the end this film is, and will always remain, a masterpiece of the cinema. It has dated extremely well like all truely great films do. If you haven't seen it then I recommend you do. It is a film that is so good you can only wonder at why films can't be made as good any more. It is a very good example of not only a true cinematic epic, but is what real film making is all about. I would dearly love to have the opportunity of seeing it on the big screen where it belongs.

The site of the bridge in 2004
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The actual Bridge on the River Kwai in Thailand taken in 2004. The steel trusses are from Japanese war reparations as the originals were destroyed by Allied bombing during the war.



  1. ah, very well written review! A pleasure to read. I am ashamed to say out of the classics I love I have not even seen this one. if I am not mistaken (which I often am) this was released the same year is Lumet's debut with Twelve Angry Men, which I loved. Anyways, thanks for following me!

  2. Don't worry there are many many many classics I myself have not seen!! This is a great film though and well deserving of its place as one of the very best films ever made.