The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Almost Everybody´s War Movie Darling

Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe but until a few days ago I had never watched The Bridge on the River Kwai. I couldn’t give you any specific reason. Just never happened. I have never been to New York either. Just because something is great, famous or whatever not doesn’t mean everybody has experienced it. While I can go on blogging about war movies without having visited New York, it wasn’t any longer acceptable that I had not watched one of the all-time favourite war movies of so many. One of the six that made it on the list about which I wrote the other day.

So I did it. I watched it and… As odd as this is, it wasn’t what I had expected. I am not talking about the story. I was quite familiar with it as is almost everybody. No, it was the cinematography that stunned me. This is a lush and astonishingly beautiful movie with intense and memorable pictures. As I read after having watched it, this striving for esthetics has been criticized (especially the cute girls and half-naked men in shallow pools… William Holden had to shave his chest hair off and we can see him in every single of his half-naked scenes with glistening torso. Can’t say that impressed me much but it is an interesting detail).

Beautiful pictures, together with great acting, a gripping story, an anti-war statement, the juxtaposition of  British and American characters and an astonishing ending make a great combination. There is something for everybody in it, I guess. No wonder it got 7 Academy Awards including best picture, best director, best actor (Alec Guinness), best writing, best music, best film editing, best cinematography.

The story can be told in a few sentences. A Japanese prison camp somewhere between Rangoon and Bangkok. Colonel Saito, one of those sadistic officer types, forces the prisoners, including their officers to help building a bridge over the River Kwai. Col. Nicholson, the highest ranking British officer in the camp, opposes and offends him. As a consequence he is sent to a very harsh solitary confinement. He is in a certain way as stubborn and fanatic as Saito himself and won’t give in. Somehow though they realise that they need each other and come to an agreement. Nicholson will supervise the construction of the bridge that will be built by British prisoners only. The bridge is meant to bear testimony for future generations to the endurance and skills of British soldiers.

The American Shears (William Holden) is also in this camp. He can’t understand any of this. For him it is important to survive. Honor and courage are secondary. The only thing he wants is to escape. One night he manages it finally and makes it back to high command. There he is told that he will have to go back, accompanying a little troop, as he knows the terrain. It has been decided that the bridge will be blown up. From this moment on two stories run in parallel. The one in the camp and the other one following the little troop through the jungle (the movie has actually been filmed in Sri Lanka, should anyone wonder).

I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it. Let me just say it is not a happy one.

I think one of the most important elements in this movie is certainly the juxtaposition of the two extremes as they are personified by the British officer Nicholson and the American Shears. Nicholson’s way is slightly outdated and not very life-affirming. Alec Guinness is memorable in this role. Apparently he turned it down at first because he thought it was too anti-British (I can’t blame him).

The Bridge on the River Kwai is based on the novel by Pierre Bulle. The ending is different from the one in the book though. Both are based on true events. The Japanese had indeed British prisoners build a railway line from Rangoon to Bangkok. Countless people died. Many years after the war the Japanese government apologized for these events.