The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

reviewed by
Karl Rackwitz


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The Bridge on the River Kwai
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(UK 1957)
German title: "Die Brücke am Kwai"

Directed by David Lean; Written by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, based on Pierre Boulle's novel; Cinematography by Jack Hildyard; Music by Malcolm Arnold; Edited by Peter Taylor; Produced by Sam Spiegel; With Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne

**½ out of **** (PASSABLE)

In this year's July the American Film Institute (AFI) chose David Lean's war picture "The Bridge on the River Kwai" as number 13 on its list of the 100 greatest American movies. Not to mention that "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is a British picture, the AFI's decision expresses in the first place the same lapse of taste that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences showed in 1958 by giving Lean's film seven Oscars. Much better movies came away empty-handed in those days, among them Lumet's "12 Angry Men", Wilder's "Witness for the Prosecution" and Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" (the latter wasn't nominated in any category).

"The Bridge on the River Kwai" is set in Burma in 1943. A batallion of British soldiers in Japanese war captivity is forced by the Japanese to build a strategically momentous railway bridge over the River Kwai. But the British commanding officer, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), insists - corresponding to the Geneva Conventions - that his officers needn't work as simple workmen. Struggling toughly, Colonel Nicholson forces the Japanese commandant, Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), to give way in this respect. Afterwards Colonel Nicholson assiduously commits himself for the building of the bridge. He considers it an opportunity to raise his men's morale, and he wants to prove superior British capabilities to the Japanese. But the British High Command sends a few soldiers who shall destroy the bridge, among them the American Shears (William Holden) - an escapee from the Japanese prison camp - and the British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins).

The film is racist in a certain sense because the Japanese people are presented as intellectually inferior to the British. For example, in the filmmakers' opinion the Japanese seem to be incapable of building a bridge.

Lean's picture partly succeeds in showing the madness of war. But the movie opportunistically avoids a really consistent and clear treatment of this theme. This is probably one of the reasons for the picture's popularity. But unfortunately it also hinders "The Bridge on the River Kwai" from being a real anti-war film. Much helped by Alec Guinness' superior performance, there's at least the interesting study of Col. Nicholson, a man possessed by the idea of being a hero. Although you can find some ironic dialogue concerning the military spirit in the film, David Lean doesn't really question the military "logic" as Stanley Kubrick does in "Paths of Glory". Lean seems rather fascinated by the military hierarchies. This is also perceptible in the conversations between Col. Nicholson and Col. Saito. It is symptomatic of the film's attitude that Shears, who doubts the military logic, is such a cynical an unpleasant person. The audience is supposed to applaud Col. Nicholson's perseverance concerning the question if his officers shall work on the bridge or not. The spectators are supposed to neglect the risks Nicholson takes for his men. (The plot systematically by-passes these risks.)

Lean's direction is quite effective, but didn't deserve the Academy Award it earned. (Compare the direction in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" with Sidney Lumet's amazing and more subtle work in "12 Angry Men" and Wilder's achievement in "Witness for the Prosecution".) The film is well-photographed too and has an apt score. There is also no denying that the picture is suspenseful. But the characters often seem little more than a plot device.

"The Bridge on the River Kwai" is cynical, especially in the both dramatic and implausible showdown. The filmmakers are obviously more interested in clichés than in the characters of the film.

"The Bridge on the River Kwai" could have become an important anti-militarist motion picture and an interesting study of complex characters with clashing interests. But it hasn't. The formal cleverness of Lean's film and its suspense can't obscure the fact that it is questionable in its contents. There are, of course, worse films, but I also know far better ones.

(C) Karl Rackwitz (Klein Köris, Germany, 1998)


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