After settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.
The film deals with the situation of British prisoners of war during World War II who are ordered to build a bridge to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway. Their instinct is to sabotage the bridge but, under the leadership of Colonel Nicholson, they are persuaded that the bridge should be constructed as a symbol of British morale, spirit and dignity in adverse circumstances. At first, the prisoners admire Nicholson when he bravely endures torture rather than compromise his principles for the benefit of the Japanese commandant Saito. He is an honorable but arrogant man, who is slowly revealed to be a deluded obsessive. He convinces himself that the bridge is a monument to British character, but actually is a monument to himself, and his insistence on its construction becomes a subtle form of collaboration with the enemy. Unknown to him, the Allies have sent a mission into the jungle, led by Warden and an American, Shears, to blow up the bridge. Written by
Within the Conflict that was World War II, there were many more smaller, more personal conflicts which, when added up, made a significant impact on the outcome of the War; though trying to explain them, or war in general, is like attempting to decipher the indecipherable. In `The Bridge On the River Kwai,' director David Lean takes you deep into the Burmese jungle to examine some of these deeper conflicts, and the effects of extraordinary circumstances on some ordinary men: British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) is a man of rigid principles and ideals, to whom acquiescence in any quarter is not an option; Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) lives by an inflexible code of conduct and is adamant in his adherence to it, through which he maintains his dignity and honor; American Navy Commander Shears (William Holden) just wants to make it through the war alive and get back home.
As an integral part of their war effort, the Japanese have ordered a strategic bridge to be built across the Kwai River to facilitate the transport of troops and equipment. This monumental task has been given to Saito, the commandant of an allied prisoners-of-war camp; and not only must he build it, it must be completed by a specific date. And time is short. Toward that end, Saito has pressed into service every prisoner, including officers, whom according to the Geneva Convention of 1864 (which established rules for the humane treatment of prisoners of war), are to be excluded from any manual labor. When a fresh contingent of British prisoners arrives to bolster his complement of workers, Saito finds himself up against a formidable opponent, Nicholson, who immediately informs Saito that his officers will not work, in accordance with the rules of the Geneva Convention. And it's the beginning of another war-- a war of wills-- between two men determined to win at any cost. To Saito, this is more than just another assignment, it's an obligation, and failure is not an option. If he does not succeed in having the bridge built-- and on time-- he will be forced to take his own life, in accordance with his own moral code. Nicholson, on the other hand, is unyielding to the point of madness, and will die before he accedes to Saito's demands.
Meanwhile Shears has managed by some miracle to escape and has made his way back to Ceylon. And he's home free-- after some recuperation time at Mount Lavinia Hospital, he'll be on his way back to the states. Or so he thinks. But unbeknownst to him, the British are aware of the bridge being built on the Kwai, and are planning a commando raid to destroy it. And Shears has something they need: First hand knowledge of the precise location, and of the jungle through which he made his miraculous escape. Subsequently, the Navy agrees to `loan' Shears to the British, to aid them with their mission. So instead of a ticket home, Shears is faced with another arduous trek through an uncompromising jungle, all for a mission of which the odds against success are nearly incalculable.
From the beginning of the film to it's spectacular climax, Lean builds and maintains a subtle tension that underscores the drama, which makes this a compelling, unforgettable motion picture. Lean is the Master of epic films such as this, filling them with sweeping visuals while integrating them with the emotional involvement of his characters perfectly. Lean knows what he wants and how to get it, and he takes a terrific story (and this definitely is one) and tells it by using every bit of space--visually and audibly-- at this disposal. And most importantly, he knows how to get the kind of performances from his actors to put it all across so convincingly and believably.
Alec Guinness deservedly received the Oscar for Best Actor for his role of Nicholson, whom he embodies from the inside out, disappearing so utterly into the character that the actor is forgotten, leaving nothing but the real man in his stead. It's a superlative piece of acting from one of the truly great actors of all times. Holden, as well, delivers an outstanding performance as Shears, capturing that somewhat embittered, off-handed sarcasm and resignation of a man trapped by circumstances beyond his control, who nevertheless does what he can to make the most of it, while awaiting the first opportunity for escape that affords itself. Holden's work here is Award-worthy, as well, but was destined to forever remain in the shadows of what is probably the definitive Guinness performance. And what a rare treat, having two performances of this caliber in a single film.
Other notable performances include Hayakawa, entirely convincing as the tormented Saito, and Jack Hawkins, as demolition expert Major Warden, the absolute personification of the undaunted British stiff-upper-lip.
The supporting cast includes James Donald (Clipton), Geoffrey Horne (Joyce), Percy Herbert (Grogan), Ann Sears (Nurse) and Andre Morell (Green). Beautifully filmed and expertly crafted and delivered, `The Bridge On the River Kwai' is one of David Lean's masterpieces. It's an emotionally involving, dramatic action/adventure that offers some real insight into the determination and tenacity of the human spirit. This film (especially the ending) is one you will never forget; a classic in every sense of the word, it exemplifies the magic of the movies. I rate this one 10/10.
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