The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)

With a delicate weaving of two storylines – that of the soldiers in Camp 16 and that of Shears outside the Camp – this nearly 3 hour film sustained my interest for its duration. That is no easy feat for an older film, least of all one about war.

The basic plot is akin to a multitude of war stories: those who are captured attempt to escape. But interestingly enough not all who are captured even think about escaping. Per Colonel Nicholson (Guinness), his soldiers wouldn’t be treated as slaves and he would still command them, after all the “Geneva Convention says you can’t use soldiers for manual labor”. It wasn’t an easy fight for him to win but he challenged Saito (Hayakawa) and perhaps even impressed him with his tenacity. Under Nicholson’s command the soldiers work on making a great bridge over the Kwai – so great that the camp doctor, Major Clipton (Donald), questions whether it is treason. Commander Shears, who turns out to not be a Commander at all but just a sailor is sent back to remedy the counteract the bridge building. The film ends with a good mini-battle scene which was surprisingly absent from a “war” film. The acting was fantastic, naturally Guinness won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

What really captivated my interest watching this film was both the cinematography (done by Jack Hildyard) and the sound design (John Cox and John Mitchell). Fantastically done. There are a number of cinematic moments that impressed me.

  1. Colonel Nicholson has been sitting in the “hotbox”, a wood and metal cage lacking any windows that bakes him under the hot sun every day. Major Warden convinces Saito to let him check on Nicholson’s vitals. Saito allows this and Warden smuggles him some food and water. As the two are in the hotbox Saito brings binoculars up to his eyes and we see the POV from the binoculars. One small circle in the frame which surrounds Warden and Nicholson in the hotbox. It isolates them.
  2. We are looking up at the sun, blazing hot in the sky, when “Commander” Shears enters the frame and blocks the sun. His body a looming shadow within the frame sparing our eyes from the unbearably blinding sun which he suffers under.
  3. During the building of the bridge Nicholson rides a wooden train “car” from the tracks on land towards the building of the bridge. As he rides the camera rides too, it jostles and bumps along with everyone else. It reminded me of some of the earliest films, such as The Hold Up of the Rocky Mountain Express (Edwin Porter, 1906) which seemed to showcase more of a “ride” than a story.
  4. Birds! Multiple bird moments that made me wonder whether I should rematch the film and focus on this recurring theme. There were a few different shots involving birds that intrigued me. First there were hundreds of birds in the trees. A small explosion goes off and a cloud of smoke appears. Back to the birds – now flying everywhere – chaos in the sky. Another one was a brief foreshadowing of birds flying wildly in the sky directly before a shootout on the land. Even the final shot of the film, this beautiful long shot from an airplane that backs out of the forest, has a bird in it – the last thing we see.

The sound design was perfect: on each page of my notes I would write “sound scape is great!” The sound designer created a world with chirping birds, lapping water, leaf rustling, insect humming, and ribbitting frogs. It was never over-powering. Even in the most “quiet” sceneswhere there was secrecy involved and/or sly movements there would be the light sounds of birds or frogs so as to provide a realistic ambience rather than deafening silence or an over-abundance of music.

Two quotes that I really enjoyed:

An angry Saito, “You shall not speak to me of rules! This is war. This is not a game of cricket!”

An inspiring Nicholson, “…one day – in a week, a month, a year – on that day when, God willing, we all return to our homes again, you’re going to feel very proud of what you have achieved here in the face of great adversity. What you have done should be, and I think will be, an example to all our countrymen, soldier and civilian alike. You have survived with honor – that, and more – here in the wilderness. You have turned defeat into victory. I congratulate you. Well done.”

And I say “Well done” to the cast and crew of this film. Nearly 60 years after its release and I’d give it 5/5 stars.