“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a gripping drama, expertly put together and handled with skill in all departments. Its potency stems only partly from the boxoffice draw of William Holden and, to a lesser degree, Alec Guinness. What elevates “Kwai” to the rank of an artistic and financial triumph for producer Sam Spiegel is the engrossing entertainment it purveys, including some scenes which will be listed as among the best of film memorabilia.
From a technical standpoint, it reflects the care and competence that went into the $3 million-plus venture, filmed against the exotic background of the steaming jungles and mountains of Ceylon [repping Burma]. It’s a long picture–161 minutes of footage and without he-she angles. A story of the futility of war in general, the underlying message is never permitted to impede. The picture is loaded, but with women to be heard from.
Pierre Boulle scripted from his own novel, changing minor story points here and there to make better use of the cinematic medium. It is an excellent job of screenwriting (particularly since it marked Boulle’s debut in the medium), bristling with dialog that makes the characters absorbingly real and understandable. Director David Lean picked up where the script left off, guiding his performers through a series of fine portrayals. It is a superior job with fullest use of the background.
Story is ‘masculine’. It’s about three men, William Holden, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa. Latter is the commandant of a Japanese prison camp in which Holden, a Yank sailor posing as a commander, is a prisoner. Guinness is a British colonel who commands a new group of prisoners. He’s a strict rules-of-war man who clashes immediately with Hayakawa over the latter’s insistence that officers as well as men must work on the railroad bridge being built over the River Kwai. Guinness wins and then proceeds to guide his men in building a superb bridge to prove the mettle of British soldiers under any conditions. Holden, meanwhile, escapes to safety but is talked into leading Jack Hawkins and British commandos back to the bridge to blow it up.
The daring mission is discovered, moments before fulfillment, by Guinness, now unbalanced by the “glory” of his bridge-building feat and he fights off the commandos until, in his death throes, he accidentally falls on the detonator and completes the mission in the cinematic scene that is one of several highspots in the film.
Interspersed through the mounting suspense are some memorable scenes, particularly the one in which Guinness’ defeated regiment marches into the prison compound, the men whistling their regimental song. Other standout scenes include the one in which the British troops greet Guinness’ victory over Hayakawa and the quietly-dignified but potent meeting at which Guinness and his officers take over the job of building the bridge.
There are notable performances from the key characters, but the film is unquestionably Guinness’. He etches an unforgettable portrait of the typical British army officer, strict, didactic and serene in his adherence to the book. It’s a performance of tremendous power and dignity. Hayakawa, once a star in American silents and long absent from the screen, also is solidly impressive as the Japanese officer, limning him as an admixture of cruelty and correctness born out of a lifetime of training and the pressing need to mollify his superiors.
Holden turns in another of his solid characterizations, easy, credible and always likeable in a role that is the pivot point of the story. Hawkins is fine as the commando chief and there is good support from Geoffrey Horne, a young commando recruit; James Donald as a British army surgeon; Ann Sears, glimpsed briefly as a British nurse; and M.R.B. Chakrabandhu, leader of the native villagers who aid the commando mission.
Spiegel’s overall production supervision is a topnotch job, from his concept of the story as a big picture, to his choice of the untried Boulle as a scripter, to the deft casting and the shrewd selection of technical assistants. In the latter department, there are a succession of top credits: Jack Hildyard’s exciting Technicolor lensing, Peter Taylor’s editing and the music by Malcolm Arnold which is welded to the story’s mood and action.
[In 1992 a letterboxed video reissue of the film featured a revised script credit, to Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman.]
1957: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Alec Guinness), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Score, Editing
Nomination: Best Supp. Actor (Sessue Hayakawa)