1957 / Best Actor / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor

Film #211: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

We finish off the 1950s with a Best Picture Winner and yet another war film. But unlike Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High, The Bridge on the River Kwai doesn’t focus men up in the air or down on the ground. Instead David Lean’s film transports us to Thailand and focuses on the men who have been imprisoned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

When first we get to the camp we meet William Holden’s Commander Shears who has been there for quite some time and dreams of escape. At the same time Alec Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson arrives with his men and his told by the camp commander Colonel Saito that all men must work on the new railway bridge including the officers. Nicholson’s refusal to let his officers work results in a stand-off with the British ultimately winning as Nicholson is released and agrees to help out by using his resources in the right way. Meanwhile Shears has escaped but almost drowns thankfully he is rescued by people in a small town and taken to the nearest army hospital where he has a bit of a fling with one of the nurses. He is then commandeered by the British Major Warden to help in his commando mission to blow the bridge up at the same time as Nicholson is finishing his work and thanking Saito for co-operating. The final stand-off sees those who are trying to blow the bridge up come up against the team of Nicholson and Saito with only one surviving in the film’s final spectacular scene.

I really think that The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film of two halves one in which Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa verbally spar with one another over the officers’ issue and the other in which William Holden and Jack Hawkins creep back to the camp to blow the bridge up. It is this first half that I perferred with Guinness’ British resilience earning him a Best Actor Oscar however Hayakwa is equally as compelling and one wouldn’t be nearly as good as the other. Maybe I’m just suffering from William Holden fatigue but his leading role in the film was overshadowed by the other acts despite his being the star name here. There are far too many scenes of the creeping through the jungle for my liking and I wish the second half of the film would’ve been more equally split. This is due to the fact that I feel that Nicholson’s need to get the bridge finished on time is as important as the final scene of the men coming to blow it up. Those criticisms aside though this is a great film thanks to the work of David Lean who used to all of the elements available to him to sculpt a beautifully looking film with a captivating plot. From Jack Hildyard’s cinematography to the adapted screenplay everything is on fine form here and overall there is a believable thread to the narrative especially in the relationship between Saito and Nicholson. Though I personally don’t believe this should’ve triumphed over my favourite film to win Best Picture it’s certainly one of the best British films of all time and in most years would’ve been my favourite to clinch the top prize. Overall The Bridge on the River Kwai is a spectacular looking film which is spectacularly acted and superbly written and is only hindered by a slightly overlong middle section.


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