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The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

by on 2010/11/30

I might as well have been watching The Bridge on the River Kwai for the first time, given what little I remembered from seeing it years — and more likely decades — ago. In fact I can list an exhaustive catalogue of those memories within this sentence alone: it featured the “Colonel Bogey March”, a prisoner in a hot box, and a damning sense of boredom. It had left me so unimpressed that, while I’d review it out of duty, I left it climactically late in dread of the task.

And now, having paid it due diligence, I can honestly say, I haven’t felt quite as misguided since Yojimbo.

Bridge was directed by the legendary David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), from a novel by Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes), and a script by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman (The Guns of Navarone). It involves two separate, but related, tales.

The first tells of the British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), imprisoned during World War Two in the Japanese Colonel Saito’s Camp 16. Sessue Hayakawa portrays Saito, who is obligated to build a bridge across the Thai River Kwai, and engages in a battle of wills with Nicholson to effect its completion. Caught in the friction between them is The Great Escape’s James Donald as Doctor Clipton.

The second story follows an American soldier, Major Shears, played by William Holden of Stalag 17. He comes across as a fitter John Wayne, with more growl and less drawl. Being a rare (surviving) escapee of Camp 16, he is “asked” to lead a British team back again, where they hope to sabotage the Colonel’s bridge. The conflict here is less psychological than physical: the journey is arduous, violent, and apparently ill-fated from beginning to the end.

This time, River Kwai impressed me well. Set in the thick cloy of a tropical jungle, so little distinguishes paradise from inferno that escape seems neither likely nor worthwhile. Though less epic in scope than some other Lean pictures, its aspect ratio still feels wider than widescreen. The greenery, sumptuous and smothering, makes a compelling case for location work. Filmed in Ceylon — now Sri Lanka — it’s rife with unpredictable details you couldn’t do as well on a soundstage.

Deployed across this rich tableau are a varied and interesting lot. At the center of all tensions stand the British, Guinness and Jack Hawkins (as the demo team’s Major Warden). On one side, we see their clash with the Japanese . . . on the other, an American struggle. Saito is especially compelling to me, his Bushido code impossibly complex when compared to Western archetypes. As for Shears, I could hardly believe Holden resisted participating in Stalag for his character’s cynical bent. Shears is a cynic to the quick: a disrespectful, pessimistic, and insubordinate liar. In sum, he’s a wicked, cool rogue.

I was so impressed with most of the film that its only shortcoming seemed a particular disappointment. For me, music is an incredibly vital ingredient, and now it let me down. I didn’t mind the “Colonel Bogey March” but the score as a whole felt uneven. Lacking sweep or subtlety, it stumbles into range fully halfway through the titles, appears abruptly at unfathomable moments, overt and generic at once.

As a fan of light music and exotica, I’m frankly surprised at my own reaction. After all, composer Malcolm Arnold won an Oscar for his efforts on Bridge. Perhaps I can hope to come around yet, as I did with the piece overall.

I’m not accustomed to putting myself in uncomfortable situations. When I have no choice in the matter, I once confided to a colleague, I simply pretend to understand, and try to catch up as I go. While this M.O. may be the norm for many, I remembered it once again here, suspecting Guinness embodied that tactic. I’ve heard he originally declined River Kwai, but he clearly won out in accepting it. Fortunately so have I. I braced for an onerous trial, and was instead rewarded well, with fascination, suspense, and even excitement.

All I can think is, was I ever wrong. I had no idea it would turn out so well.

* * * * *

Rated PG for violence

162 minutes

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