The Bridge on the River Kwai

Don’t be supercilious with people that get the name of this film wrong; it really should be The Bridge Over the River Kwai. You can have the bridge on a ship and you can get a bridge on your teeth but who has ever heard of a bridge being placed on a river in any other context? Did Simon and Garfunkel sing about a bridge on troubled water? Did Jesse and Leslie imagine crossing the Bridge on Terabithia? You might just as well talk about the tunnel on the English Channel; it just isn’t correct. Speaking of which this story made the journey from France to England itself so maybe that is where the problem lies but then the book it is adapted is called Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï which is Bridge OF the River Kwai isn’t it? Also the English language version of the novel is titled ‘Bridge Over’ so I’m not sure we can say it’s a translation issue after all. The movie uses ‘pont de la’ in France too. So I’m sorry Sherlock, I can’t work it out. Still, it’s on. Oh it’s on!

Grammar errors aside, The Bridge On the River Kwai is a great movie and still challenges others for title of best British film, or even best war film. As a war movie this is comparatively gentle even for the time it was released in 1957 but initially at least it shows some of the harsh realities of conflict, and there is a classic men on a mission aspect to the second half, but this film isn’t really about the fighting as much as it is about the psychology of combat and what it does to you.

The headliner when this was released was William Holden but I think history remembers this more as an Alec Guinness movie, at least on this side of the pond. Holden was cast as the American, there to appeal to a US audience like a rugged, red blooded Andie MacDowell. His character is British in the book. Holden is great in a Where Eagles Dare kind of way but it is Guinness’ buttoned up/unhinged Colonel who has the most interesting player.

You know when an established comedy actor takes their first serious role of note and there are parts of their funny man persona that carry across? Like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love and Robin Williams in both Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society. Well people forget this but the same is happening here with Alec Guinness. Up until this point he was best known on screen for his Dickens characters and his Ealing Comedies and there is something of this in Colonel Nicholson. He is the kind of British caricature that you are now most likely to see in an Aardman animation. There is something believable in his stubborn allegiance to King, country, discipline and honour though and the moments where this comes up against the desperate determination of Sessue Hayakawa’s Japanese labour camp commander are magnificent. Having won a victory here his obsession and pride develop into proper delusion as he forgets what he is fighting for and fills this gap with a new misguided sense of duty. It is like something from Animal Farm as he later actions the very things he was once fighting against; keeping the officers and the sick off the production line. With no Snowball to counteract his Napoleon, only camp medic Major Clinton challenges him but he is fairly ineffectual, Nicholson practically turns on his countrymen. It mirrors Tom Berenger’s betrayal of Willem Dafoe in Platoon but with no one to aim it at and not for something as simple as anger, jealousy or cowardice. There is arrogance in Nicholson’s actions but mostly it is madness, Clinton wasn’t wrong about that. It is only when he comes face to face again with the closest thing this story has to Orwell’s Old Major, Holden’s Commander Shears, that he realises what he has done and metaphorically falls on his sword (I like to think he knows where he is landing) just as Hayakawa’s Colonel Saito will presumably then have to do for real.

The Bridge on the River Kwai absolutely still stands up in terms of the tension and intrigue. The first hour in particular, as Nicholson and Saito are locked in their stand off, is gripping and has over the table dialogue to rival Tarantino. The whole film runs at one hundred and sixty minutes and it never lags. I think the movie also stands up to modern sensibilities. The Japanese soldiers are not stereotyped, significantly less so than in newer movies like Hacksaw Ridge and Pearl Harbour, and those that do feature seem authentic and human. Even Saito, while cruel, isn’t demonised and if anything the film steps away from depicting the extremes of treatment and conditions that prisoners really suffered while working on the construction of the Burma to Siam railway.

What the film doesn’t have a lot of is women. Ann Sears, who enjoyed a career in melodramas in crime dramas including one Charlie Chan film, is squeezed in to the film so that this wasn’t an entirely macho party. Her role is not great though, serving as no more than a conquest for Holden. She doesn’t even have a character name so having her in the film is worse that leaving her out. More successful is the inclusion of the female pack carriers as Holden and Jack Hawkins (playing another character who will later retire and end up living next door to Wallace and Gromit) travel through the jungle with the intention of putting the bridge in the river Kwai. These women are not presented very well either but it is good so see them doing anything men can do better.

I fear Bridge on the River Kwai is becoming a bit of a lost classic but if you’ve not seen it, or if you’re not sure it is something you’d appreciate then my message for you is simple.

Get over it and get on it

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