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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 5.56%
Average: 5.56%
Pretty Bad: 2.78%
Total Crap: 5.56%

2 reviews, 24 user ratings

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Bridge on the River Kwai, The
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by MP Bartley

"Epic. Very epic."
5 stars

There are few film-makers I am unstinting in my praise for. Capra's one. Hitchcock another, and Spielberg one more at the top of my list. So when Spielberg reveals his adoration of David Lean's work you've just got to pay attention to the works of one of the masters of cinema.

What's strange about 'Bridge On The River Kwai' is that it seems to be thought of as one of Leans lesser works compared to 'Lawrence of Arabia', 'Oliver Twist' or 'Brief Encounter'. But this is the movie that won him his first set of Oscars, and is one of the few movies to actually deserve the title 'Best Picture'.

Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) is the newly arrived British CO in a Japanese POW camp, ruled over by the brutal Colonel Saito (Sessue Hawakawa). Once he arrives, he finds Saito doesn't play by the rules or by the Geneva convention. He mis-treats prisoners and in particular officers, making them work like any ordinary prisoner. Nicholson is a stickler for the rules however and refuses to buckle or submit despite threats of torture and the warnings of the camp doctor (James Donald) and the US Captain Shears (William Holden), who have seen first-hand the iron rule of Saito. And so begins a battle of wills between the two Colonels, with the issue of duty and honour foremost in both their heads.

It's unfair to spoil the rest of the film for the unknowing as this is merely the first act of an epic that unspools several sub-plots, character studies and takes a long, unflinching look at the madness inherent in war. Suffice to say the Japanese camp is there to build a railway bridge over the Kwai essential for war supplies. The Allies don't want this bridge built. Nicholson sees the completition of the bridge as the only way his imprisoned men will remain honourable and true soldiers in the face of the enemy.

Credit has to be given to Lean for firstly making such a complex plot remarkably linear and clear. The amount of directors who could handle a project as big as this and do justice to it are few and far between but well, it's David frickin' Lean we're talking about here. He could condense the history of the universe into three hours and still make it logical. Events run smoothly from A to B to C with the seperate storylines eventually intertwining at the explosive climax. Lean, working from an excellent and thoughtful screenplay, knows not to overburden the audience with too much at once and so toys with one strand before starting on another. You think it's a standard WW2 men-on-a-mission flick like 'The Dirty Dozen'? Think again. An introspective, what-is-the-nature-of-war talk piece? Think again.

Lean has no qualms and no diffculty from jumping from the small personal details (the Brits constant whistling of 'Colonel Bogey', their small fuck you to Saito) to the wider canvas of action such as near-death escapes and treks down the river.

The production values are also superb and again range from the intimate to the grand. When Nicholson is imprisoned in a baking tin crate, you sweat along in sympathy, and it's one of the few films where a hot and steamy jungle looks exactly that. The likes of 'Windtalkers' and 'We Were Soldiers' look like a trip to Disneyland in comparison to the jungles here.

The central trio of terrific performances also give the film a very human centre to ground itself on. It's a sad, sad shame that Guinness will first and foremost always be remembered as Obi-Wan. This (Oscar winning) performance is what he should be really remembered for. He makes Nicholson far more than just an upper-class, military cliche. Being a POW has forced him to breaking point, but to protect his men and his honour he'll suffer any indignity to get the right thing done. This devotion to duty however is what ultimately makes you question the sanity in war and following orders. You just don't get actors like Guinness anymore, actors who lose themselves in what seems an obvious character, but brings depth and shades to it. Hawakawa also makes far more of his character than you would think possible. A tyrant certainly, but a tyrant also capable of being plagued by doubt and a need to save honour above all else. And Holden, who in retrospect seems never to get his due as one of Hollywood's best leading men of the 50's, brings along with the man-of-action credentials needed, a welcome touch of humour to contrast with all the suffering.
It's tribute to the script that none of the leading trio are as stereotypical as you might think.

For a film that's rightly famed for its 'did he mean to do that or was it an accident?' climax, it's a shame that right when it needs to be at its most clear, Leans direction falters slightly, leaving a slightly puzzling ending that might need a few repeat viewings to work out exactly what happened. But this is a film that simply demands repeat viewings. To wallow in the gorgeous cinematography. To swelter in the tangible humidity coming out from the screen. And to decide where duty ends and madness begins.

There's also a film called 'Return to the River Kwai'. Don't bother, it has absolutely nothing to do with Leans classic and is like a picnic compared to this. Rent, or buy this instead. You'll thank me for it in the morning.

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originally posted: 09/12/03 00:11:59
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User Comments

5/18/20 Ed Riddick Did he mean to or not? Shows randomness and madness of war 5 stars
9/11/16 Anne hard to describe...incredible photography 2 stars
3/01/15 manalone923 lol 1 stars
5/15/12 Ed Totleben, Jr. Not completely factual but one of the best damned war movies ever made!!! 5 stars
9/28/11 C.M. Chan One of the best 5 stars
6/08/10 Flathead King Great war film with memorable characters and impressive direction from David Lean. 5 stars
5/30/10 bored mom A fucking awesome play between Guinness and Hayakawa. This is also way better than Toko-ri. 5 stars
3/03/10 Richard Brandt Santayana:"A fanatic is one who redoubles his efforts after losing sight of his objective" 5 stars
4/26/07 Baraka Njuguna Dat Shixx wuz strate.....wuzn't all dat! 3 stars
11/25/05 Kelly pretty darn good 4 stars
4/13/05 Indrid Cold They don't make them like this anymore, but that's not a bad thing necessarily. 4 stars
4/06/04 R.W. Welch The acting here makes most movies look like amateur night. 5 stars
11/28/03 john best boy's adventure movie ever made 5 stars
11/05/03 Danger_Ehren Okay war movie 3 stars
6/26/03 l k 1 stars
6/25/03 snowconehead because he is 5 stars
5/06/03 Dave Why does David Lean have to be so fucking brilliant? 5 stars
3/02/03 alien assassin One of the best war films ever 5 stars
1/19/03 Hi there One of David Lean's best. 5 stars
1/17/03 hi there This and "Lawence Of Arabia" are two of my favorite David Lean movies. 5 stars
1/15/03 kitfo best acting in a war movie ever 5 stars
12/26/02 rotten s. milk This and "Lawrence Of Arabia" are the highlights of David Lean's career. 5 stars
10/15/02 Charles Tatum Brilliant WWII actioner 5 stars
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  18-Dec-1957 (PG)
  DVD: 15-Apr-2008



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