“The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) starring William Holden, Alec Guiness, Jack Hawkins, & Sessue Hayakawa

The towering triumph of adventure from the makers of “Lawrence of Arabia.” -A tagline for the film

…it takes its time in a way that is almost unbelievable. […] I timed it- and it’s an hour before the plot happens. It could never be made today, not w/ the computer generation, not w/ the generation that’s used to things happening fast. It’s a true narrative movie. -Sydney Pollack

I also will see before I direct a picture… When I made my Indiana Jones films- anything that has a lot of scope- and is somewhat of an adventure. […] That’s one of the most perfect movies ever made. -Steven Spielberg

This is one of those epic/classic films that your parents watched (and liked); you can see it on HBO Max. During WWII, allied POWs in a Japanese internment camp are ordered to build a bridge to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway. Their instinct is to sabotage the bridge, but under the leadership of Col. Nicholson (Sir Alec Guinness- best kwon for Star Wars), they’re persuaded the bridge should be built to help morale. Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa- a star of Hollywood’s silent era) was inspired by Maj. Risaburo Saito, who (unlike in this film) was said by some to be one of the most humane of all of the Japanese officers, willing to negotiate with P.O.W.s in return for their labor. Such was the respect btwn Saito and Lt. Col. Toosey (upon whom Col. Nicholson was based), that Toosey spoke on Saito’s behalf at the war-crimes tribunal after the war, saving him from the death. Ten years after Toosey’s death, Saito went to England to visit his grave.

Col. Saito [to Col. Nicholson]: Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!

There is a LOT of interesting trivia re: this movie (which won 7 Oscars). Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman had been blacklisted after being accused of having Communist ties, so went uncredited. The only writing credit, and Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, went to Pierre Boulle (who spoke no English), the author of the French novel. In 1984, the Academy retroactively awarded the Oscar to Wilson and Foreman; when this movie was restored, their names were added to the credits. Guinness had doubts about playing the role of Col. Nicholson; he’d become popular from roles in comedies. He tried to add some humor into his portrayal; Sir David Lean (director) was opposed to this idea, insisting that it be played seriously. The role of the American Navy officer (played by William Holden- V popular at this time) was NOT in the source novel; Cmdr. Shears was added into the screenplay to appeal to a wider audience. At one point, Lean nearly drowned when he was swept away by a river current (on location in Sri Lanka); actor Geoffrey Horne (in his 1st role as Lt. Joyce) saved his life! Many of the extras in the POW camp are South Asians, as I noticed.

Cmdr. Shears [to Maj. Warden]: You make me sick with your heroics! There’s a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills – they go well together, don’t they? And with you it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman, how to die by the rules – when the only important thing is how to live like a human being!… I’m not going to leave you here to die, Warden, because I don’t care about your bridge and I don’t care about your rules. If we go on, we go on together.

Why are there SO many war movies/shows out there!? Well, the stakes are V high, so there is potential for a LOT of drama. This is actually an anti-war movie focused on 4 different men (NOT all gung-ho about fighting); we see this even from the early scenes btwn Shears and the doctor, Maj. Clipton (James Donald). Now, if this were made today, Shears (being a POW for some time) would NOT be looking so healthy/buff (as some viewers commented)- LOL! The reluctant warriors are thrown together b/c of circumstances; Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) doesn’t come in until almost half-way through the movie. Warden is a former prof who trains spies that on the gorgeous estate in Sri Lanka; there is a sequence that reminded me of a Bond movie. The (brief) romance btwn Shears and an (unnamed/blonde) nurse (Norma Sears) was put in by the studio at the end. Lean was strongly opposed to it, but producers insisted the movie have at least one white woman character. Even in modern times, it’s V rare for a director to get “final cut,” so have to make compromises. Some viewers have commented that this feels like 2 separate movies which come together in the 3rd (last) act.

Col. Nicholson: [looks at the completed bridge] I’ve been thinking. Tomorrow it will be 28 years to the day that I’ve been in the service. 28 years in peace and war. I don’t suppose I’ve been at home more than 10 months in all that time. Still, it’s been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But there are times… when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything – or if it made any difference at all, really. Particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking’s very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight… tonight!

As Shears. Holden is given a LOT of darkly funny/irreverent lines; he’s NOT out to be a hero, he just wants to get out. Of course, the audience can relate! Col. Saito was the most interesting characters IMO; I was surprised that he got some development (rare for Asians even today in mainstream Hollywood). Hayakawa and Guinness have this uneasy tension in their scenes together. Building the bridge (on schedule and well) becomes an obsession for Col. Nicholson, who wants to prove that the British are superior to the Japanese. I was surprised by some of the directorial choices Lean made, incl. the monologue (above) by Col. Nicholson after the bridge is completed. Instead of doing the obvious close-up on Guinness, we see a shot from behind his shoulder. The finale of the movie is terrific, as it feels fresh, exciting, and dangerous!

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One thought on ““The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) starring William Holden, Alec Guiness, Jack Hawkins, & Sessue Hayakawa

  1. I think one reason there were so many WWII movies with such a variety of themes is that there were (relatively speaking) a lot of veterans. The participation rate for WWII was something like 11 percent, iirc (compared to half of a percent now). Films like this also clearly contributed to sentiments about the heroic veteran that fed into the early willingness of Americans to go to Vietnam. One thing that does interest me about this is that by 1957, the US and Japan were in military alliance with each other, whereas the time I saw this years ago I was surprised by the vehemence of the anti-Japanese sentiment.

    Liked by 1 person

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