Director, David Lean once rather astutely dubbed any film company brave enough to venture out on location, ‘the last of the travelling circuses’; a fitting moniker given the near epic migration of trucks, supplies, equipment and personnel necessary to shoot any movie away from the relative safety of its own production facilities. In fact, the industry had resisted going ‘on location’ practically since the dawn of sound, preferring the creature comforts that only a big and insular studio in its heyday could provide. It was only after WWII that Hollywood began to experiment making movies abroad, or rather, was steadily forced into at least considering the option; what with ex-G.I.’s returning home, having seen the world for the first time for themselves, and audiences in general, suddenly demanding more ‘reality’ from their popular entertainments. The old artifice simply would not do. Yet, there was nothing about David Lean’s early British period to suggest he was prepared to become the premiere director of such globe-trotting adventures. Indeed, Lean’s ‘little gem’ phase had exercised virtually all the strengths in utilizing the breadth of talent and facilities readily for his asking at the Gaumont Studios. But then, Lean made Summertime (1955); in hindsight, the biggest of these ‘little’ melodramas, set – and actually photographed in its entirely in Venice, co-starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi. It was the dawning of a new age for the already veteran film maker. For Summertime displayed, among its many virtues, Lean’s capacity to capture the mood and flavor of a time, as well as a place, largely unseen by the public, and virtually all but ignored on the movie screen; bottling the essence of Italy in all its finely wrought and colorful flourish; exploiting the scenery in service of a really good solid story.
David Lean might never have come to direct The Bridge on the River Kwai (1956) if not for Summertime and the stalwart persistence of maverick producer, Sam Spiegel. Armed with a screenplay he considered ‘golden’ by blacklisted writer, Carl Foreman, Spiegel immediately tapped Lean to direct this anti-war epic about a ragtag troop of British POW’s forced by the enemy to build a superstructure across a rather nondescript stretch of muddy backwater in Ceylon. Without Lean, Spiegel had already convinced Columbia Studios to be the financiers/distributors of his monumental undertaking. Despite Lean’s protestations, Spiegel gave the director a copy of Forman’s screenplay for his consideration. Embroiled on the finishing touches for Summertime, Lean entrusted his associate, Norman Spencer to peruse Foreman’s prose. The novel had been written in French by author, Pierre Boulle; its English translation, an overnight best seller. But Lean, given the chance to read Foreman’s adaptation for himself, thought the treatment horrendous and idiotic, informing Spiegel that unless the script was scrapped in its entirety and the writing begun anew, he – David – would not partake of the exercise; the announcement leaving Spiegel rather pale and queasy, but still undaunted to hire Lean as his director.
The moneyed Spiegel could afford to hold out much longer than Lean, who was flat broke following a rather messy divorce from his first wife; actress, Ann Todd. And Lean, despite having no regard for Foreman’s contributions, was very much enamored with Boulle’s novel. To this end, Lean took a fact-finding respite in Ceylon to work on rewrites with Spencer, the pair tearing into Forman’s adaptation with voracity to reconceive it as the sort of picture Lean could direct with confidence. In the meantime, Spiegel quietly put another writer, Caulder Winningham, on the payroll. Considered a brilliant constructionist, Winningham clashed with Spiegel on practically every aspect during the developmental process. He lasted barely two weeks on the project, ultimately going off to write Paths of Glory for director, Stanley Kubrick instead; a picture that would open within months of The Bridge on the River Kwai but fare far less spectacularly at the box office. Spiegel also brought in another blacklisted writer, Michael Wilson, to work ‘under the gun’ as it were. Alas, owing to their persona non grata infamy in Hollywood, neither Foreman nor Wilson would be given screen credit; the sole writer’s credit ironically ascribed to Pierre Boulle – who neither wrote nor spoke English and thus had absolutely nothing to do with the translation of his novel into a movie script. Years later, Wilson and Foreman’s credits would be restored – regrettably, much too late for either to bask in the glory of winning Academy Awards; the statuettes posthumously awarded to their widows in 1985.
Lean embraced The Bridge on the River Kwai as a uniquely British story of survival and defiance against the enemy under the most nightmarish of working conditions. It was a minor blow to Lean’s conceit when Columbia President, Harry Cohn, fearful their rather hefty investment of $2.8 million had been mislaid on a picture with no viable ‘name above the title’, insisted on at least one American star to headline the picture. Spiegel had the answer: Cary Grant. And while the wining and dining of Grant proved a memorable evening of light conversation and good food, Grant immediately recognized the newly conceived part of American POW, Shears, was ideally not for him. Spiegel then hit upon an inspired second choice – William Holden, whose early career had been marred by an utter lack of self-confidence. Indeed, Holden was almost fired from his first major role, as a prize fighter in Golden Boy (1939); his participation on that project vehemently defended by costar, Barbara Stanwyck and, much later, to be humbly – and very publicly acknowledged by Holden when, as an aged presenter alongside Stanwyck at the annual Oscar telecast in 1978, he suddenly departed from their scripted dialogue to sincerely credit Stanwyck with saving his career, concluding that “without her generosity, support, and kindness, I would not be standing before you here tonight” – a heartfelt appreciation that brought down the house and stirred the usually composed and guarded Stanwyck practically to tears.
In the interim, Holden’s movie career had suffered the slings and arrows of being typecast as a not terribly prepossessing ‘male beauty’ before being resuscitated by director, Billy Wilder for his opus magnum, Sunset Boulevard (1950). From then on, William Holden was a big star. And yet, despite his fame and accolades, Holden increasingly felt awkward about his chosen profession, coming to regard it as “a very unnatural state”. “He was rather embarrassed by it,” cameraman, Peter Newbrook confided, “Bill had a very hairy chest, and on ‘Kwai’ it had to be shaved and waxed almost daily. He was rather self-conscious about that.” If not entirely certain the robustness of his obvious masculine attributes had remained intact, Holden could at least take considerable comfort in having secured a then unprecedented $1 million for his participation on the film; also, a percentage of the gross. Combined, the undisclosed payout proved so enormous, Holden instructed Columbia to pay him in installments rather than a lump sum, using the funds to buy up whole tracts of land in Africa and establish a sprawling natural preserve for its wildlife. For the British lead, many names were bandied about during pre-production, including Ronald Colman (whom Lean rather preferred, except Colman was too old to be believable as an ‘active’ British officer), Ralph Richardson, Noel Coward and even Charles Lawton. Almost as a last resort, Alec Guinness’ name came under consideration; Guinness wholly disinterested, especially after Lean suggested to the actor he was playing the part of a stuffy English bore.
Yet, Guinness would ultimately accept the role, find something in it to call his own, and, cribbing from his own monumental professionalism, translate his modest popularity as a British comedy star into international acclaim as a ‘serious actor’ in an Oscar-winning performance. On the set, Lean and Guinness frequently quarreled, their sparring only serving to enrich the performance. Unable to see the greatness in Lean’s direction while toiling under it, Guinness had nothing but absolute praise for Lean’s efforts upon seeing the picture assembled in rough cut. While both men would regard their alliance on The Bridge on the River Kwai with a certain admiration, with Lean usually turning to Guinness thereafter for pivotal roles in his subsequent epics, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1984), the two men never entirely warmed to each other’s disparate working styles. For the part of the misguided and occasionally cruel, Colonel Saito, Spiegel cast respected character actor, Sessue Hayakawa whose career in films dated all the way back to the early silent era. For a time, Hayakawa’s popularity rivaled that of his Caucasian counterparts. Invariably, there remained something of that lovable and overwrought ham; Hayakawa, then, at age 68, still carrying a certain air about him with a submissive concubine-esque girl trailing him to and from the set, hired to attend to his every need. Hayakawa’s approach to the script seemed simple – yet flawed – tearing out virtually all scenes in which he did not appear to concentrate on the memorization of only his lines of dialogue. But his accent proved so thick, his scenes had to be shot multiple times; the performance ultimately cobbled together from the best takes in the editing room. Lean, who could be cruel when he believed actors were not giving 100% to the cause, was to admonish Hayakawa for his inability to cry on cue during the scene when Saito secedes control for managing the bridge’s construction to Colonel Nicholson, who has remained steadfast in his refusal to partake of the exercise so long as British officers are expected to perform manual labor. “We have to redo this because of you!” Lean insisted, pointing a bony finger at Hayakawa, “All this expense, and time and frustration because of you!” To Hayakawa, who considered himself the utmost professional, this was not only a blow to his conceit as an actor, but also his ingrained honor as a Japanese man. Thus, when cameras rolled again, the tears shed were the result of Hayakawa’s own deep-seeded embarrassment at having failed his director.
At Columbia’s insistence, Lean was forced to insert a cameo for Ann Sears, an actress hired to add a splash of femininity to this otherwise male-dominated pursuit of jungle exploits. For a touch of added female presence, Lean engaged three Siamese girls to play the part of the Burmese bearers who accompany Shears, Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) and Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) on their harrowing trek to destroy the bridge. Hawkins participation in the movie was always a given, Lean and Spiegel concurring he was the ideal choice to epitomize the stalwart British officer. Like Guinness, Hawkins would become a favorite of Lean’s, reappearing in Lawrence of Arabia. One aspect of studio intervention Lean wholly resisted was Columbia’s recommendation he supplant his original choice of ‘Colonel Bogie’ for the more popular and rousing WWI Brit song, ‘Bless ‘em All’. Bogie’s chant had been all the rage in 1916. But it contained some rather off-color lyrics that, because of the then reigning screen censorship, could not be used, much less inferred. Lean’s decision to have his captured British troops march into Saito’s camp ebulliently whistling the tune alleviated these concerns, but it also somewhat emasculated the message of the moment; namely, that the Brits were giving their captors a proud middle finger in the air to illustrate their defiance at being taken prisoners of war. Lean turned to composer, Malcolm Arnold for support; Arnold, agreeing to write a countermarch to accompany the whistling. To everyone’s delight, the ‘Colonel Bogie March’ became a huge hit, popularized on the radio and re-recorded by several bands.
During preproduction, Columbia had sent Art Director, Donald Ashton to Yugoslavia to scout locations, hoping against hope to dissuade Lean from shooting the picture in the remote jungles of Ceylon. But Lean’s verge to go abroad was confirmed when no suitable locations in Europe could be found to convincingly stand in for the lushly tropical splendor. However, Ceylon, with its primitive and unstable government agencies, and, limited accessibility via mud roads, proved a logistical nightmare for Lean and his company, carting cast, crew and heavy Cinemascope cameras, lighting equipment and generators through the dense underbrush. During a climactic moment of suspense, in which Joyce’s inability to kill a young Japanese soldier results in Warden stabbing the soldier to death, thus accidentally firing the soldier’s rifle into Warden’s foot, Lean and his property master, Eddie Fowley encountered an ‘interesting’ bit of verisimilitude. The trees overhead were populated by a vast assortment of vampire bats, lazily dangling from their perches until the gunshot startled them. Taking to the skies in a communal panic, the bats created a breathtaking display of flapping wings, nearly blotting out the noonday sun; a spectacle captured by cinematographer, Jack Hildyard. What the camera fails to illustrate, is that the startled bats began to urinate in unison; cast and crew below them assaulted by this hot and smelly ‘yellow rain’.
Damming a river on the border of Thailand and Burma to control its waters was just one problem Lean faced for his staging of the penultimate destruction of the bridge; another, was the construction of an aesthetically pleasing viaduct built by a Danish firm, ultimately scrapped for the more rough-hewn and utilitarian construction of a fully functional bridge after the government afforded Lean access to a full-scale, thirty ton narrow gauge locomotive and six vintage railway cars, to be driven full steam across the expanse and ultimately blown to smithereens. Undoubtedly the most startling action sequence in the picture, not the least as it represents Colonel Nicholson’s tragic questioning of his original motives for building the bridge in the first place, curiously in Boulle’s novel the bridge is never blown up. Reportedly, when Boulle saw this revised finale in the finished film he turned to Lean with considerable admiration and a hint of envy, adding “Oh, I wish I had thought of that.” Rigging the bridge with explosives, Lean had five cameras set up to capture its destruction. Alas, on the day when the train was set to cross, one of the five camera operators failed to acknowledge his cue from Lean. Aborting the detonation of the bridge, the unmanned locomotive and its cars surged across the man-made expanse to the other side where no track existed, plowing headlong into the muddy embankment.
Under normal circumstances, Lean would have been able to count upon the British War Office for assistance. However, Gen. Arthur Percival, then in charge of the office, absolutely refused to support Lean, citing that The Bridge on the River Kwai presented a faulty viewpoint and the British officer in what he perceived to be a very unflattering light, and furthermore, that Hollywood had taken to humanize the Japanese for their anti-war message, flying in the face of the horrific conditions endured by real POW’s during the war who had been forced under penalty of torture and murder to build what ultimately came to be known as ‘the railway of death’. It was difficult, if not impossible, to argue this point; well-documented and well-known abroad; eventually, even afforded a public apology by the Japanese. Lean would thus have to turn to outside sources to get the job done. To solve the problem of dislodging the train wreck from the mud, he relied on the quick thinking of a civil engineer and the aid of several elephants. Within 24 hours Lean was ready to re-shoot his climax, this time entrusting Eddie Fowley to set the engine on its collision course before jumping off it out of camera range. On this second attempt, the destruction of the bridge went off without a hitch.
The Bridge on the River Kwai begins with a view of makeshift crosses marking graves nestled against a backdrop of dense foliage in Ceylon; a sticky wet tropical haze clinging in the air as a steam locomotive suddenly surges past, carrying more POW’s to their folly and death along this injury and plague-ridden jungle terrain. Lean moves from the dead to the dying: emaciated and sun-burnt bodies of men abused to the breaking point, toiling like animals for the enemy, laying the rails to their own self-destruction. We regress to the nearby POW camp, managed by Colonel Saito, a ruthless and tyrannical task master whose iron-fisted will is about to be tested by an unforeseen confrontation with the classical English gentleman; Alec Guinness, the epitome of a certain unbowed elegance as British Colonel Nicholson. Major Clipton (James Donald) encourages prudence. But Nicholson is un-phased by Saito’s glower. Indeed, he wastes no time reminding Saito of the Geneva Convention, even offering to share his copy of it for a refresher in the articles of war. Saito strikes Nicholson with this pocket edition of the Convention, and later, illustrates the extent to which he intends to virtually ignore it by imprisoning Nicholson in solitary confinement inside a tiny metal sweatbox, left to bake in the stifling sunlight.
Clipton begs Nicholson to surrender. But this unshakable officer lives by the mark of Queensberry rules and absolutely refuses to bend. He will either die by his principles or triumph in his preservation of them. Mercifully, it will not come to that, as Saito and his officers quickly realize the captives will not lift a finger to build the bridge without Nicholson’s release. To this end, they repeatedly sabotage efforts to move the project ahead even on inch and, in fact, set back Saito’s plans by nearly a month. In the meantime, American POW, Shears informs Clipton he intends to take a small contingent in a daring plan of escape. When Nicholson hears of it, he absolutely vetoes the plan, determined he should somehow repay Saito in kind for his release, and acceptance of the Convention’s stipulation about officers not forced into manual labor, by remaining a model prisoner of war. Shears cannot understand Nicholson’s creed of fair play and elects, without permission, to launch his escape under the cover of night with two cohorts. The plan falls apart almost from the beginning; Shears’ two fellow escapees shot dead by Saito’s men and Shears wounded as he leaps from a dangerous precipice into the raging waters below.
A short while later, Shears is discovered by the locals, delirious and dehydrated, floating in a sampan. Nursed back to health, he departs the native village, bound for the American consulate where he receives further treatment. Soon, Shears is healthy enough to be found sunbathing on a tropical beach of glistening white sand with his sexy nurse. From this vantage it is almost impossible to recall the rest of the world is still at war. Shears respite is interrupted when he is asked to attend Maj. Warden at his leisure on a hilltop retreat. From here, the view is positively serene. But very shortly, Warden explains the purpose of their meeting; to convince Shears to return with him and another officer, Lieutenant Joyce, to the jungles of Ceylon. Shears is adamantly opposed, suggesting the bridge will likely never be built anyway. When Warden explains that his intelligence information claims not only is the bridge being built, but on time, and destined to carry a new contingent of Japanese invaders across the border, Shears realizes Saito must have convinced Nicholson to partake of the exercise. “My job is to blow it up,” Warden enthusiastically exclaims, to which Shears, ever the pessimist, sarcastically replies, “Lucky you!”
Nevertheless, with a little more coaxing, Shears is onboard to return to the jungle. Parachuting behind enemy lines, Shears, Warden and Joyce soon meet up with a trio of Burmese bearers who help them navigate through the dense foliage. Still miles away from Saito’s camp, their exotic sojourn near a waterfall is intruded upon by a Japanese patrol. Shears wastes no time shooting three of the soldiers dead; the deafening sound of his rifle causing thousands of vampire bats resting in the treetops overhead to panic and blindly fly into the bright noonday sky. Joyce is confronted by a Japanese soldier, barely a boy of fifteen; the two hesitating to react to one another – Joyce, out of pity – the boy, likely from fear at never having killed anyone before. Unapologetic, Warden has no empathy for the enemy, plunging his knife into the boy’s chest, causing him to fire his rifle and wound Warden in the foot. Now considered dead weight, Warden urges Shears to go on ahead without him to accomplish their task. But Shears is not about to let Warden off so easily. Instead, he elects to drag him along for the duration of their journey. It’s not amateur theatrics or a noble gesture either, as Shears bitterly explains, “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!”
Meanwhile, another sun is about to set on the prison camp; Nicholson and Saito standing together atop their newly constructed bridge; Nicholson installing a plaque to commemorate his men’s participation on the project. Viewing the sun creeping beyond the trees, Saito exclaims, “Beautiful” to which Nicholson, only thinking of the bridge, agrees, “Yes, it is.” Both men are unaware Shears, Warden and Joyce is very near; the trio observing everything from one of the nearby embankments. Saito and Nicholson retire to the camp, individually, to give thanks for the completion of the bridge and celebrate its achievement. Under the cover of night, Shears and Joyce plant dynamite charges along the columns supporting the bridge, concealing their fuses to the detonator below the waterline. Regrettably, they are unprepared for the waterline to drop overnight. At dawn, a good deal of their handy work is visible to the naked eye keen enough to spot it. Warden instructs Joyce to wait until the train carrying the Japanese reinforcements is about to cross the bridge before detonating the charges. Alas, Nicholson casually observes the exposed fuses and, mildly alarmed, ventures down to the beach to investigate further. His discovery startles Joyce and kicks off a full-scale retaliation from Saito’s soldiers. Joyce is killed while Clipton observes the carnage from the edge of the jungle. Shears dives into the water, determined to prevent Nicholson from discovering the detonator. Too late, he is shot through the back by Saito’s firing squad, collapsing a few feet away from a bewildered Nicholson, who suddenly realizes he has been playing ball for the wrong team. “What have I done?” Nicholson declares.
In Boulle’s novel, Nicholson perishes. But in the movie what occurs next is open for discussion; a bomb blast only a few feet away, causing Nicholson to collapse and fall on the dynamite plunger, thus setting off the charges. Unable to brake, the train carrying the Japanese reinforcements plummets off the imploding bridge, the massive blasts presumably killing Saito and his soldiers too. As the nauseating sound of twisted metal, splintering wood and dense flesh and bone being pulverized settles to an ominous silence, Clipton emerges from the underbrush, shell-shocked by the massacre set before him. “Madness!” he declares, “Madness!” while overhead a wily hawk flies in search of some of the ‘fresh kill’ to fatten its own belly. Thus, The Bridge on the River Kwai concludes on a distinct note of war’s counter intuitiveness; Saito having wished for the bridge to be built as a matter of honor (indeed, earlier he informs Nicholson that if the bridge is not to be built he will be forced to kill himself; recompense for his failure as a loyal soldier), and Nicholson, merely inspired to hold it up as a pillar of British ingenuity under the most inhumane working conditions. In the end, neither achieves his purpose; each bitterly destroyed in their attempt to claim a victory over the other. To what purpose? Ah, now there is the point - not only of the movie, but the novel: that, in striving to defy his competition, man is frequently driven to extraordinary lengths, ultimately succumbing to his own ambitions from which there can be no reprieve.
The Bridge on the River Kwai was a formidable hit for Columbia/Horizon Pictures; raking in a colossal $44,908,000 at the box office in the U.S. alone and winning a whopping 7 out of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Alec Guinness justly took home the Best Actor statuette, a fitting tribute for this self-made star, who, by the age of fourteen, was making his own way in London, long-since estranged from a father whom he would never know. Guinness described the ‘acting bug’ as the perfect outlet for a sixteen year old boy suffering from grave personal insecurities, ‘latching onto make-believe’. Lean and Guinness had worked together before, Guinness auditioning for the part of Fagan in Lean’s British-made adaptation of Oliver Twist – a part for which Lean informed the young man he had virtually no hope of landing. “Ah but that’s where you’re wrong!” Guinness recalled interrupting Lean, “You movie people are only interested in types – not actors.” Indeed, taken aback by Guinness’ defiance, Lean was to cast him in that movie and thereafter regard Guinness as something of a brilliant, though occasionally caustic, ‘good luck’ charm.
“For me acting is just ‘let’s pretend’”, Guinness later confided, “…and anything that goes beyond that is just pretentious. I am at my ‘most alive’ when I’m trying to find a character – in rehearsal.” There are flashes of sheer genius in Guinness’ performance in Kwai; a certain aggrieved vibration, possibly culled from his unhappy childhood, as Nicholson’s eyes momentarily dart left to right, spying the horrendous condition of his soldier’s apparel; tattered epaulettes, shirts saturated with week-old sweat and mildew, and shoes practically falling off his men’s bare and badly soiled feet as they proudly march into Saito’s POW camp for the first time, whistling ‘Colonel Bogie’. It’s the sort of understated gesture that passes quietly unnoticed in the grander scheme of the scene itself, and even more so when pitted against the more flavorful and verbose set pieces yet to follow it. These increasingly come to dominate the picture. But the subtly in Guinness’s acting choices continue to linger in the mind, as does Guinness’ poetic soliloquy on the eve before the deluge, quietly observing the setting sun as he reasons to Saito, “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. Hardly 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 along those lines from time to time. But tonight... tonight”, and, finally, in his expulsion of shocking revile at having created an implement of war – the bridge – only seconds before he alone becomes responsible for destroying what only moments ago had marked the essence for his every fiber for being.
Likewise, Lean, Spiegel, Hildyard and Arnold all took home little gold statuettes for their respective contributions on the picture, along with editor, Peter Taylor, and author, Pierre Boulle, who actually took no part in the making of this movie, but quietly accepted his Best Screenplay Award as silent acknowledgement of the efforts put forth by Foreman and Wilson; the real writers, never to see the fruits of their labors acknowledged by the Academy until after their deaths: a very cruel irony for which Hollywood, in memoriam, likely considers this debt paid in full. Ironically, the one overlooked performance at Oscar time was William Holden’s; undeniably the flashier – and star-billed part, subjugated by Guinness’ iconic turn. Holden was already an international star of some repute when he made The Bridge on the River Kwai – a ranking he would continue to hold throughout the fifties right on through to the late 1970's. Holden’s machismo sells the part of Shears with a sort of conflicted arrogance kept playfully tongue-in-cheek for the bulk of our story. But his best moments are relegated to the ensemble, providing gritted-teethed commentary to offset and unruffled the ‘by the book’ methodology of the Brits, very nicely contrasted under Lean’s democratic direction which takes no sides in the matter.
Despite its timely WWII milieu, the picture’s message of misguided honor and displaced moral integrity were equally well-suited for the postwar/Cold War period. They have continued to perennially resonate with audiences, perhaps because mankind’s revolving desire to make war on his fellow man is always with us, an age-old animosity likely never to cool. Unquestionably, The Bridge on the River Kwai was responsible for the re-education of David Lean’s film-making career. From this moment forward, Lean was finished with his ‘little gem’ phase. Nor would the public accept anything less than a big, exotic epic from this master storyteller. And Lean, who could be counted upon to suffer an almost child-like fascination with the art and craft of making movies – indulging in the exercise with hawk-eyed precision, but the giddy excitement of a novice film-maker about to make good, would continue to favor the public with such grand scaled entertainments as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India. Like a sign post, The Bridge on the River Kwai points the way to these larger-than-life epics. Unlike these latter endeavors, Kwai has retained a delicious sense of immediacy; a sort of moving tableau of occasionally inconsistent history, conceived with an almost dream-like meticulousness that bodes well for both the drama and the action set pieces. Kwai just ‘feels real’ in a way far too many war pictures do not. Guinness’ performance remains the one to watch. But Holden holds his own in distinguished company. He may have been the bigger star when Kwai was released, but Guinness’ Nicholson remains a tour de force; melding integrity, wit, and intuitively internalized sadness to a waning sense of stiff upper-lipped British pride for the ghost flower of a Great Britain not nearly as ‘great’ as Guinness’ Nicholson, and even more distinctly, David Lean could recall from their respective youths. Hollywood does not take gambles on pictures of this caliber anymore. Ostensibly, it is easier merely to lean on a mindlessly conceived summer blockbuster than to invest on a project with a good deal more to say about a subject everyone is far too readily familiar with – war. Like Lean’s later epic, Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai defies conventional wisdom and even more conventional critiquing. As such, it remains atypical and more startlingly in relief from the rest of Hollywood’s output – then, as now.
Were that there was a David Lean among the crop of contemporary film makers toiling in Hollywood today. Better still, where that Lean himself was still among the hallowed names out there in the cinema firmament. I really do miss David Lean. I miss his style, his substance, his unvarnished eagle-eyed attention to every last detail, his unrelenting pursuit of perfection - no matter the strain - and above all else, his wry wit as a consummate professional in his medium. In accepting his Life Time Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1990, Lean asked for the forgiveness of his peers who had bestowed upon him the honor, adding, “I promise you that everything I am about to say comes from my heart, is sincere and is because I love movies. Noel Coward, in our early days used to say to me, ‘My dear…always come out of another hole.’ He said a lot of other things to, but what I find is that everything I learned during those early years seems to be contracted today. We don’t come out of any more new holes. Instead we try and go back and come out of the old holes. And I think it’s terribly – terribly – sad! Looking at this list of former recipients, nearly everyone there is an innovator…a pathfinder. They found something interesting and new to do in the movies and all of us live on new things. Okay, do old things…parts one, two and three…but don’t make them the staple diet. We’ll sink if we do! This business lives on creative pathfinders.
I terribly miss – I think we all do – somebody like Irving Thalberg. He had a foot in both camps. He understood artists, and he understood the money people. And I think we’re in terrible danger. There are some wonderful new filmmakers…but you money people remember what they are. It’s a very nervous job making movies. I would like to read you something my old friend, Fred Zinnemann found, something said by Irving Thalberg. He said, ‘the studio has made a lot of money and it can afford to lose some.’ I think the time has come for the money people to afford to lose some, taking risks with these new film makers. I think if they give them a break…give them encouragement we’re going to come up and up and up. If we don’t we’re going to go down.”
Alas, one need only look to the current state of American cinema to realize the prophecy in these words as wisdom seemingly cast asunder by the new Hollywood Babylon. It is a rather telling and equally as sad statement for movie lovers everywhere living today; that the best to be said of most movies released per annum is that they stave off absolute boredom for an hour or two while quietly anesthetizing the heart and mind. Yet, the best movies do far more than fill up our leisure. They inspire us by stimulating our sense of proportion, morality and invested interest as members of the human race. They provide a clever textbook example of life – not as it is – but as we would wish it. They neither anesthetize, nor condemn, nor expound upon a philosophy – liberalized or otherwise – but allow the audience to unearth its myriad of imbedded messages by illuminating the human soul with sparks of their creative genius. If only contemporary film makers would recognize the power and the glory of their profession, then we who sit there, hoping to be captivated in the dark, might someday rediscover more reasons to fall in love with the movies all over again; reaffirming the reason we fell in love in the first place, and, perhaps even rediscover the same fondness that caused a David Lean among us to fall under their spell so very long ago. Finally, in reviewing The Bridge on the River Kwai, I am, as ever, in awe of the monumental craftsmanship gone into its creation, both in front of and behind the camera. So, to all aspiring film makers – and lovers of movies of this caliber, I impart a pledge of rediscovering our way back to telling these kinds of stories that, as a species ironically - if simultaneously - prone to the very highest and lowest endeavors, we can sincerely take pride in as cultural artifacts and great works of art. Not all cinema is equal or even meant to be or to teach a lesson. But so much of what is out there now does far less than entertain us. It merely takes up and ineffectually wastes our time.
There really is no point comparing Sony's new Blu-Ray with Columbia/Tri-Star’s retired 2-disc DVD offering from almost ten years ago. The Blu-ray, repackaged several different ways, has been given a much deserved, loving restoration by Grover Crisp, spectacularly resurrected in hi-def 1080p in a meticulous new dye transfer that is startling and impressive. Color fidelity is vastly improved. Gone is the careworn and yellow layer faded look of the movie, an affliction of Eastman film stock from this vintage, compounded by the rather primitive nature of early Bausch & Lomb Cinemascope lenses, prone to exaggerating grain and an ever so slight ‘warping’ of the anamorphic image, affectionately known as ‘the Cinemascope mumps’. The Bridge on the River Kwai has never looked quite so lush or impressive on home video. Colors are fully saturated and beautifully rendered, allowing us to see a level of fine detail in flesh, hair and foliage never before attained. Contrast levels are deeper and age-related artifacts have been eradicated. Flesh tones show marked improvement - more natural and less of that pasty/ruddy orange. This is a class ‘A’ effort put forth by Sony and one for which Crisp’s asset management efforts are well-known and praise worthy. So, bravo and kudos are in order and heartily given herein.
The audio is a 5.1 Tru-HD from the original 6 track stereo. Owing to the limitation of sound recording then and the ravages of time and improper storage, these tracks continue to sound dated and occasionally strident. With the exception of a newly produced ‘picture-in-picture graphic audio commentary, virtually all of the extras featured herein have been ported over from the old DVD. Personally, I would have preferred Sony to have taken the time to re-composite scenes from the movie from this new 1080p master into their original ‘making of’ documentary, as well as apply some new image stabilization to the then ‘new’ interviews conducted with surviving participants. Alas, the image quality for the documentary is dated and weak. A few vintage outtakes, interviews and featurettes also suffer from inconsistent image quality, but there are three vintage featurettes presented in HD - with William Holden and Alec Guinness' appearance on the Steve Allen Show the best of the lot. Bottom line: I don’t know how anyone could call themselves a movie lover and not own this Blu-ray. Very highly recommended, indeed!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)