Bridge over the River Kwai
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The Bridge Over the River Kwai

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There are certain movies that have made a lasting and profound impact upon the collective film audience. These movies have reshaped the way films are made and how people see them. One such film is the Bridge over the River Kwai. Chosen as number 13 in the AFI’s top 100 American films, Kwai has redefined war films forever. The film takes place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Burma. Commanded by a Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) who is set on being a strict commander, intent upon following his orders of using the prisoners to complete a strategically needed railroad bridge. To do so he impresses the British prisoners into arduous labor. The highest-ranking British officer is Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a man beset by his devotion to honor, duty and his love for the crown. In stark counterpoint to Nicholson there is an American prisoner, Shears (William Holden). He often provides the voice of reason in an unreasonable situation. When it occurs to Nicholson that his British men can design and build a better bridge, he flings himself into the project with abandon. Both Saito and Nicholson are both quite mad. Each can see only a myopic view of the situation drawn from an equally narrow view of life and responsibility. Of course they clash, hard and often, frequently with devastating consequences for the men caught between them. In only famous scene the men must stand in the brutally hot sun, many passing out, as Saito and Nicholson are drawn into a test of wills with each other. The force and drive of this film is virtually unmatched in the world of cinema. A war movie that focuses not on the grander scheme of things but on individual personalities really started with this film. Kwai is the ancestor to such films as Saving Private Ryan, M*A*S*H and the Great Escape. While many films are being lost forever to film rot and decay it is important to preserve films like this in digital format for generations to come.

The portrayal of the two men, Nicholson and Saito in Bridge of the River Kwai are among the best ever presented on the screen. Although from completely different cultures both Nicholson and Saito shared many personal attributes that formed their style of leadership and command. Both men were completely devoted to an idealized view of their cultures. Nicholson bound by duty to God, King and Country; Saito to the inflexible code of Bushito, the code of the samurai. Their views were idealized since both codes did not permit growth to deal with specific changes present in the 20th century. In a very real sense both men were hanging on to a code from years past.

Neither man recognized the men they lead as individual human beings. To these leaders they where troops, pawns in a larger chess game. Both Nicholson and Saito where bound by a caste system. A system of social structure that clearly defined each person's past and possibilities for their future. 

Usually a film highlights differences between the two lead characters to create dramatic conflict. Here, the two men were alike in more ways than they could realize. Since part of their personal code of conduct during war drew a shape line between friend and foe neither could recognize in public the commonalties they shared. This common bond of devotion to honor and duty did permit the men to form a begrudging respect for each other.

In summary, both men saw duty and honor as aspects of life that superceded life itself. As such they methods of command came across as draconian.

In considering the acting in this film only one word comes to mind, spectacular. Hayakawa and Guinness were truly masters of their profession and this film is a legacy to perfection in this craft. Recently, upon the death of Guinness, many news shows highlighted Star Wars as the actor’s most famous role. In interviews Guinness openly stated that he was not proud of that work that he would rather be remembered for films such as Kwai. He was an actor of extraordinary range, scope and ability. From comedy to drama he was the master of all genres. In Kwai he provides the character not only with the underlying madness but a quiet strength of character and conviction. Such multidimensional roles were typical for Guinness and few could do it better. Hayakawa was among the first true Asian stars in American. He met the challenge of playing opposite a master like Guinness with rare form and skill. He was a perfect counterpoint in this film.

A splendid director is also required to make a movie one of the best ever and Bridge has it. David Lean directed this film in a straightforward style that grips your attention and will not let you go. His use of the musical score by Malcolm Arnold is not over used. Many directors seem to use the score as filler in scenes with little dialogue or to force a mood upon the audience. Lean is Spartan with its use. There are many scenes that are un-scored, with only the natural sounds of the jungle for background. The situation, the script and the excellent performances set the mood. An artist that knows every technical aspect of filmmaking, lighting, set design and how the scene should flow and connect with other scenes craft each moment of the film. Lean’s other work shows how impressive he was as a director. Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughters makes for some resume.

The disc is well done but many have complained about the lack of audio effects or that the 5.1 mix seems forced. This film is a classic from the fifties, it is rare today for a film to be able to stand the test of time on its merit without having to have the audio and visual effects common today. I personally found the mix excellent and the print used clear of any defect. This film is a treasure that doesn’t just deserve to be on your shelf, if you are serious about films it demands a place in your home. Some many great films are being lost to decay of the prints. I hope other studios take the lead from Columbia/Tri-Star and preserve important, classic films like this on DVD for generations to come to enjoy. Buy this film and be transported back to a time when films were truly works of art.

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