I’m dedicating two years of my life to watching and reviewing every movie on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, even the ones I’ve seen before. Here’s #13, The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The bridge … to the DARK SIDE.
Oh, come on. I can’t be the only person who thought that while watching this movie. You’ve got Alec Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, a very talented and driven military leader who sees the letter of the law and its spirit as one and the same. He uses his foolhardy yet admirable loyalty to order as a way of boosting morale and accomplishing a mission. Eventually this faith turns into pride, which begins to cloud his judgment, leading to accidentally joining and assisting the enemy without realizing it. He kills an ally before he realizes the error of his ways, then sacrifices himself after realizing the full breadth of his action.
Go ahead, just try and convince me this isn’t the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi being lured to the Dark Side of the Force (with a little bit of Darth Vader thrown in).
Alec Guinness may not have liked that comparison, but it’s certainly there in that both stories have a keen understanding of what makes a good epic. “Epic,” no matter what James Cameron would have you believe, is not just about long running times, big monsters, grand battles, slap-you-in-the-face symbolism, and insane visuals. It’s all about a matter of perspective on all things, big and small.
A good epic leaves no stone unturned in exploring the vastness of its setting, both outer—the galaxy in Star Wars, the jungles of Southeast Asia in The Bridge on the River Kwai—and inner—realizing your true potential via the Force, battling your pride. Small actions have big implications; large actions have deep psychological effects.
That sort of epic is precisely what the great English director David Lean is most famous for. After The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean went on to direct Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Passage to India, two of which have been included on the AFI list in addition to Bridge. He created a style of film, one that made the audience actively interested in all the details; The Great Escape and Gandhi, for example, neither of which are Lean films but would never have been as good without his influence.
More than any other director, Lean’s style overcomes the inherent advantage that the novel has over film in describing detail and inner thoughts. Nothing from the original story is ever lost in his films.
Bridge is based on the French novel of the same name that details the plight of British prisoners of war in Japanese camps during the construction of the Burma Railway from 1942-1943. The Japanese used the captives as slave labor, even of its officers, which was expressly forbidden by the Geneva Convention. The film begins with a standoff between Nicholson and Colonel Saito over the proper treatment of prisoners, resulting in Nicholson’s imprisonment in a steel box in the hot sun for days on end.
Eventually, Nicholson wins through sheer determination and confidence over Saito’s brutality, and the officers are told they don’t have to engage in manual labor. From there, however, Nicholson decides to complete the bridge in order to humiliate Saito, showing him the proper way to use a soldier’s ingenuity and loyalty. He’ll build it better, stronger, faster, and sturdier in order to embarrass Saito and the entire opposition with England’s superiority.
Meanwhile, an American prisoner of the camp has escaped and found his way back to base, only to be dragged back into action in order to destroy the same bridge that Nicholson is so determined to complete for the sake of English pride.
This isn’t just a complex story, this is some serious psychological examination that a novel is clearly better suited to pursue. But David Lean doesn’t lose a single dramatic inch in telling every facet of the story without even one line of narration or inner monologue.
Lean’s adaptations of Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia were very similar in scope. In Doctor Zhivago, the vastness of the Russian expanse is contrasted with the short-sightedness of those who have sacrificed their individuality for the new order. In Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence is forced to balance his love of the desert, the adventure he’s just had, and his admiration for the people of Arabia with the realpolitik of why he was sent in the first place.
It takes a lot of hard work and ingenuity to make such sophistication seem natural. The more you think about The Bridge on the River Kwai, the better it gets.
Comments: English manners versus American bluntness versus Japanese pride. All have their advantages and faults. All succeed as often as they fail. All are as sympathetic as they are doomed.
Deserves to be in Top 100: I have a pretty hard and fast policy on whether to include movies like this on the AFI 100 list. If the list is meant to celebrate American contributions to the art form, then why have an English film by an English director that tells the story of British soldiers in Burma? So despite all of the film’s qualities: No.
Inspired: An embarrassing amount of similarities with The Great Escape; cool American, English maintaining order inside POW camp, somewhat sympathetic prison guard who pays for his incompetence, and much of the same cast.
Next Week: #12 Sunset Boulevard
Last Week: #14 Some Like It Hot
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