The Bridge on the River Kwai Reviews
Unfortunately, I didn't like this as a war film. I watch movies like this for many of the reasons religious people watch religious movies. They watch them to be inspired, and to see an example of a truly pious and virtuous man. The type of man all religious people wish they could be but very few are. A role modal that is "close to God." Typically, they also get examples of how to be a proper sinner and shameful. Both archetypes act as guides for the viewers own journey of self-discovery, self-improvement and self-empowerment.
The most meaningful reason I watch war movies is to be inspired. To see an example of a man with a strong character, strong principles, and is virtuous and dignified in times of war. Most men in old war movies are presented as so heroic and courageous; it's something I can never fully be, but something I can always strive for. It teaches you how to be a "real man," a term that's a misnomer because all men are real, but when I see old war movies calling them real men because of their nobility just seems right. It's more a badge of honor than a literal definition.
My problem with The Bridge On The River Kwai is the men are honorable in a very pro-British way, but in times of war the rules of life change and so should attitudes. Many events and ideas in the film contradict everything I've learn from other war movies. I can respect the men, but not as men in a war. If this was anything but a war movie I would have more appreciation for the movies British-centric sensibilities. I'm still giving the movie 5 stars, though. If it was intended to be a training video for real soldiers I'd give it a thumbs down.
If there's one thing that David Lean knows how to do, it's craft an epic film and that's exactly what he did here. It did drag a little bit for me in the first hour, but it was an engrossing watch after that point. It almost goes without saying that this film is perfect from a technical standpoint, and some truly great images were captured. The acting was also just as good, especially from the three key players: Alec Guiness, Sessue Hayakawa, and William Holden. Each of them brought their A-game and turned in probably the best performances of their entire careers. One aspect of the story I really liked was the psychological battle of wills that occurs between Saito and Nicholson. Both of them were equal in rank, but also similar in their approach to their own specific situations. One might say that they were cut from the same cloth. William Holden rounds out this trio of characters by portraying a man who is drafted for a difficult task in spite of his desire to just keep on surviving, and in a cruel turn of irony, puts him at cross-purposes with Nicholson who feels like he is doing good work by building the bridge.
Although the film plays it rather close to the vest in terms of message-making, only really making its statement in the final minutes, I thought that it handled the subject of war in a rather balanced and mature way despite taking a stand against it. Nobody is turned into a villain, instead having each major character be an unwitting foil to the other in a way that suggests what is later explicitly stated (by the medic) as madness. It's not perhaps the most original of anti-war statements, but it was portrayed to extremely good effect. Also, the last 20 minutes or so is as riveting and tense as anything that has come out since. Granted, it's not perfect as there is a rather superfluous romance between Shears and his nurse but, studio-mandated love interest aside, this film stands as not only one of the best anti-war films ever made, but one of the best films period.
David Lean's direction and Jack Hildyard's cinematography convey sweltering heat: the heat of the jungle, of Saito's tent and Nicholson's box, of Shears's beach and Warden's bungalow. But there is also a conscious distance separating audience from action. Whether framing a huge, explosive set piece with dozens of extras or a tense huddle over a table, the cameras are detached observers rather than participants. We see the big picture and think about why people act the way they do in their particular settings. We know them better than they know themselves, and understand each truth before it dawns on them. "Kwai," then, is a thing that hardly exists now: a big-budget war film that is observational and cerebral, not just gritty and melodramatic. Nor is it a simple matter of good versus evil. Though not at all a complicated movie to follow, its moral complexity is such that British audiences (and even some of the British actors) could feel it was anti-British, while Japanese audiences found it anti-Japanese. The movie is critical of all blind zealotry, and no wonder: screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson had to go uncredited as a result of a Hollywood blacklist. Despite being an an uncomfortable watch for partisans and flag-wavers of all stripes, "Kwai" was a huge hit with audiences and critics, winning the 1958 box office and heaps of awards. Not everything has held up in the nearly 60 years since. The day-for-night shots, standard at the time, are particularly unconvincing. But the challenging messages and the flawed characters still hit hard and loom large, and the dramatic finale remains one of the great benchmarks of cinema.