Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bridges Of Best Pictures: The Bridge On The River Kwai Endures!

The Good: Great acting, interesting characters, decent plot
The Bad: Moments when movie is just slow!
The Basics: With wonderful casting, acting, characters and a decent plot, The Bridge On The River Kwai succeeds as a character study of stubbornness.

One of the things missing from the Star Wars prequel films were moments that establish place and mood. In The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!), there is a moment on Cloud City when Luke Skywalker looks down into the chasm below him and director Lawrence Kasden clearly establishes what the stakes are in his impending fight with Darth Vader. When that battles reaches its climax, we again flash to the view of the drop that Luke is contemplating. These are moments that build mood, setting and character by not rushing difficult decisions. They are almost entirely absent from the three prequel films, because - in part - movie making has changed such that the expectations for how fast a movie must go is very different now than it was in the late '70s, early '80s. I mention this because as one goes further back, it's amazing to see how much time is spent in movies establishing mood, setting and character simply by showing the actions of a person or the visuals of a set.

This is especially true of the 1958 Best Picture, The Bridge On The River Kwai. This is a movie that is hard to watch for those who only have patience for today's pace of films. There are moments that clearly establish mood and setting and illustrate characters belaboring their points. So, for example, at one point, there is a very wide shot of the POW camp and the viewer watches Colonel Nicholson walk from one side of the screen to the other. It takes time. The camera does not move while he makes his journey.

When a force of British soldiers is ordered to surrender to the Japanese, they are interred by the Japanese under Col. Saito and compelled to build a bridge over the Kwai River. Saito is feeling pressure from his superiors to get the bridge completed so it may be used to transport goods for the war effort. The British Colonel Nicholson, demands Saito comply with the Geneva Conventions, which states that officers cannot be used in manual labor as POWs. Saito, furious, punishes Nicholson harshly, but finds he needs Nicholson's abilities. At the same time, one of the prisoners, an American named Shears, escapes and finds himself in a British military hospital where he is given an assignment that is at cross purpose to Nicholson's efforts.

The Bridge On The River Kwai is essential viewing, not only as a cinematic endeavor, but as a lesson on international relations. For an American movie, The Bridge On The River Kwai is the embodiment of British culture. This movie defines the British position of having a stiff upper lip. Col. Nicholson is not only a stereotype, but an archetype of British determination, discipline and work ethic. Masterfully played by Alec Guinness, Col. Nicholson practically defines British willpower through his tortured walk from The Oven to Saito's office after days in the torture box.

The Bridge On The River Kwai tells an impressive story, in terms of scope and concept. Nicholson essentially takes over Saito's POW camp and motivates the prisoners to do more work than Saito ever got out of them. While Saito is portrayed as sadistic, desperate and inefficient, Nicholson is played as determined, dedicated and organized. Certainly there is some lingering prejudice in the portrayals (debuting less than thirteen years after the end of WWII, the devastation and attitudes of the time were still fresh in the minds of the citizens of the US).

But more than a war movie, this is a film about standing up for principles. Nicholson's stand is from an ethical high ground that is hard to maintain in reality and when his character insists on taking the stands he does, it puts him in a very risky position. Still, it is refreshing to see the battle for principles fought so clearly and resolutely.

If anyone takes the brunt of the British stubbornness - outside Nicholson himself - it is Saito. Saito is ably played by Sessue Hayakawa who embodies more than just stereotypes about the Japanese. Hayakawa wisely tempers his performance as the film progresses and his angry delivery of the line "I have already given the order" is classic. Hayakawa was not recognized by most of the major awards at the time - he was nominated for several acting awards for this role, but only won one - and it's a shame because the moments of conversation he shares as Saito with Guinness's Nicholson are wonderfully humanizing.

Alec Guinness, conversely, won a number of awards for his portrayal of Col. Nicholson. And he deserved them, to be sure. Guinness is shrewd and intense as Nicholson and his use of body language throughout The Bridge On The River Kwai is genius. He plays a character who is working to motivate British POWs and his performance instantly vests the audience in the endeavor; he makes us believe such a thing is possible.

What moviegoers today are likely to have difficulty with is how much this movie is not a war movie, nor even a movie about building a bridge. It is, essentially, a character study and the purpose of much of the movie is to explore the effect of willpower asserted at cross purposes. There are long scenes where nothing happens, where characters talk, where after minutes of banal conversation one side finally concedes. The intensity of the characters is what the film is about, more than building a bridge, destroying a bridge or holding prisoners to a schedule.

Still, the movie has seriously slow moments. Once Nicholson hatches his plan and begins to organize the POWs, there are scenes - especially with the escaped Shears - that drone on. They maintain the pace and character of the prior portions of the movie, but by the time those scenes come up, we're ready for the movie to move a little faster.

As a note on the DVD release - The Bridge On The River Kwai never looked so good! - I found no matter how many different players I put the movie in, when I used the "Scene Select" function, the movie would always start with English subtitles on. It's not a big deal, but it seems to be a weird quirk.

Regardless, The Bridge On The River Kwai is a great movie for anyone who wants to spend a couple hours watching stubborn people be stubborn. Never has that been so entertaining. This movie is less likely to be enjoyed by those looking for an intense war movie.

As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available for enjoyment here!

For other films about the power of human resistance, please check out my reviews of:
Flash Of Genius
The Adjustment Bureau


For other film reviews, please click here to check out my index page on the subject!

© 2011, 2009, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission

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