Saturday, September 3, 2011

Stubs – The Bridge on the River Kwai


THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Ann Sears and introducing Geoffrey Horne. Directed by David Lean. Screenplay by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Based on the book by Pierre Boulle. Produced by Sam Spiegel. Run Time 162 minutes, Color. U.S. and U.K. World War II, Drama, Action

Did David Lean ever make a movie that clocked in short of an epic run time? Clocking in at just under three hours, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI is long, but it is never dull. While I’m also a big fan of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), there are definitely places where that film seems to be filling time. And the structure of BRIDGE provides a more defined beginning, middle and end that LAWRENCE doesn’t seem to have. This is a much more straight forward film in that respect.

There are two plots running simultaneously. The first involves Shears (William Holden), a Navy seaman who has copped the identity of a Commander hoping for better treatment as a P.O.W. He has been in Camp 16, run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) long enough to know how to game the system. Reminiscent of his character in STALOG 17, Holden trades with the guards, dead soldiers’ lighters for being on sick call or cigarette butts. Shears has one thing on his mind, escape and getting back to America. When the opportunity arises, Shears and two accomplices make a run for it. But only Shears survives. First, he stumbles to a native village which patches him up and gives him a boat. Second, when he can no longer paddle and the boat drifts out to sea, he is rescued by the British Navy.

Recuperating at a hospital in Ceylon as a U.S. commander and the privileges that provides him, Ann Sears playing the role Nurse, all Shears can think about is going home. He even has figured out what he will do when they discover his true rank, he’ll claim what we know as a section 8. Things seem to be going as plan and he is a couple of days away from going home when he is visited by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) who wants to talk to him about joining Force 316.

Camp 16 is using P.O.W. labor to build a railroad bridge that will help link the Japanese railroad from Singapore to Rangoon. Saito has been having enough trouble getting the railroad completed when a new group of British prisoners arrive, thanks to the surrender of Singapore. Led by Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alex Guinness), the new troops are to be treated as prisoners not as soldiers. Saito has contempt for the British who have surrendered rather than fight to the death.

And that is where the second plot takes place and it is a battle of wills between Saito and Nicholson. Saito, who is under a tight deadline to get the bridge completed. He demands that British officers be treated like the rest of the prisoners and do manual labor. But Nicholson refuses, citing the Geneva conventions. Saito doesn’t want anything to do with the code, so he punishes Nicholson and the other officers. But progress on the bridge is slow. The British soldiers do as bad of a job as they can and even manage to set production back. Saito at first blames the engineer in command and takes over the project personally. But progress is still slow and with the deadline approaching, Saito capitulates to Nicholson’s demands.

Nicholson, being a man of principal, champions the project as being a good morale booster for the men. He wants to show his captors what good work the English can do. He takes pride to a whole new level and becomes obsessed with the bridges’ construction. While still the titular head of the project and the commander of the camp, it is clear that Saito loses and cedes control of the project to Nicholson. His crew not only moves the location of the bridge but increases the workload on the men. He even goes so far as to have the officers help with the manual labor and recruits the sick and wounded prisoners to lend a hand. The result is that the bridge is completed on time and is a marvel to behold. While Nicholson celebrates the accomplishment, even putting a plaque on the bridge with his name on it, Saito goes about the steps to prepare for hari kari when the bridge is completed.

While Shears doesn’t want to go back to Camp 16, he is left with little choice. The British and the Americans have figured out what his true rank is, and the U.S. Navy has reassigned him to Warden’s Force 316. When he sees no way to avoid it, he volunteers to go. Rounding out their group are two more men, the supposed experienced Chapman, who dies when they parachute in behind Japanese lines, and the inexperienced Lt. Joyce (Geoffrey Horne). As they make their way to blow up the bridge, Warden gets shot when Joyce freezes before a Japanese soldier. Warden kills the soldier, but not before he gets shot in the foot. This of course, slows down their expedition and changes the roles each will assume. Warden for a time gives the leadership up to Shears, but he really doesn’t want it. Warden is not left behind as he wished, but is carried on stretcher when he can no longer walk.

The trio reach the bridge on the eve of it’s opening, when the first train will cross its trestle. Planting plastic explosives three feet below the water line seems sufficient, as does hiding the detonator across the river. However, overnight, the river recedes and some of the wiring is left exposed.

And it is this wiring that Nicholson sees on his last check of the bridge as the train is approaching. Bringing Saito with him, Nicholson goes down under the bridge and follows one of the wires straight to Lt. Joyce who is manning the detonator. There doesn’t seem to be a plan B in mind, as Warden and Shears want Joyce to explode the bridge, but he seems intent on waiting for the train. Joyce, who has always been slow to act, kills Saito, but can’t get through to Nicholson. While the two men struggle, Joyce is killed by Japanese fire. Warden shoots mortar at the bridge as a diversion and Shears swims across the river to kill Nicholson. Shears has come too far not to complete the mission. But he too is shot and killed, but not before Nicholson sees him. It is then and only then that Nicholson realizes the error of his ways and has the “What have I done?” moment, the film is famous for.

One of Warden’s mortar lands next to Nicholson, mortally wounding him. But Nicholson tries for a moment to shake off its effects. Stooping to pick up his cap, he is a proper British officer after all; he instead collapses, falling on the detonator, blowing up the bridge, just as the train starts across.

The acting in the film is great. Guinness won the Academy Award for Best Actor and Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting. Alec Guinness had, up until then, been considered a comedic actor, having worked in a series of comedies produced by the British Ealing Studios. These films include: THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951), THE LADYKILLERS (1955) and THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951). He would work again with David Lean in such films as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (playing Prince Faisal) and DR. ZHIVAGO (1965) (playing Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago). Guinness is probably best known to the under forty crowd as Obi-Wan Kenobi, in the original STAR WARS (1980).

William Holden, who had been a star since GOLDEN BOY (1939), was at the top of his game when he appeared in BRIDGE, having won the Oscar the year before for STALAG 17 (1954). In addition to these films, he had also starred in SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), for which he was nominated for an Oscar; BORN YESTERDAY (1950); SABRINA (1954) and THE COUNTRY GIRL (1954), LOVE IS A MANY-SLEPENDORED THING (1955) and PICNIC (1955), by the time he made BRIDGE. He would go on to star in such films as THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959); THE WILD BUNCH (1969); THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) and NETWORK (1976), for which he would be nominated again for an Academy Award. His last film was 1981’s S.O.B., a forgettable Blake Edwards comedy.

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But it also won for Best Adapted Screenplay, an award originally given to the “screenwriter” Pierre Boulle, the author of the book it was based on. This is because the two men, who wrote the script, though not together, were on the Hollywood Blacklist. It wasn’t until 1984 that the Academy rectified the situation and gave the awards posthumously to Foreman and Wilson. And since then the credits have been updated to show these two men, not Boulle, as the screenwriters.

This film also made the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1997.

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI is an interesting psychological study and is a fun film to watch. Somewhat slow by today’s standard it makes up for it by having good writing, directing and acting, things few big budget films have these days. And unlike most current big budget films, the big explosion isn’t the only thing worth watching.

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