Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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The Bridge on the River Kwai

Film #190

THE PLOT

After settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men’s construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.

Year 1, Day 187

BEFORE: Going back a few decades to 1957, The Bridge on the River Kwai is the next film in Oscar month. This film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won seven of them including Best Picture (then called Best Motion Picture), Best Director, and Best Actor for Alec Guinness. The Bridge on the River Kwai also continues the mini war chain started yesterday with World War II taking the spotlight.

AFTER: Time for an analogy. The Bridge on the River Kwai : World War II :: Apocalypse Now : Vietnam War. Now that’s quite a bold statement and before I go any further, I’d like to backtrack a bit already. World War II is a much larger war than Vietnam with the big difference in that there were two wars so to speak: the one in Europe and the one in the Pacific. The Bridge on the River Kwai deals with the Japanese side of the war but much like Apocalypse Now focuses much more on the characters and their actions rather than the fighting itself.

Leading the way is Alec Guinness’ winning performance as Lt. Col. Nicholson. The first half of the film takes place almost entirely in the POW camp where Nicholson is the commander of the captured British soldiers and must deal with Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the commander of the Japanese camp where the Nicholson and company are being held. Despite being close to an hour and a half just in one location I did not lose interest once because the story was simple yet effective. It’s a battle between the stubborn man (Nicholson) who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants and the giver (Saito) who will eventually cave and reluctantly give into the other’s demands. It’s a situation many of us will probably be familiar with especially if you have siblings which means it’s very easy to notice any falseness or sense of a forced delivery in the acting. But Guinness and Hayakawa do a masterful job at nailing these characteristics and set up the second half of the film.

The reason I compared The Bridge on the River Kwai to Apocalypse Now instead of another war film like Saving Private Ryan or Platoon is because Kwai and Apocalypse don’t really show the gritty and dark reality of war (well, Apocalypse Now does); that’s not their purpose. Kwai just uses the setting of war time as a tool to tell a story of perception: what is right and what is wrong? How can something like the difference between good and bad change depending on how someone is looking at the situation. For example, Col. Saito believed in what he was doing (overworking the soldiers and wanting officers to work along side enlisted men) because if the bridge was not finished in time, his life was on the line. But on the opposite side of the situation was Nicholson who strongly believed in rules and a civilized atmosphere even in a POW camp and was willing to die himself for what was “right”. This example is just one of many similar ideas brought up throughout the film ending with Nicholson’s exclamation, “What have I done?”

Problems still exist though and they have to do with the music and the ending. One category I usually don’t bother to talk about in these reviews is the music and that’s because most of the time there’s nothing too special about it. While it plays a vital part in film, if done well, the music should just be affecting your subconscious and amplifying what you see on screen without you really noticing. In The Bridge on the River Kwai however, the music was very distracting. Quite often you would hear these big orchestras coming in with a grandiose and powerful tune, but the mood of the music would be way off. One example is in the beginning during the opening credits and into the first scene. The music that plays is quite ominous and after every dissolve I was waiting for something to jump out from behind a tree or gunfire to rain down on the men. But no, the men were just marching to their POW camp. Not a lighthearted and positive thing for sure but it’s not serious enough to warrant foreboding music. And my second gripe about the film is the ending and it being too short. “What,” you might say, “the film is almost three hours long, how could you want it to be longer?” Well, the first two-thirds or so of the film plays out very slowly. The character and story development takes a while, and in the case of this film, needs this time to effectively tell the story. But then you get to the ending and things start to happen quite rapidly and before you know it, Maj. Clipton (James Donald) is screaming, “Madness! Madness!” Not only does this change in pace seem abrupt and awkward, but I think the slower development would have been better to show this conclusion.

So, characters and story = good, music = bad, and ending = could have been better. Add everything up and The Bridge on the River Kwai turns out to be a jolly good show. Highly recommended and one to definitely consider if you’re a person who generally does not like older films.

RATING: 4 out of 5