“One day, in a week, a month, a year, on that day when God willing, we all return to our homes again, you’re going to feel very proud of what you have achieved here in the face of great adversity,” says Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson in the adventure-epic war film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), directed by one of the greatest filmmakers – David Lean.
Early in the film there’s a scene that I have always loved, but a couple of days ago when I was re-watching it I got very emotional. During World War II, the British POWs have arrived to the prison camp in Burma run by the Japanese. Led by Nicholson, they come into camp while whistling “Colonel Bogey.” You know the tune. At first, you only hear the cicadas around the camp, and the whistling in the far distance. The prisoners on sick bay sit up to take notice. The sound becomes louder as you see the troops marching in. Nicholson now stands in front of them – as they get into formation. The soundtrack will join in – a symphonic sound – for in his head, that’s the way Nicholson hears it. He will tilt his head and see some of the prisoners barefoot. We get a close up of their muddy feet. You’ve got to admire the need for order, structure and commitment to moving forward – especially when the worst circumstances surround you – no matter how existential your situation has become.
Set in 1943, the film is based on the novel by the same name by Pierre Boulle – it is a fictional account, but uses the construction of the Burma railway connecting Malaysia and Rangoon as historical background. It describes the use of prisoners in the POW camp by the Japanese to build a bridge – and how a stealth mission by the Allies was sent to destroy it. The main thrust of the story is the battle of wills between stubborn and principled Nicholson and the commander of the camp – the strict Colonel Saito. Saito, whose motto is “be happy in your work,” insists that all men – including officers – must do hard work. Nicholson informs him that “the usage of officers for manual labor is strictly forbidden by the Geneva convention.” He even shows him a copy of it. “Without law, commander, there’s no civilization,” he insists. Saito uses the copy to slap him in front of his soldiers. Unwilling to back down, Nicholson is placed inside a hothouse – which is a small cage made out of iron exposed to the sun. Faced with the impending deadline of May 12 to complete the construction otherwise facing failure, Saito backs down. The moment where Nicholson steps out of the cage is one of the most extraordinary moments in cinema. Nicholson – portrayed by Alec Guinness who won the Oscar for Best Actor – stands up, stumbles and continues moving forward – his knees buckling yet persevering with dignity and composure. The unforgettable walk was based on his own son’s battle with polio. “You are defeated but you have no shame,” Saito tells Nicholson. “You are stubborn but have no pride. You endure, but you have no courage.”
Once Nicholson has settled the scrimmage over values with Saito – he directs his men to work on the bridge. He wants the men to work with order and discipline and no thought of sabotage. “We’ll teach them a lesson in western efficiency that will put them to shame,” exclaims Nicholson. “We’ll show them what the British soldier is capable of doing.”
American POW Shears (an exemplary William Holden) escapes the camp only to be forced to return as part of an operation to place explosives on the foundation of the bridge at the exact time the first train is crossing it. “It’s almost as if your whole escape was planned with us in mind,” British Colonel Green says to him. Shears’s journey across the jungle with a team of allies takes most of the second half of the film. These sequences have such visual power. Lean takes full advantage of the Cinemascope. The lush, beautiful jungle scenery becomes a thematic form. In an one moment, when the Japanese attack them – the noise of a grenade exploding will cause these bats to fly away. Lean will focus on the group of bats furiously flying above – and then cut to crimson blood spilled on the river. Silence interspersed with the natural sounds of the jungle create a sense of dread in one chase sequence. This is one of the most influential movies of all time – its shadow cast as recently as Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” It even borrows the last words of the film “Madness, Madness, Madness.”
Lean remains impartial – simply showing you the madness of war. The bridge itself – its construction and destruction – becomes a symbol of humans attempting to grasp beyond the limitations of life.
Guinness and Lean wrestled with how to portray Nicholson. In one of the character’s most revealing moments, Lean shoots Guinness with his back to the audience. Guinness opposed this. You be the judge.
Nicholson: “Tomorrow it will be 28 years to the day that I’ve been in the service. 28 years in peace and war. I don’t suppose I’ve been at home more than ten months in all that time. Still, it’s been a good life. I love India. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realise you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents, what difference your being there at any time made to anything, or if it made any difference at all really. Particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. “
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, Redbox, Apple TV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson
Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle
Directed by David Lean
Starring William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa
Bringing “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to the Screen
The working title of the film was ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai,’ which was the English translation of the title of Pierre Boulle’s novel…The film was shot entirely on location in Sri Lanka, which was then known as Ceylon. The film’s signature tune, “Colonel Bogey March,” which is whistled by “Nicholson” and his troops at the film’s opening, became an immensely popular hit and an iconographic musical theme. The action in the film roughly parallels that of the Boulle novel on which it was based. One major difference, however, is that in the novel, the character of “Shears” is British, not American…Boulle’s book was inspired by the stretch of railway from Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar) known as “The Death Railway.” The corridor was built by the Axis powers during World War II to transport Japanese troops and supplies to Burma. Approximately 100,000 conscripted Asian laborers and 16,000 Allied prisoners of war died while working on the project. The construction of the railway became necessary when Allied troops mined the sea route through the Strait of Malacca, the main route by which Japanese support troops were transported to Burma. The project was started in June 1942. The wooden bridge over the River Kwae Yai, which in Boulle’s book was called the River Kwai, was completed in February 1943, followed by a concrete and steel bridge completed in June 1943. Both bridges were destroyed by Allied bombers on 2 April 1945, although they had been damaged and repaired several times before. Although as many of the film reviews noted, the film’s Japanese prison camp was in Burma, while the actual bridge over the Kwae Yai River is in Thailand. In 1943, Boulle himself was captured by Vichy French loyalists on the Mekong River and sentenced to a life of hard labor at a prison camp in Saigon. After escaping in 1944, Boulle served with British Special Forces until the end of the war. Although several newspaper articles, including an October 1997 article in The Observer (London), noted similarities between “Col. Nicholson” and the real-life Lt. Col. Philip Toosey, a British officer serving in Singapore who was captured by the Japanese in 1942 and forced to help build the bridge, Boulle claimed that he based Nicholson on two officers he had known in Indochina… (tcm.com)
About Alec Guinness
Alec Guinness was born on April 2, 1914, in London, England. From his youth, Guinness was interested in acting, though he was not much encouraged. At age 18 he began working for an advertising agency, but he soon began to study acting and made his stage debut in 1934 as an extra at the King’s Theatre in Hammersmith, London. Three years later he got his first real break when he joined the acting company of John Gielgud. As a member of the company he appeared in such classics as “Richard II” (1937), “The School for Scandal” (1937), “The Three Sisters” (1937), and “The Merchant of Venice” (1938). In 1938 he starred in a popular modern-dress version of Hamlet at London’s Old Vic. While on leave from the Royal Navy during World War II, he made his New York stage debut in a 10-day Christmas run of “Flare Path” (1942–43), and in later years he appeared there in T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party” (1964) and in a play about the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “Dylan” (1964). Guinness’s initial screen role was as Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket in “Great Expectations” (1946), an adaptation of the novel by Charles Dickens. After this he performed in “Oliver Twist” (1948) and a series of Ealing Studios comedies, notably the internationally popular “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949), in which he played the roles of each of eight heirs to a dukedom, as well as “The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951), “The Man in the White Suit” (1951), and “The Ladykillers” (1955)…Fellow actor Peter Ustinov once called Guinness “the outstanding poet of anonymity,” in reference to Guinness’s ability to create complex characterizations without incorporating his own recognizable personal traits and mannerisms. Guinness’s characters ranged from meek to malevolent, from timid bank clerks to fiery military officers, and all were noted for their depth and credibility, even those that called for him to wear layers of heavy makeup and prosthetics. As the actor once described his approach, “I try to get inside a character and project him—one of my own private rules of thumb is that I have not got a character unless I have mastered exactly how he walks…. It’s not sufficient to concentrate on his looks. You have got to know his mind….”
Among Guinness’s other notable films are “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), for which he won a best actor Academy Award; “The Horse’s Mouth” (1958), in which he played the artist Gulley Jimson; and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), in which he played Prince Feisal. He won a whole new generation of fans for his role as the Jedi warrior Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi in “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), and “Return of the Jedi” (1983). Despite this newfound popularity, however, Guinness hated his role in these movies, later stating in an interview that he had encouraged George Lucas to kill off his character: “I just couldn’t go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines. I’d had enough of the mumbo jumbo.” Roles that were more to his liking were those of Professor Godbole in “A Passage to India” (1984) and William Dorrit in “Little Dorrit” (1987). In 1980 he won a special Academy Award for memorable film performances. Guinness also starred as the master spy George Smiley in two television miniseries, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1980) and “Smiley’s People” (1982). The multitalented actor, who was knighted in 1960, also wrote dramatizations (“The Brothers Karamazov” and “Great Expectations”) and a film script (“The Horse’s Mouth”) and co-authored the play “Yahoo” (1976). His autobiography, “Blessings in Disguise,” was published in 1986; in the following decade he released two volumes of personal diary entries: “My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor” (1997) and “A Positively Final Appearance” (1999). (britannica.com)
About Author Pierre Boulle
Pierre Boulle was born on February 20, 1912, in Avignon, France. Boulle studied to become an electrical engineer but instead went to Asia, where he spent eight years as a planter and soldier. He is best known for his novel “Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï” (1952; U.S. title, “The Bridge over the River Kwai;” U.K. title, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”), dealing with a company of British soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese in World War II. An ambiguous moral fable, it presents virtue gradually shading into vice—or, at least, absurdity—in its portrayal of a British officer whose self-discipline and work ethic compel him to complete a bridge for the enemy. A popular film based on the novel appeared in 1957 and won six Academy Awards, including that for best motion picture. From Asian legends Boulle created philosophical tales in the manner of Voltaire— “Le Bourreau” (1954; U.S. title, “The Executioner;” U.K. title, “The Chinese Executioner”). He also turned to a literature of the fantastic with “Contes de l’absurde” (1953; “Time out of Mind, and Other Stories”) and to science fiction with “La Planète des singes” (1963; “Planet of the Apes,” adapted as a film by Franklin J. Schaffner , with several sequels and remakes) and “E = mc2” (1957), which contains ironic but humane considerations of the fate of the modern individual caught in a political, social, and intellectual upheaval. Later works include “Les Oreilles de jungle” (1972; “Ears of the Jungle”), “Les Vertus de l’enfer” (1974; “The Virtues of Hell”), “Le Bon Léviathan” (1978; “The Good Leviathan”), “Miroitements” (1982; “Mirrors of the Sun”), “La Baleine des Malovines” (1983; U.S. title, “The Whale of the Victoria Cross;” U.K. title, “The Falklands Whale”), “Pour l’amour de l’art” (1985; “For the Love of Art”), “Le Professeur Mortimer” (1988), “L’Îlon” (1991; “a volume of memoirs”), and “À nous deux, Satan!” (1992). (britannica.com)
About Director David Lean
David Lean was born on March 25, 1908 in Croydon, Surrey, England. Lean was the son of strict Quaker parents and did not see his first film until age 17. He began his film career in 1928 as a teaboy for Gaumont-British studios, where he soon was promoted to clapboard boy, and finally to editor, a position at which he excelled. By the end of the 1930s Lean was the most highly-paid film editor working in British cinema and widely regarded as the best. Until the end of his career, Lean considered editing the most interesting step in the filmmaking process and always contracted with studios to cut his own films. Lean’s collaboration with playwright Noël Coward began in 1942 when they codirected the drama “In Which We Serve.” The success of this film allowed for the funding and formation of Cineguild, a production company helmed by Lean and co-founded by Coward, producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, and director-cinematographer Ronald Neame. The company’s initial productions—three adaptations of Coward’s stage plays—were Lean’s first solo efforts as a director. The first of these, the domestic drama “This Happy Breed” (1944), is today seen as hopelessly dated because of Coward’s patronizing treatment of the lower middle-class. The second was Coward’s classic supernatural comedy “Blithe Spirit” (1945), regarded as a good effort but little more than a stage play on celluloid. The last of the Coward vehicles, the romantic melodrama “Brief Encounter” (1945; based on Coward’s play “Still Life”), was a masterpiece and the first of many Lean films to employ the theme of private obsessions versus outward appearances. Two Charles Dickens classics served as source material for Lean’s next efforts. “Great Expectations” (1946), which garnered Academy Award nominations for best director, picture, and screenplay, is still considered by many to be the finest screen adaptation of a Dickens novel. “Oliver Twist” (1948) is also highly regarded and features a memorable performance by Alec Guinness as Fagin. In 1950 Cineguild disbanded, and Lean began working for British producer Alexander Korda at Shepperton Studios.
Lean’s films of the late 1940s and early ’50s are regarded as good but unremarkable, highlighted by the standout performances of Charles Laughton in “Hobson’s Choice” (1954) and Katharine Hepburn in “Summertime” (1955). He returned to prominence with the prisoner-of-war drama “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), a film noted for its psychological battles of will and taut action sequences. It won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and Lean’s first as best director, and has been named to the Library of Congress National Film Registry, a national honour given to films deemed culturally, historically, and artistically significant. Because the movie was funded by a major American studio (Columbia), Lean for the first time in his career had the luxury of an extended shooting schedule, a large crew, technical amenities, and a prestigious cast. Its success insured that, for the remainder of his career, Lean would devote himself exclusively to big-budget epics. The story of T.E. Lawrence, a controversial British officer who led an Arab revolt against the German invasion during World War I, became the basis for “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), often considered Lean’s finest film. The film won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and director, and made international stars of actors Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. Filming was arduous, conditions were hot and time-consuming, and production took 20 months to complete. The film is visually spectacular with grand expanses of textured, windblown sand, hundreds of charging camels shot by traveling dolly, and extreme close-ups of O’Toole’s piercing blue eyes. “Lawrence of Arabia” has been rereleased theatrically three times and was elected to the National Film Registry in 1991. “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), a love story set against a backdrop of the Russian Revolution, and the romantic “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970) followed, both exhibiting the grand scale, lush cinematography, and breathtaking landscapes that had become the hallmark of Lean’s work…Ryan’s Daughter was financially successful, but critics panned it…Lean was humiliated by the negative press and did not direct another film for 14 years. His last film, “A Passage to India” (1984), based on the E.M. Forster novel, was regarded as his best work since “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lean was knighted by Queen Elizabeth that year, and in 1990 he was awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. At the time of his death, he was preparing a screen version of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Nostromo.” (britannica.com)