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Bridge On The River Kwai was a watershed moment for its director and star

Illustration for article titled Bridge On The River Kwai was a watershed moment for its director and star

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With The Railway Man on the horizon, we highlight movies about prisoners of war.


The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge On The River Kwai, the 1957 P.O.W. film that perhaps best exemplifies the British concept of the stiff upper lip, marked something of a watershed moment for its director, David Lean, and star, Alec Guinness. Both Lean and Guinness would win Oscars for their work on the film, and their reputations were forever altered by it as well.

Lean, who began his directing career with rather small-scale stage adaptations of Noël Coward plays (including the tremendous Brief Encounter) before transitioning to adapting the works of Charles Dickens, suddenly became synonymous with the movie epic. His career post-Kwai boasts only four narrative features over 22 years (pre-Kwai, he made 11 in 13), but all four are gigantic in scope and scale, including Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Guinness, for his part, was already known as one of the greatest actors alive, but his film work had primarily been in the comedy sphere. As the film’s protagonist, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, Guinness offered a portrait of a man torn between his allegiance to his country and his need to promote that country’s ideals of suffering with dignity, hard work, and solid craftsmanship, via building the titular bridge for his captors. His work post-Kwai tends much more toward the dramatic side of his talents.

Even 56 years since its release, Kwai remains a stirring war film, but what makes it unique is the way the bullets are withheld for the final moments. Guinness famously clashed with Lean on whether the novel that served as the film’s source text, by Frenchman Pierre Boulle, was intended as anti-British, meant to portray men like Nicholson as wishy-washy types who would collaborate with the enemy at the drop of a hat if it meant proper treatment. But that tension between director and star regarding the source text means that Kwai becomes a film where the true war is over ideals, between democracy and fascism and between the simple pleasures of a job well done and the more complex issues of military strategy.

The movie stacks the deck in favor of its British characters—the Japanese of the time had many skilled engineers who could have completed the titular bridge—but it’s also firmly cognizant of the essential humanity of both the imprisoned and those who hold them prisoner. When a bystander famously observes “Madness!” at the destruction wrought in the film’s final battle (the only true battle scene in the picture), he’s speaking about the pointlessness of war, but also about the way that it shoehorns men into boxes, both literally and metaphorically. Nicholson and prison camp commander Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) are only enemies because they have to be. The British—and the Allies—prevail, but the system that created the conflict in the first place will rear its head again soon enough.

Availability: The Bridge On The River Kwai is available in several different Blu-ray and DVD packages, to rent or purchase through the major digital services, and through Netflix’s disc delivery service.