Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

David Lean’s rousing action-adventure war spectacle remains to be one of his most rewatchable offerings.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. David Lean
1957 | UK | Drama/Adventure/War | 161 mins | 2.35:1 | English, Japanese & Thai
PG (passed clean) for mild war violence

Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa
Plot: British POWs build a railway bridge across the River Kwai for their Japanese captors, oblivious of the Allies’ plans to destroy it.
Awards: Won 7 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score. Nom. for 1 Oscar – Best Supporting Actor
Distributor: Sony

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: DVD
First Published: 30 May 2010
Spoilers: No


The film that marked the first of five epics that David Lean shot in the last three decades of his life, The Bridge on the River Kwai tells the fictional story of a company of British POWs led by Col. Nicholson (Alex Guinness) who is forced to succumb his power to Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) who orders the completion of a bridge across the Kwai river so that trains carrying war supplies could cross it.

What makes Kwai such a fascinating war film is this: Nicholson, in a bid to boost the morale of his men and ease their suffering, decides to build a top-quality bridge for Saito that would become a symbol of British pride after the war.  However, in a parallel story, the Allies’ counteract by sending a few trained soldiers in explosives to blow up the bridge in a covert operation no one knows.

Set in WWII Burma, but filmed in picturesque Sri Lanka, Kwai’s stunning cinematography captures the tropical landscape in both sweltering heat and pouring rain, highlighting the harsh conditions that plague the camp. Lean’s wide, sweeping shots and steady close-ups allow the drama and action to unfold in its totality, never disorientating the viewer.

“One question… can you finish the bridge in time?”

Much of Kwai’s watchability also hinges on the Nicholson-Saito relationship.  It is an awkward one, but it is interesting to see how it develops.  In the film’s most understated scene, both characters stroll along the completed bridge.  Saito remarks, “Beautiful, isn’t it?”, referring to the sunset (and maybe, symbolically, Japan’s impending decline).  

Nicholson replies thinking that Saito is referring to the bridge, and starts expressing how it represents his life’s greatest achievement as a soldier.  Saito does not correct Nicholson and allows him his quiet moment of triumph.

In a way, this scene is the finest indicator of the growing comradeship between the two enemies in the film.  Lean’s depiction of WWII boils down to these two characters, as human as anyone else in terms of their fallibility, but are made to look invulnerable to that very perceived fallibility.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a rousing action-adventure spectacle that is not to be missed.  It is also a towering achievement in Lean’s career, proving his versatility in film directing.  For better or worse, he would never return to directing small, intimate dramas again after catching the epic film bug.

Grade: A


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