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People who have recourse to fingernail-biting in moments of stress are advised to grow them long in preparation for The Bridge on the River Kwai.
In Pierre Boulle’s screenplay, the bridge on the River Kwai is built by the Japanese during World War II, using British prisoners as a labor force. The British colonel who commands the prisoners eventually falls in love with the bridge. He builds it better than the Japanese could have done without him, as a symbol of what can be accomplished by British “soldiers, not slaves.” So infatuated is he with his wooden love-child that he nearly frustrates an attempt by Allied commandoes to blow it up.
At the end, one of the few survivors stands on a hill everlooking the remains of the bridge, its builder, and its destroyers, murmuring, for very good reason, “Madness...madness.” Such fine touches of irony pervade the film, giving it a refreshing tartness that most war movies lack. Boulle has packed into his screenplay all the elements a good war movie ought to have: torture, escape, death, destruction, heroism, sacrifice, and so forth. But everything is seen freshly, with the eye of an artist instead of a hack.
David Lean’s direction is marred only by too slow a pace: the film did not need to run quite so close to three hours. He made brilliant use of the genuine tropical jungle against which the film was made. Scenes of marching men, jungles, hills and rivers are all tremendously effective in their CinemaScopic splendor, and the bridge goes up with a rousing blast. Moreover, every frame is closely bound up with the story: spectacle complements action instead of interfering with it.
In this big, wide-ranging movie, scope is stressed at the expense of depth, and there is no time to develop any very complex characters. The most interesting of the lot is the fanatic British colonel, all of whose actions stem from one trait: conscientiousness carried to the point of mania. Alec Guinness plays him with deft stiffness. His torture scenes are appropriately ghastly, and he resists the temptation to clown. William Holden gives his usual performance as a soldier who escapes from the prison camp and returns to blow up the bridge. Jack Hawkins and Geoffrey Horne are his fellow commandoes, Sessue Hayakawa is the blustering Japanese commandant, and all of them are unexceptionable.
As the winner of a whole flock of minor awards and a leading Oscar candidate, The Bridge on the River Kwai has acquired an undeserved reputation for “significance.” The only way it could “mean” anything very important would be as a comment on various attitudes toward war or toward fine points of law and principle. But since the spokesman for one attitude is unspeakably stupid if not downright insane, the “issue” which the film discusses is no issue at all. We are expected to feel a grudging admiration for this Colonel Nicholson as he suffers, and makes his men suffer, for his little point of principle. However, anybody who hates the waste of pain and misery is likely to find his admiration somewhat more grudging than the author expects.
When you come right down to it, The Bridge on the River Kwai is only a war melodrama. Its only valid “meaning” is as a glorification of human courage. Its primary appeal is not to the understanding or the esthetic sense, but to whatever in us is receptive to sheer physical action. But as such, it is a very fine movie, a highly effective blend of tension and irony.
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