A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)

Alec Guinness and David Lean made six features together, starting with Guinness's film debut in Great Expectations (1946). The Bridge on the River Kwai won him his only Oscar, but he seems to have been as much a good-luck charm for Lean as vice versa, since Lean miscast him rather badly in two otherwise successful films: Lawrence of Arabia (1962), in which he is rather embarrassingly non-Arab as King Feisal, and A Passage to India (1984), in which he plays Prof. Godbole with an accent that sounds more like Apu on The Simpsons than any actual Brahmin scholar. The part of Col. Nicholson in Bridge is a bit underwritten: We never really learn what the character's motives are for his eventual collaboration with the Japanese in building the bridge, and his moment of self-awareness as he says, "What have I done?" when he realizes the bridge is about to be blown up, is not adequately prepared for. But Guinness was a consummate trouper, even though he often clashed with Lean about the character, whom he wanted to be less of a stiff-upper-lip type than the director did. The movie won seven Oscars, including one for screenplay that was presented to Pierre Boulle, the author of the novel on which it was based. In fact, Boulle spoke and wrote no English; the screenplay was by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who were blacklisted for supposed communist ties and were judged ineligible under Academy rules. Their Oscars and their screen credit were restored posthumously in 1984. Today, Bridge looks like a well-made entertainment with some major flaws: The moral dilemma that centers on Col. Nicholson, who wants to demonstrate the superiority of the British at the expense of actually serving the Japanese cause, feels artificially created -- surely some of the officers and enlisted men under Nicholson's command had something to say about the colonel's plans. Sessue Hayakawa deserved his supporting actor nomination as Col. Saito, though the part verges on stereotype. The role of the American, Shears (William Holden), who opposes Nicholson, seems to be cooked up to provide something for a major movie star to play: Note that Holden receives top billing, and that Guinness, even though he was nominated for and won a leading actor Oscar, is billed third. The trek through the jungle by Shears, Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkins), Lt. Joyce (Geoffrey Horne), and their attractively nubile team of female bearers takes up a lot of not very involving screen time. And the demolition of the bridge and the train crossing it seems oddly anticlimactic, owing to some complications in blowing up and filming an actual full-size bridge and train. Today, of course, miniatures and special effects would be used to make the scene more exciting, but even for an actual blowing up of a bridge and a train, a sequence that had to be got right the first time, the one in Bridge is actually less successful than the one done 30 years earlier by Buster Keaton in The General (1926).