Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar

When British P.O.W.s build a vital railway bridge in enemy-occupied Burma, Allied commandos are assigned to destroy it in David Lean's epic World War II adventure The Bridge On The River Kwai.

Spectacularly produced, The Bridge On The River Kwai captured the imagination of the public and won seven 1957 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Alec Guinness), and Best Director. Even its theme song, an old WWI whistling tune, the "Colonel Bogey March," became a massive wordwide hit. The Bridge On The River Kwai continues today as one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of all time.

Director: David Lean
Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne, Andre Morell, Peter Williams, John Boxer
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Actor-Alec Guinness; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Score-Malcolm Arnold. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor-Sessue Hayakawa.
DVD: Widescreen 2.55:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Surround 2.0, French, Spanish & Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0; subtitles English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 40 chapters; Rated PG; 162 min.; $24.95; street date 11/21/00.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailers; Talent Files.
Purchase: Limited Edition DVD | Standard Edition DVD | Score soundtrack - Malcolm Arnold

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B-/D-

David Lean first opened me to the viewing possibilities of older films. Actually, that’s not completely true, as I’d checked out quite a few “vintage” movies prior to my revelatory experience, but it wasn’t until I saw 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia in 1992 that I really accepted the potential pleasures of older works.

Prior to that point, my knowledge of “classic” films was decent but unexceptional. I’d watched a fair number of the really famous titles - things like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane - but none of them really did that much for me. Perhaps the weight that went with the high regard attached to these movies made my expectations absurdly high. For whatever reason, I thought these and other “classics” were interesting but not anything that really impressed me.

Lawrence changed that. My Dad got the letterboxed laserdisc of the “director’s cut” and although I didn’t feel I’d like it, I decided to give it a spin. To my surprise, I found a movie as fresh, visceral, exciting and compelling as anything I’d seen. Lawrence possessed a vital sense of visual energy and fluidity that made it tremendously involving and memorable. Once and for all, it changed my opinion that virtually all older movies were stodgy and stiff.

Logically, one would expect that I’d seek out more Lean after such a positive experience. However, since I’ve spent my life being illogical, this didn’t happen. In fact, I wouldn’t see another Lean film until I watched 1946’s Brief Encounter a few months ago, and that small, personal picture was a virtual opposite of the widescreen epic grandeur of Lawrence.

Had I bothered to check out other works by Lean, the logical choice would have been 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. As with Lawrence, Kwai dealt with war, but on a much smaller scale. Lawrence spanned years and covered an entire campaign during World War I, whereas Kwai takes on a period of only a few months in World War II and only briefly moves beyond the confines of a Japanese prisoner camp in Burma.

The story follows a group of British prisoners-of-war assigned to this work camp. Their purpose is to construct the titular span. Led by proper Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), this crew overcomes early difficulty to launch into their assignment with zeal and talent.

Simultaneously, an American sailor named Shears (William Holden) escapes from the camp and eventually is put up at a recuperation hospital in Ceylon. There he’s forced to participate in a mission to destroy the bridge being constructed by the British prisoners. As the film follows the different sides of this equation, it builds to a nice climax in which we discover which side will come out on top.

Actually, the dual nature of the plot provides one of the film’s flaws. Lean doesn’t balance coverage of each side terribly well. This means that Kwai will focus on Nicholson and his soldiers for an extended span with no signs of Shears, and vice versa. While this construction has its advantages - it keeps the film from feeling too splintered and disjointed - I didn’t care for it because it became too easy to forget one side or the other. Really, Kwai almost felt like two different movies, and the reunification at the end seemed a little awkward.

I also thought that the depiction of life in a POW camp appeared wholly unrealistic. The Japanese were notorious for their brutal treatment of prisoners, yet we get very little sense of that here. Granted, Nicholson and some other officers spend an extended period caged during the early parts of the movie; the torture was meant by Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) to break their wills. However, once it becomes evident the ill-treatment won’t work and Saito frees them, the camp takes on a “Hogan’s Heroes” air whereby the prisons seem to run the show and the captors come across as little more than hapless buffoons. At almost no point did I have the impression this camp was a truly horrible place to be; the film often told me it was a terrible experience, but the on-screen action rarely made it feel that way.

Despite these problems, Kwai provides a generally solid experience. One very positive aspect of it stems from its ambiguous treatment of its characters and situations. In Shears we find a true anti-hero; while I don’t know if I’d call him a coward, he certainly has no stomach for warfare and displays little tolerance for what he perceives as inane protocol. Holden plays Shears with an appropriate cockiness but also adds a nice layer of humanism and weariness that makes his opinions more clear.

Hayakawa neatly plays the dilemmas faced by the beleaguered Japanese colonel. On one hand, he can’t stand to lose face by acceding to a variety of demands made by the insolent British commanders, but he also has to be practical; if he fails to complete the bridge, he’ll not only look incapable to his bosses but he’ll also have to take the “honorable” way out and kill himself. As such, he sucks it up and tolerates the British eccentricities to ensure the completion of the span. Hayakawa makes us feel the pain experienced by the character and prevents him from becoming a gross caricature.

Actually, although I disliked the unrealistic depiction of the quality of life in the work camp, I did appreciate the fact that Kwai didn’t turn the Japanese into stereotypical monsters. Clearly Japanese soldiers performed some absolutely horrific actions during World War II, but those kinds of behaviors may be more appropriate for a different film. Kwai wants to avoid any form of clear moralizing about war, which leads to its ambiguous portraits. No one here is really right or wrong, and it lets the viewer determine the conclusions.

Key to that point is the deft and memorable performance of Guinness as Colonel Nicholson. He’s easily the most difficult to read character in the bunch, and Guinness really forces us to think for ourselves to determine his motivations and state of mind. Nicholson can be seen as an exemplary demonstration of military discipline and virtue or an unthinking Ahab who can’t see the forest for the trees. Even his final action in the film leaves an enormous amount of room for interpretation. Guinness won his only Oscar for his work here, and it was fully deserved; his performance is quite compelling and vivid.

As a whole, I definitely liked The Bridge on the River Kwai, but I really wouldn’t put it in a league with Lawrence of Arabia. Many will argue with my opinion, I’m sure, but I simply prefer the larger canvas on which the latter is painted and think its scope and grandeur make it more effective. However, Kwai is clearly a solid film that’s help up nicely over the years. A war film that features exceedingly little combat, the movie does something that’s rare these days: it lets the viewers make up their own minds about what they’ve seen.

The DVD:

The Bridge on the River Kwai appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the movie generally looked pretty good, it definitely showed its age much of the time.

Sharpness was one of the DVD’s strong points. For the vast majority of the film, the picture appeared crisp and well-defined. A few instances of mild softness occurred, but these were minor and caused little concern. Moiré effects appeared a few times but were rare, and I saw moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV.

Not surprisingly given the age of the movie, print flaws caused the DVD’s biggest problems. Actually, Kwai seemed relatively free of defects, though it displayed some ugly moments; for example, the opening scenes presented lots of grain and debris. The image quickly cleaned up, however, and maintained a fairly fresh appearance for most of the remainder of the film. Some grain could be seen, and intermittent examples of grit, speckles, dirt, small hairs and vertical lines also crop up at times. I also witnessed mild side-to-side jittering of the piece on a few occasions.

Colors seemed fairly pale and faded, but I didn’t find these to cause significant concerns because of the film’s setting. The environment featured mainly tans and browns, with some greens from the foliage; occasionally I saw brighter hues, but the majority of the tones tended toward “military drab”. I felt the colors should have been better-saturated and clearer, but they generally were acceptable within the film’s scheme.

Black levels usually looked deep and fairly dark with good contrast. For the most part, shadow detail seemed appropriately heavy but not excessively thick; I found the majority of the low-light situations to come across as clear and very watchable. The exceptions related to the usual culprit: “day for night” photography. That technique frequently results in overly dark images that can be very hard to see, and this occurred during Kwai whenever the method was used. Nonetheless, despite the various flaws, I thought Kwai presented a pretty solid picture. I’ve seen better images for material of this era or from earlier years, but not many.

Also relatively strong is the remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Kwai. Not surprisingly, the forward soundfield clearly dominates the action. The music and effects created a nice spread across the front speakers and offered a good sense of spatiality. I discerned some mild panning from side to side as well, though this effect was inconsistent; for instance, we might hear the whistling troops move across the channels, but then a driving car would stick to the center. Nonetheless, the impression seemed fairly open and lively.

The surrounds kicked in with some adequate reinforcement of the forward image; examples include a rain storm and scenes with explosions. The rears also featured quiet but generally solid ambiance at other times. No, the soundfield didn’t compete with more modern efforts, but it worked nicely for a picture of this vintage.

As a whole, the quality of the film’s audio seemed fairly good, but it also was quite inconsistent. These variations were most evident through the movie’s dialogue. Much of the time, speech sounded acceptably natural and accurate, but it could often become edgy and strident. Some of these changes actually occurred within the same scene; for example, during Colonel Saito’s address in chapter 11, the quality fluctuates pretty radically between front shots of the Colonel and side angles. I always found the dialogue to be intelligible, but the variations in tone were occasionally jarring. I also detected at least one occasion during which some speech seemed to bleed into the forward left channel; this occurred toward the end of the first chapter.

Effects generally sounded relatively clear and full. Some thinness affected them, and distortion could be heard in scenes that included gunfire or explosions, but the effects usually came across as acceptably realistic and clean. Kwai doesn’t offer much music, but when the score did appear, it was decently smooth and clear. Actually, it boasted some respectable low end but showed fairly flat highs; the upper ranges came across as somewhat dull. Bass appeared boomy but relatively good. The soundtrack of Kwai clearly showed it age, but it seemed pretty solid nonetheless.

One additional point about the movie portion of the DVD: it had the longest layer change I’ve yet witnessed, and the oddest one, too. It occurred at the end of chapter 18, right at the 1:21:16 point. The pause was a good second longer than any other I’ve seen. It’s a weird change because the movie actually goes to a different “track” after the layer switch; the film starts on “title 2” and resets both time and chapters. This means you can’t go back to any prior chapters unless you return to the main menu. Why didn’t the DVD continue on the normal path? I have no clue. It’s not a big deal, I suppose, but it sure seemed strange. It also makes chapter selection difficult; the DVD refers to 40 separately-numbered chapters, but we only get 1-18 and 1-22.

Anyone interested in supplemental features should not pursue this single-DVD edition of Kwai, as it contains very few items. We find trailers for Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone, Fail-Safe, and a re-release of Kwai that touts its connection to Lawrence of Arabia. We also get “Talent Files” for Lean plus actors Holden, Guinness, Hayakawa and Jack Hawkins. As is typical of the other biographies found on Columbia-Tristar DVDs, these are very brief and provide little information.

If you want to learn more about the making of the film, you’ll want to get the 2-DVD edition of The Bridge on the River Kwai; the details of that edition can be found here. However, if you’re only interested in the movie itself, you’ll be happy with this disc. Kwai offers a compelling and entertaining anti-war film that should provoke much post-viewing thought and discussion. The DVD provides fairly good though imperfect picture and sound plus almost no extras. The Bridge on the River Kwai belongs in your DVD collection; the decision to be made revolves around which version to purchase.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top