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500 Five-Star: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

November 20, 2011


Let’s just get this out of the way first: there are many, many historical inaccuracies in The Bridge on the River Kwai.  It can’t be taken seriously as a genuine portrayal of events or characters.  However, it’s not really meant to be.  For the most part, it is really a fictional account of a real event in which the building of the bridge has instead been used as a tool to explore the psychological effects as well as the sad inevitabilities of war.  The bridge means something to just about every main character: it’s a badge of honour, a morale-lifter, a means of escaping the war alive.  As unbelievable as the characters themselves are, their motives are always convincingly played out…and so lies the brilliance in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Most famous is Alec Guinness’s portrayal of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson; a man who, so desperate to maintain honour and morale amongst his captured men, loses sight of his purpose and ends up helping the enemy.  Upholding the British honour and saving face in front of his Japanese captor becomes an obsession, one which is only-devastatingly-realised  by Nicholson in the dramatic, explosive finale.  It’s a credit to Guiness, in an Oscar-winning role, that he makes this almost laughable premise seem entirely convincing.  The war has completely destroyed his ability to see the bigger picture; winning small battles, no matter what that victory might mean, has suddenly become the only aim.

Counteracting this is William Holden as Shears, an escaped American, desperately trying to get home.  To hell with honour or victory…he just wants to be out of the jungle and back on American soil.  Ending up in a commando mission to destroy the bridge that Nicholson is working so hard to build, the two men’s single-minded aims are (unbeknownst to them) at violent odds with eachother.  This throws up interesting questions on the selfishness of man: Nicholson is aiding the enemy, yet truly believes that this will give his men the strength to survive.  Shears is embarking on a dangerous mission against the enemy, yet his only interest is in himself and his own survival.  Both are sympathetic characters in a psychologically disturbing situation, and it is the slow-paced development of this situation and the individual aims of the men involved which make this film such a success.  It’s a fascinating tale, beautifully shot and directed, and for that, Bridge on the River Kwai deserves its place as one of the greats.


Possibly David Lean’s greatest film…and there’s no real higher praise than that.  A must on any five-star list.


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