“The Bridge on the River Kwai”

Two takes on David Lean's epic masterpiece show how vastly different Hollywood's idea of great moviemakers was in 1957.

Topics: Movies,

“The Bridge on the River Kwai”
Directed by David Lean
Starring Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa
Columbia Tri-Star Home Video; widescreen anamorphic (2.55:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Second disc with making-of documentary, featurettes and tribute by John Milius

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is an epic masterpiece that rests on the electric, black-comic relationship between British POW Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and Japanese commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Nicholson at first seems like a simple hero, but his rebellion against the Japanese consists of insisting on the class rights of officers. Saito at first seems like a simple villain, but he adheres to a more personal and mystic code of honor than Nicholson’s.

Nicholson becomes his troops’ hero for standing up to the Japanese, even though his reason is that officers shouldn’t work side by side with their men on the building of a crucial railway link. When Saito releases him because British enlistees won’t obey Japanese officers, Nicholson, too, gets disgruntled at their shirking. Nicholson wants the bridge to be his “show”; he wants to prove how well his Englishmen can build a bridge. As the bridge goes up before our eyes, it’s easy to lose sight of the structure’s military importance for the Japanese. It’s like those moments during an inventively designed play when the audience feels like cheering the set.

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David Lean insinuates escalating ironies through the characters of the British medical officer (James Donald), who looks on with disbelief, and the American (William Holden), who thinks that all military regimens, whether Japanese or British, have “the smell of death” about them. As he next did in “Lawrence of Arabia,” Lean both celebrates the Great Man theory of history — with Nicholson as his Great Man — and criticizes it.

The irony of the “extras” on the DVD is that they point up how vastly different Hollywood’s idea of great men in moviemaking is now from what it was in 1957. The commemorative booklet — which for once in a DVD is a useful memento — reprints the text from the film’s original souvenir book. This written program tells the story of a swashbuckling producer named Sam Spiegel who has followed up his productions of “The African Queen” and “On the Waterfront” with his most ambitious and expensive enterprise yet. The director isn’t even cited until the 13th paragraph.

The major part of the filmed program, including recent interviews with crew members, tells a different story. It relates, first, how an inspired filmmaker named Lean refused to accept the hackneyed script that Spiegel handed him and kept working on it with blacklisted writer Michael Wilson right up to the moment of filming; and, second, how Lean stayed on top of every aspect of the movie, from the casting to the blowing of the bridge to the final editing.

In addition to an astute appreciation from filmmaker John Milius (writer-director of “The Wind and the Lion”) and a contemporary featurette (“Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant”), the DVD also boasts a peculiar assortment of coming attractions. (Why is “Fail-Safe” here?) Archaeologically, the most intriguing extra is a USC-produced educational film that uses on-set footage of “Kwai” to illustrate the rudiments of film appreciation. It contains a section on Lean and Guinness rehearsing the film’s one severely flawed scene — the climactic moment when Nicholson realizes what he has done and moves toward the commandos’ detonator. The short presents the vignette as an instance of practice making perfect. But a witness for the DVD’s own making-of documentary says that Lean and Guinness never achieved absolute clarity on Nicholson’s final motivation.

The disc’s image at least approaches Lean’s full-bore approach to CinemaScope, though it still shaves a sliver or two off the left side of the screen. The night scenes lack vividness and depth, and not enough digital restoration has been done to reduce the graininess of the opening shots. But this edition of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” provides ample testimony to the moment when Lean’s epic impulse exploded — and he made all the world his soundstage.

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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