Bridge on the River Kwai/A,B+
Columbia/1957/162/ANA 2.55

     I have carried the whistling theme of Colonel Bogie's march with me  through all the years since my first adolescent exposure to the masterfully compelling The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Hearing Colonel Nicholson's troops once again whistling the tune to their ragged but disciplined march through the jungle sent chills down my spine. Perhaps the magnificent elements of The Bridge on the River will touch you in some like way. Kwai is one of film history's great screen classics that few contemporary movie lovers have experienced  in some reasonable approximation of the superb polish with which it was crafted by director David Lean.  Here's the opportunity, and if at all possible catch it on the biggest screen you can.    

Nicholson takes command of the construction. ©Columbia

     Bridge on the River Kwai captures the horror of a Japanese POW camp in the Burmese jungles during World War II. But Kwai just isn't about surviving a POW camp. It's incredible psychological drama pitting two fierce warriors against one another. The battle of wills between senior British Officer Colonel Nicholson and Japanese prison commandant Colonel Saito is a fascinating death defying duel shaped by the unyielding  principles of the two combatants. Director Lean mines the complexity of the relationship with rare insight. The shift in power occurs with astounding brilliance. While the psychological battle between the Japanese commander and his British counterpart  is drawn in excruciatingly painful scenes of confrontation, the bridge becomes the pivotal character in the drama. As the spectacle of its construction is painstakingly detailed by the director, the bridge takes on a life of its own, dominating Colonel Nicholson where the threats and torture of Colonel Saito have failed. The bridge drives Nicholson beyond all logic in his attempt to survive the POW camp. The life of the bridge becomes more important than the survival of his men.  As the wooden struts are pieced together, Nicholson's own strength begins to build, obsessed with the mission to complete the bridge at all costs.
    The concurrent depiction of American Naval Officer Shears' escape and subsequent return with a team to blow up the bridge integrates brilliantly with the POW story. The Shears character gets more time to develop and the introduction of Major Warden provides an interesting comparison to Nicholson. 
     First construction then destruction of the bridge is a monumental screen depiction.  David Lean meticulously controlled every aspect of the production.  Not only did Lean produce images of enduring beauty, he guided his actors, stars and supporting players, to superb performances.      
      Guinness's portrait of  twisted martinet Nicholson won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1957, and indeed, it is one of cinema's most unforgettable performances. Hayakawa's Saito was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Guinness and Hayakawa are marvelous matched pair, pulling the bridge behind them with blinders affixed to their sense. But William Holden is equally brilliant as Shears. Holden's performance is often overlooked. Perhaps he makes it look too easy. Holden owns Shears and breaths life into every cynical observation. Jack Hawkins' dutiful Colonel Warden, wonderfully convincing,  is the flip side to Nicholson.
     The Bridge on the River Kwai went on to win a total of seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, the aforementioned Best Actor, Best Screenplay Adaptation, Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Music Scoring.          
       Lean's direction is  flawlessly economical. There is not a a wasted moment through the almost three hours of film as the bridge moves toward its date with destiny. The climax is an example of thrilling film editing as tension mounts cut by cut. The cinematography by Jack Hildyard is breathtaking. His lens captures the dark wall of the jungle and stirring beauty and power of nature. Malcolm Arnold's score uses the signature Colonel Bogie theme to explore the military chords.         
     Though the elements are not in perfect shape, overall there is little wanting in the visual power of this DVD presentation. There are several skipped frames making for an uncomfortable splice or two and the opening shots seem like they were transferred from a cereal box, but for the most part the color is vital, the images sharp, and contrast range very good. I thought the difficult background details like jungle trees faired very well. The structure of the bridge was also very stable.  Black level is excellent and contrast range gives the picture plenty of pop. The Dolby Digital 5:1 remix is very good. Jungle ambiance and the racing river are captured with equal ease. Dialogue is clear and crisp. Watching this DVD of The Bridge on the River Kwai is a special treat not to be missed. 
      The documentary on the two-disc set is okay. There are some pearls amongst the shucked oysters that these documentaries often are. I had forgotten that William Holden was added to the production because Columbia felt they needed an American star. So Shears, one of the great characters in the film, though a bit derivative of Sefton in Stalag 17, was added to the story. The entire alternate coda of Shears' escape and the subsequent team coming back to blow the bridge was added because of the Shears character. It works brilliantly. Pierre Boulle said he had wished he had written that material.



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