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Bridge on the River Kwai

The best picture Oscar for 1957 went to Bridge on the River Kwai. This David Lean movie based on the novel by Pierre Boulle stars Alec Guinness and William Holden. It is the story of a group of British prisoners of war in south east Asia. They march proudly into their prison camp somewhere along the Thai-Burmese border whistling The Colonel Bogey March. In camp they are informed by the Japanese Colonel Saito that they will be put to work building the railroad to connect Bangkok to Rangoon, specifically a bridge over the Kwai in western Thailand. In the camp when they arrive are a small contingent of Burmese soldiers, an English doctor, and an American named Shears played by Holden. Shears and the British commander Nicholson, played by Guinness, clash immediately over drawing up plans to escape. Shears explains that the chances of survival in the camp are slim, while Nicholson explains that since his forces were ordered to surrender, escape might be in violation of military law. Eventually Saito and Nicholson come to a disagreement themselves. Saito expects all of the Brits to work on the bridge, including officers, which Nicholson explains is in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Nicholson is thrown into solitary confinement in an effort by Saito to break his will. While there, Shears and two other escape, the other two shot almost immediately. Shears however makes it to a Thai village whose occupants dislike the Japanese, and from there to an Allied hospital. Meanwhile Saito blinks first in the battle of wills with Nicholson. Nicholson is in charge of overseeing the construction. He feels the project will give his troops some needed focus to turn them from a rabble into a fighting force. It will give them something to do to keep them occupied. To that end he enlists the help of two engineers under his command to completely redesign and rebuild the bridge. They even change its location after deeming the original spot too muddy to handle the weight of a train. Saito agrees with these revisions and suddenly he and Nicholson are partners in the bridge project. Back in civilization, Shears is recruited to join a commando force to head back into the jungle and destroy the bridge. On the way they learn that when the bridge is completed, a train carrying Japanese troops and a VIP will be the first to cross. They plan to arrive the night before to set the charges and blow up the bridge as the train crosses. Just before the train arrives, Nicholson notices the explosives and alerts Saito. When the young Canadian given the duty of detonating the explosives kills Saito, Nicholson calls out to the Japanese troops on the bridge for help, and they shoot Shears who is swimming across the river to help the Canadian. Nicholson finally realizes what he has done, but a mortar explodes near him, killing him. As he falls dead, he lands on the detonator, destroying the bridge. This is not your typical war movie. The action takes place entirely after the British soldiers have surrendered at Singapore and there is no battle scene as we've come to know it. Most of the conflict, once the battle of wills between Nicholson and Saito has been settled, is within Nicholson's mind. He becomes convinced that his men need the bridge, that building it will make them an impressive force once again. By the end he has become seduced by the thought that the bridge will stand for ages, showing future generations what British soldiers can do. In the end, he loses sight of the strategic importance of the bridge to the Japanese. The discussion over the location of the bridge is particularly troubling. If Nicholson had in mind the strategic implications, he would have built the bridge exactly where the Japanese started it. That way the bridge is less troubled by time constraints, so Saito saves face, and once finished it wouldn't be able to hold the weight of a train anyway so Japan does not benefit from British slave labor. However Nicholson lobbies to build the bridge elsewhere, which can only benefit the Japanese military. At one point a subordinate even brings up that point, and Nicholson brushes him off. Meanwhile the movie spends long stretches with Shears and the commando force heading for the bridge. The scenes with Shears and the scenes with Nicholson seem like two very different movies, one movie being an ode to British engineering skills, the other being Rambo. Shears continually tries to get out of the mission, developing and interesting dynamic with the two main characters, where both turn their back on duty, or try to, until finally coming around and doing the right thing in the end. Other nominees that year included 12 Angry Men and Peyton Place, and while 12 Angry Men is well written and very well acted, Bridge on the River Kwai wins out. Oscar loves movies made on a grand scale, and this is it. Shooting happened in Sri Lanka and the cinematography is spectacular, culminating in the final scene as the bridge is destroyed and the train plunges into the water. This movie has developed a reputation as one of the greats, and it certainly deserves every bit of it.


comments (1) 03-28-2007

The People's Comments:

dave:
dude, I think you and I are the only two people who even KNOW OF that movie.. ok maybe Clint... but there isent enough power bombs in it for him to watch all the way to the end.....

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