The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Oscar-winning epic directed by David Lean, arrives on 4K UHD in celebration of its 65th Anniversary.
“What have I done?” – Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness)
Like Pierre Boulle’s novel, the film uses the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942–1943 for its main setting. However, both the plot and characters are mostly fictional. In layman’s terms, this film is historical fiction with the emphasis on fiction. If you want to know the truth, it is best to look up books or documentaries about the actual bridge. Boulle would get the initial screenplay credit because of Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson being blacklisted. Both writers would posthumously receive their Academy Award. If it’s any reminder, the Hollywood blacklist is one of the darkest times in the industry’s history.
The gist of the film is that it is early 1943 when a group of British POWs arrive at a Japanese prison camp in Thailand. They are led by Col. Nicholson. He soon meets an American, “Commander” Shears (William Holden) of the U.S. Navy. With the jungle surrounding the camp, the POWs can probably rule out any kind of escape plan. The camp’s commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), soon gives the order to the new prisoners to build a bridge to connect the River Kwai between Bangkok and Rangoon. At this point, anything that can go wrong will go wrong especially when Nicholson defies orders by citing the Geneva Convention.
Nobody sees eye to eye when it comes to the bridge’s construction. Major Clipton (James Donald) is certainly in disagreement with Nicholson on the matter. British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) ends up recruiting Shears, who tries to get out of the assignment. When it comes to the bridge’s destruction, it soon becomes a comedy of errors. It becomes apparent that Warden never bothered to inform Nicholson of his plan. Had he done so, maybe the film would have had a different ending if you know what I mean.
There’s no way that a person of Nicholson’s stature would cooperate in real life. In fact, Nicholson has a real-life equivalent in Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. In reading about him, the two could not be more different. Lt. Col. Toosey actively did what he could to delay the bridge! On the other hand, Nicholson sees building the bridge as some sort of legacy. When you consider this, it’s a surprise that Boulle didn’t write a mutiny against Nicholson. But anyway, Toosey would even defend Sergeant-Major Risaburo Saito during a later war crimes trial and become friends with him, too. There’s a lot more to the history behind the film, even if Boulle incorrectly assumed the river that the bridge crossed upon being built. Moreover, there’s also been criticism about the Japanese engineer portrayals.
There are two key differences in adapting the book to screen. The first is that Shears is British in the novel. The second is that the bridge is not destroyed. According to the documentary, when Boulle was first informed of the change, he responded that he wished he thought of it because he would have done the same. The explosion is covered with five different cameras, including the master camera. It took two or three charges for the explosion. This is one of those situations where you have to get it right because you cannot do it again! The bonus features include documentary shorts that explore the construction and destruction of the bridge.
In terms of casting, Sam Spiegel and David Lean give us a power trio of William Holden, Alec Guinness, and Jack Hawkins. Holden was well on his way to becoming a screen legend at this point in his career. As for Guinness, playing Nicholson is what gave the actor an Academy Award for Best Actor. It would be the only competitive Oscar won in five nominations. Interestingly enough, Guinness nearly returned to England after arriving in Sri Lanka to film. Even though the actor starred in a number of films directed by Lean, the two did not have the best relationship.
The “Colonel Bogey March” segues into the Malcolm Arnold’s “River Kwai March.” Interestingly enough, there was no whistling during the actual construction during WWII. This is one of the things that only came about because some of the extras couldn’t march on time. The rest is history! Meanwhile, Arnold had his work cut out with having to pen some 45 minutes of music in a ten-day period. His hard work ends up paying off because he would end up taking home an Oscar.
When they write the book on the history of cinema, David Lean will go down as one of the greatest epic filmmakers. Led by its star-studded cast, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a technical achievement in and of itself. The film also put Lean on an international stage. Before this film, he was just your run-of-the-mill British filmmaker. What he does with this film is just a thing of beauty. If you make this film today, a lot of it would probably be done digitally or utilizing visual effects. But at the same time, it would not be the same film. The same goes for Lawrence of Arabia, Lean directed a few years later in 1962. When it came time for the Academy Awards, the film took home honors for Picture, Director, Actor (Guinness), Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, and Original Score. Sessue Hayakawa earned a Supporting Actor nomination.
While I have not had the pleasure of seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai on the big screen, watching the new 4K UHD SteelBook is the closest thing. Both the picture and sound do their very best to capture the cinematic experience…from the comfort of your couch.
DISC DETAILS & BONUS MATERIALS
4K ULTRA HD DISC
- Feature presented in 4K resolution with Dolby Vision, fully restored from the original camera negative
- Dolby Atmos + 5.1 + original monaural audio
- Feature presented in high definition, sourced from the 4K master
- 5.1 audio
- Special Features:
- Crossing the Bridge: Picture-in-Picture Graphics Track
- Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai
- The Steve Allen Show with William Holden & Alec Guinness
- The Bridge on the River Kwai Premiere Narrated by William Holden
- “Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant” Featurette
- USC Short Film Introduced by William Holden
- An Appreciation by Filmmaker John Milius
- Photo Gallery
- Theatrical Trailers
DIRECTOR: David Lean
SCREENWRITERS: Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson
CAST: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Ann Sears, and introducing Geoffrey Horne
Columbia released The Bridge on the River Kwai in theaters on December 14, 1957. Grade: 5/5
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