There are few directors that have made such an impact in the world of cinema than David Lean. ‘Brief Encounter’ is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, romance films ever made, and then he churned out three fantastic epics: ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and the stunning ‘Doctor Zhivago’ amongst over great works. Whereas ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is the adventure epic and ‘Doctor Zhivago’ the romantic epic, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ is the intellectual epic.
In World War II in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp on the banks of the River Kwai, the British prisoners are instructed to build a bridge as a strategic move for the Japanese forces. Initially, the British soldiers are rebellious, and do all in their capabilities to undermine attempts to build the bridge. The most senior member of the British Army in the camp, Colonel Nicholson, in an award winning turn from Alex Guinness, is horrified by the lack of discipline from the men and orders them to build the bridge properly as it will give them structural and a sense of purpose whilst in the camp, whilst showing the enemy the superiority of the British.
Initially the soldiers are horrified that they should be helping the enemy, but eventually follow their leader and construct a bridge. Meanwhile, three soldiers, including Shears, a US Navy Commander (William Holden) escape (although they are believed to have been shot and killed) and are recruited into a plot to blow up the bridge in an effort to help the British and American forces, and the film is left with a situation where one side of the war are fighting for two very different things.
What is so clever about this film is that the audience are left understanding both sides of the argument: should the British soldiers be helping the Japanese in order to keep their own morale high? And do we, after siding with the Colonel, feel a sense of anger that these escapees are trying to sabotage the bridge. This leads to a nail-biting ending where we are torn in our hopes and expectations.
Like in all of Lean’s films, the filming is complemented by excellent acting, and this is headed by a Lean favourite, Alec Guinness, in a challenging and memorable role. There are few examples of a Best Actor Oscar being more deservedly won. Holden, a favourite of Hollywood at the time is also excellent, and the list continues with Jack Hawkins and Sessue Hayakawa. What makes this film work so well is the different views that each actor manages to put across and although it is filmed like a sumptuous epic, the actually theme is much smaller and personal.
I defy anyone not to be fascinated by this film. It is so interesting, so though-provoking and so beautiful, and really does have one of the most brilliant endings in the history of film. A timeless, must see classic.