In a somewhat randomly coincidental number of events, I’ve seen a handful of movies set in World War Two prison camps this month. Out of all of them, two are notable for what they can bring to the table. Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence was a tremendous story of rebellion in the face of unconquerable consequences, whilst The Bridge on the River Kwai was a strong tale of morale and the need to keep a level head in otherwise dangerous circumstances. Nearing its 65th anniversary, director David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is an admirable feat, a fantastical film of epic proportions that brings out the very best in its leading performances.
Two very different points of view are presented throughout the movie. They don’t necessarily but heads all that often on the screen, but jumping back and forth between the bridge-building expedition of newly captured Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and the wavering will to go on found in Commander Shears (William Holden) is the glue that holds the film together. Without these two performances, there’d be little else to hold onto. Guinness by far steals the show, his need to rile optimism among the fellow men he has been captured with makes for some interesting moments, especially his arrival to the camp and subsequent actions against Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Holden’s performance is strong too, but his scenes drag on, his subsequent escape from the camp early on into the film makes for some sadly underwhelming scenes.
Thankfully, Guinness and Hayakawa dominate much of the movie, a dynamic that could certainly have been delved into further, but the detail present was more than enough to provide some very interesting setpieces. An allegory for pride, Nicholson represents a strong mentality, perseverance under any and all odds. Although I’ve not seen many performances from him, it’s perhaps my favourite of Guinness’ work so far. Not just because of how great the performance is, but because of how well rounded and fleshed out the script makes his character. There are of course the memorable clips that many will latch onto, but his staggering walk up the steps to Saito’s living quarters will stick with me more than that incredible final line of dialogue from Nicholson.
Lean’s direction must be credited too, his command of the camera provides gorgeous visuals and engaging movement. He keeps the plot rumbling at a steady pace for much of the film, it’s only in the final forty-five minutes or so that detail begins to run thin. Holden’s performance is adequate, one that does the best with the brazenly flimsy material on offer. It’s not that interesting to behold as he traipses through a jungle, but it could have been a lot worse. They’re intermittently cut between shots of building the bridge, suffering soldiers or generally interesting scenes within the prisoner’s camp.
A genuinely impressive testament to the work of Lean, a war epic that strives to show the brutality the prisoners of war faced, but also highlights the optimism and unwavering hope they held within themselves. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a superb accomplishment of film, without a doubt it holds a great historical value, but beyond that, it’s a truly entertaining movie when it begins to pick up the pace.