The Bridge on the River Kwai


Over the weekend finally saw Bridge on the River Kwai. Oscar winners are often lame-o, and while BRK was not exactly a stinker, it wasn't the stellar, gripping film I had anticipated. Too many Technicolor-era cliches.

The Bridge on the River Kwai
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” (David Lean)

The Bridge on the River Kwai:

Director David Lean's sweeping epic is set in a Japanese World War II prison camp where British POWs are forced to construct a railway bridge as a morale-building exercise. Yet the real battle of wills is between "play by the rules" British colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who is dedicated to the project, and his American rival (William Holden), who vows to destroy it. The POWs' whistling work theme became legendary.

So, in 2040, or whenever 10 years after the War in Iraq is over will turn out to be, will an Iraqi make an update of BRK? With Abu Ghraib replacing Japanese-occupied Burma, sadistic MPs, and so on.

The British class system baffles me - the enlisted men are doing hard labor in a brutal prison camp, yet the officers are celebrated for not adding their sweat to the group effort.

Other than the whistling-scene of “Hitler Has One Ball” (which I knew of since, like everyone who went to high school in the 80's, I saw the Breakfast Club a few times), the musical score was fairly horrible. How did it win an Oscar?

William Holden is no great actor either, at least in this film. Ok in Network, ok in Sunset Boulevard, but otherwise, meh. Is there a performance that I'm missing? Really bothered me (for some reason) that in the commando scene involving stealth and blackface, both Holden and Geoffrey Horne insisted upon flashing their gleaming white teeth in the dark, and splashing around in the water while Japanese soldiers paced the bridge above. The guards must have been wearing iPods or something. Holden's BRK character in general is prosaic and mostly unremarkable.

The story is based on the building in 1943 of one of the railway bridges over the Mae Klong - renamed Khwae Yai in the 1960s - at a place called Tamarkan, five kilometres from the Thai town of Kanchanaburi. This was part of a project to link existing Thai and Burmese railway lines to create a route from Bangkok, Thailand to Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar) to support the Japanese occupation of Burma. About a hundred thousand conscripted Asian laborers and 12,000 prisoners of war died on the whole project. Although the suffering caused by the building of the Burma Railway and its bridges is true, the incidents in the film are mostly fictional. The real senior Allied officer at the bridge was Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. Some consider the film to be an insulting parody of Toosey.[1] On a BBC Timewatch program, a former prisoner at the camp states that it is unlikely that a man like the fictional Nicholson could have risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel; and if he had, he would have been “quietly eliminated” by the other prisoners. Julie Summers, in her book The Colonel of Tamarkan, writes that Pierre Boulle, who had been a prisoner of war in Thailand, created the fictional Nicholson character as an amalgam of his memories of collaborating French officers.

Toosey was very different to Nicholson and was certainly not a semi-collaborator who felt obliged to work with the Japanese due to legal loopholes. Toosey in fact did much to delay the building of the bridge as much as possible. Whereas Nicholson disapproves of acts of sabotage and other deliberate attempts to delay progress, Toosey encouraged this: white ants were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures and the concrete was badly mixed.
The destruction of the bridge as depicted in the film is entirely fictional. In fact, two bridges were built: a temporary wooden bridge and a permanent steel and concrete bridge a few months later. Both bridges were used for two years until they were destroyed by Allied aerial bombing. The steel bridge was repaired and is still in use today

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Seth --

If you ever get a chance - there's a documentary on Bridge Over the River Kwai from the History Channel (not quite as good as a PBS documentary, but oh well). Anyway... they have some very touching interviews with the surviving soldiers. It may be one of those History vs. Hollywood type of shows. As they recounted the tails of liberation, one soldier had me weeping - a simple story of how an Australian soldier went up to him and simply asked "How you doin', mate?" and how much that one question meant to this prisoner of war.

Very strange. I just started watching BRK on the train yesterday.

Of all the Technicolor cliche's, achieving "night" by throwing a neutral density filter over the front of a camera is the one that bugs me the most. I mean, I understand it's difficult to light a jungle but my god, there's blue sky in every one of those scenes.

Anyway. I too was hoping for a gripping tale. I guess we've become far more sophisticated in our story telling since this movie was made. It feels more like Gilligan's Island with guns than a war story.

@Beth - thanks for the tip. I'll look for it. My grandfather tells the tale of visiting Okinawa at the same time as a delegation of former Japanese soldiers marking the 50th anniversary of the big battle there, and hugging and weeping went on. Teared me up hearing him tell the tale.

@phule - I think that's an apt description: Gilligan's Island with Guns. If the movie was remade in Hollywood today, the prison camp would be more like Papillon, if you've ever seen that.

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This page contains a single entry by swanksalot published on July 16, 2007 5:32 PM.

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