Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Ten

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#10 — The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)
David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the films that I remember as being a fairly constant presence when I was much younger, always helping a cable superstation fill up a lazy Sunday afternoon of programming. Start with a film that runs just under two-and-three-quarters hours, add commercials, and don’t worry about cueing up the next program until most households have switched over to 60 Minutes anyway. Of course, that also means that for years and years I watched it incorrectly, including one memorable occasion when I used it nurse myself through a particularly bad bout with the flu in my college dorm room, piled under heavy blankets as I stared at it on a dinky black and white television. When I eventually saw it in its proper widescreen glory, it was a revelation. There were few who used every bit of that extended rectangle with as much startling aplomb as Lean, constructing images that were rapturous in their beauty without compromising the central task of carrying the narrative. Though I would never advocate a viewing of The Bridge on the River Kwai that devastated the aspect ratio the way my old square television screens did, the nature of my first exposures established a truth for me: the film works wonderfully, no matter what.

With Lean, the temptation is to laud the visuals at the expense of equal praise for other elements of whatever film is being discussed. Sometimes, I will admit, that makes all the sense in the world. In this instance, however, it shortchanged the abundance of ideas and astute character work that flows with the narrative. Set during World War II, the film largely takes place within a Japanese prison camp. Among the confined is Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who arrives with his whole platoon. When ordered by their jailer, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), to begin work on a bridge considered vital to the Japanese war effort, Nicholson protests, citing a portion of the Geneva Conventions prohibiting officers from manual labor when held captive. Thus begins a brutal standoff between the two men, with neither wanting to yield from their own positions. And, as might be expected, that is really just the beginning, the film managing to develop an abundantly brimming storyline that also includes a parallel plot centered on a U.S. Navy commander (William Holden) on his own mission to destroy the structure traversing the Kwai. Lean’s approach is measured, wise, and defined by a deftly expressed emotional core.

Much of the film’s lean intensity comes at the culture clash inherent in the story. The Japanese commandant operates with a repressed anxiety that adds greater tension to the tasks at hand, the British officer is committed to protocol and honor, and the fella from the States is just trying to get his job done with as much room for leisure as possible. (In the case of that last one, it may be most attributable to the presence of Holden, a very good actor who still often signaled that he was thinking more about the scotch he was going to have later than anything happening in the scene.) These kernels of motivation drive everything that follows, particularly the turnaround experienced by Nicholson, who goes from adamant aversion to the bridge project to a commitment to quality, insuring that British soldiers not contribute to anything in a subpar manner, even in service of the enemy. Nothing in the film is a contrivance. Instead, every bit of The Bridge on the River Kwai is scored with finely-developed intellectual integrity. Lean was a master of the cinematic image, but his talent didn’t stop there. He knew how to tell a story, too.