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Film Review: The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957; Directed by David Lean)

A remarkable epic in so many ways, The Bridge on the River Kwai‘s largely unimpeachable reputation as a classic obscures the fact that it has an oscillating narrative of intermittent interest which is laden with moral conclusions that come across as pat to a modern audience (and maybe to the contemporary one as well). There’s no denying David Lean’s masterful visual sense and widescreen scope, so what’s the point in trying? The destruction of the bridge in the finale is one of the cinema’s great pure images (even if it was largely borrowed from Buster Keaton), and there is genuine tension in the commando sequences that lead up to it, even if the fame of the conclusion reduces it an understandable amount. As with many Lean classics, this is a model of epic filmmaking, on every level.

How can I work the phrase "a wretched hive of scum and villainy" into this caption?

But what is it beyond that? It has some fine performances, particularly by Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa in the film’s first half. Both are stalwart, reserved, stubborn, and a little mad in their own specific ways, and neither actor slips up in interpreting their characters’ war-forged uniqueness. But the film loses steam faster than a plummeting train when their compelling toe-to-toe is resolved and the narrative focus switches to the commando mission.

Just as Nicholson finishes establishing the supreme symbolic importance of the bridge to not only his men but (in his own slightly deluded mind) to the entire Allied effort, the movie basically abandons the process of its construction for a subplot heavy on war-movie cliches featuring characters we’ve barely met and don’t care as much about. It’s unfortunate, because the bridge construction scenes have a colour and jargon all their own that is much more diverting, to my mind, than manly men trekking through the jungle to blow something up.

And what’s the moral conclusion, anyway? Nicholson “comes to his senses” and undoes his monument to collaboration with the enemy, which was also shot through with pure colonialist arrogance. But what does the massacre and destruction that closes the piece really have to say, beyond Clipton’s superficial echo of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?

When David Fincher adapted Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and ended his version by setting off the financial-world-crumbling bomb that was a compelling dud in the novel, he chose flashy countercultural wish-fulfillment over the more difficult realities that attended the failure of revolution. In much the same way, Lean closes all the conundrums by blowing up the bridge that Pierre Boulle left unsettlingly intact in the novel. Mission accomplished, losses tragic but unavoidable. It’s a microcosmic reflection of the symbolic construction of WWII in the historical psyches of the Allied nations: we did some things we aren’t proud of, but it was all for the greater good and right triumphed over wrong. But if the bridge stays up, if this exorbitant symbol of blind colonialist hubris masked by twisted conceptions of duty survives for generations like Nicholson dreamed it would… well, then what? What does that say about the war and its consequences? Far, far more, in my view, and not half of it remotely good. But Lean’s film chooses soothing explosives and tidy tragic heroism. You can fault it only a certain amount for this, but you can still fault it.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. July 23, 2014 at 6:03 pm

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