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"With you it's one thing or the other, destroy the bridge or destroy yourself!"
on 27 November 2007
"Take a good look, Clifton. One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people who use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it - not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clifton, even in captivity."
Still one of David Lean's very best films despite its faults, unlike most of his epics, the plot of The Bridge on the River Kwai is focused enough to allow the film its debate on the nature of heroism and command without seeming forced, and is divided clearly into two halves. The first is a battle of wills between two madmen and their respective codes of honour; the British Colonel Nicholson, who seeks to turn defeat into victory, and the Japanese Colonel Saito, whose cruelty comes from his inability to see his lack of shame over their surrender.
Nicholson is so determined to use the building of the bridge as a weapon against his Japanese captors to rebuild his troops' morale that he is blind to the strategic consequences ("I hope these Japanese appreciate what we're doing for them." mutters Donald's medical officer). As Nicholson exceeds his requirements, he assumes Saito's role, even to the point of forcing officers and those on the sick list to work - the very points they had earlier clashed over - forcing the Japanese Colonel to face a surrender of his own. Ultimately reduced to the meek voice of acquiescence at one of their conferences, he alone achieves his objective but only at the cost of his self-respect. He alone realises what he has become.
The second half is more standard adventure fare, as anti-heroic escaped prisoner Holden (his casting clearly based on his similar role in Stalag 17) is press-ganged into returning to the bridge with gung-ho masochist Jack Hawkins to blow it up. If at the camp Donald is the voice of common sense, Holden is the voice of the common man. Faced with the wounded Hawkins' self-sacrificing heroics, he responds with a tirade against everything he stands for; ("With you it's one thing or the other, destroy the bridge or destroy yourself!"). But though he rejects the insanity of heroic codes and proclaims that the only true dignity lies in survival, he dies upholding just such an ideal. This is just one of the contradictions of an undeniably problematic ending, which opts for the spectacular at the cost of much of the substance of the film.
In reality, the bridge was never destroyed, but Lean discards history to give the audience the large explosion they've been waiting for. Depicted with intriguing ambiguity as to Guinness' motives, it nonetheless tends to obliterate the assertion of Pierre Boulle's novel that all the suffering has been in vain by allowing a victory, albeit at hideous cost. War is no longer a pointless and vainglorious farce played with human lives, but a place where even a cynic and an unwitting collaborator can redeem themselves through the nobility of self-sacrifice.
Yet if ultimately the film lacks the commitment of Bryan Forbes astonishly bleak King Rat or even Spielberg's dark Empire of the Sun, there is still much to admire, not least a quartet of great performances from Guinness and the under-appreciated Holden, Hawkins and Hayakawa. Lean is much more in control of his narrative than when he started making love stories with casts of thousands, his masterful use of the Scope frame coming over particularly well in this restored version (no new footage but a cleaned-up print) which finally gives blacklisted writers Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman their screen credits.
The Blu-ray restoration is a mixture of good and bad. The picture is certainly clearer and cleaner than any previous version, but the colour at times doesn't seem quite as rich and sweltering as it should be - the scenes of the prisoners standing on forced parade in the sun now seeming a little cold rather than humid. No complaints about the extras, however, which build on the previous DVD release, carrying over the documentary The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai, featurettes An Appreciation by John Milius, Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant and USC short film introduced by William Holden, ...On Seeing Film - Film and Literature and trailer (with both original and re-release versions here), and adding an extract from the Steve Allen Show with Holden and Guinness and a text track (though the isolated score from the DVD is now missing). The UK version has very bland packaging, but the initial run of the US edition, which is helpfully region-free, includes an attractive digi-book with stills and behind the scenes information and 12 reproduction lobby cards.