Wednesday, February 3, 2016

AFI Top 100: #36 "The Bridge on the River Kwai"

Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

These reviews have slowed down significantly over the past few months, and I'm determined to remedy that. Holidays really screw with your scheduling, don't they? But as we approach the Academy Awards at the end of this monthand I power through all those nominated moviesit seems appropriate that my pending AFI Top 100 review for #36 on the list, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was a former winner. Times may have changed, but the Academy members are still suckers for a war film. And while this one might be on the more fictional side, it certainly accurately reflects this glossy era of filmmaking.

Late in World War II, a group of British prisoners of war arrive at a work camp deep in the Burmese jungle, run by Japanese soldiers. Greeted coldly by commandant in charge, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), it's revealed they'll be responsible to building a train bridge across the River Kwai. Amidst the group of new inmates stands tall British commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a proud and respected leader who, when informed that all men will be required to work regardless of rank, is punished by his refusal to do so and thrown into solitary. Instead of bowing down, he rejects food and medical attention, shaming Colonel Saito in the process.

Meanwhile, a jaded American soldier and long-time inmate, US Navy Commander Shears (William Holden) has little faith in Saito's ability to sympathize with the British officers. Against all odds, he and a group of men in the sick bay push out into the jungle to escapea seemingly impossible task. Shears is the only one to survive, and he finds himself back in the safety of the American front. Or so he thinks. Asked, or rather forced, to return to the River Kwai on a special mission to destroy the expanding bridge, Shears ventures reluctantly back into the jungle, not knowing what he'll find.

It's hard to forget that this film, as the Best Picture winner in 1957, was book-ended by two of the Academy's worst choices for the big prize: Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and Gigi (1958)—in my humble opinion, of course. Needless to say, this portion of the decade wasn't the strongest. For Bridge, there are a lot of elements that feel stunted by the decade, particularly the 50s-style softening of the stakes and exaggerated characterizations. Where it excels, however, is in Guinness' complicated portrayal of Nicholson. That heady self-righteousness (even heightened, as it was) is perfectly tacked on, twisted and contorted to define a character that has truly lost his grip on reality.

If the film is about anyone, it's about Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson. While William Holden's Shears is rolling around on the beach like he's on the set of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Guinness is building a character arc that would rival the best of them. The beauty of his character is that he's complicated, and even more so, completely oblivious to it. When his honor and pride are revealed at the start of the film, they're remarkably admirable. Even Shears, who's self-serving enough to not be impressed by anything, admires the guy. As Colonel Saito's convictions waver, Nicholson's don't, and for a time, it's thrilling to see a prisoner one-up their captor.

Yet as the film moves forward, and we witness Nicholson re-take command of his men working on the bridgeeven re-engineering the original plans so that it would become a marvel of British engineering (he'll show these ruddy Japanese a thing or two!)and that's when his admirable pride becomes his downfall. The bridge's strength and success is directly linked to his self-worth, and thereby, the self-worth of the men, so any threat to the bridge... is a threat to Nicholson. This is where the complexities of the character impact the story. The final, tension-filled climax has nearly nothing to do with anyone or anything other than him. Watching Guinness portray a man completely lost in himself, disillusioned into believing that helping the Japanese would prove something to anyone, is the single best thing about this film.

Then we get to everything else. Nicholson is the story, despite all of the activity happening with Shears and the military planning to destroy the bridge. And while we scream at Nicholson, wishing we could shake him and bring him to his senses, that's the purest of reactions that nothing else in the film even comes close to eliciting. Holden is a dynamic personality, but Shears isn't given enough depth to really matter. The extension of his story doesn't help move things along either, and the tone of the film completely changes when we leave the POW camp. Across the board, director David Lean didn't push the film to a place that could show how severe and brutal the conditions of building this bridge would have been. It's impossible to ignore how "rosy" the film portrays it all, despite the fact that, yes, the majority of the story is fictional. A product of the times, certainly, but it's noticeable.

In the end, something is missing. I'm left wanting other elements of the story to rise to the level of Guinness' genius here. Every memorable moments centers around him, but that focuswhile compellingis so narrow when you look at how BIG this film really is. Perhaps there wasn't enough "meat" to spread around to the other characters, but that doesn't make me care more.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Columbia Pictures]

Check back next time for #35 on the list, Annie Hall — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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