First Class


David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 161 minutes. Right: Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness).

A PARAGON OF “THEY DON’T MAKE ’EM LIKE THAT ANYMORE” CLASSICISM, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) was David Lean’s first epic, the quasi genre with which the British director would become synonymous even after a significant decade and a half helming prestige-play (Brief Encounter [1945], Summertime [1955]) and novel (Great Expectations [1946], Oliver Twist [1948]) adaptations. To watch Bridge now is to realize how much tastes have changed and how far standards have fallen in the past fifty-plus years: While the serious adult epic has gradually been replaced by the adolescent action-adventure fantasy—Lawrence of Arabia (1962) giving way to The Lord of the Rings—any remaining films that can be appropriately deemed “sagas” beyond the Star Wars sense of the word have rapidly declined in quality, this starting roughly around the time of Mel Gibson’s meatheaded Braveheart (1995).

But Bridge does more than simply summon memories of a vanished golden age. Rich in character and excitingly tense in building toward an emotionally devastating as well as physically destructive climax, Lean’s film feels fresh in its meticulous composition and thematic complexity. What’s most impressive is the way Bridge works on a grand scale and never for a second feels bloated, indulgent, showy, or melodramatic. Shot in Ceylon, the story takes place in Thailand during World War II, where British POWs arrive at a camp/graveyard run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), a cruel taskmaster whose desperation to complete a bridge pivotal for the transportation of Japanese supplies has him forcing high-ranking prisoners to work beside the men they command, an act that violates the Geneva Convention and particularly rankles Alec Guinness’s pedantic Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson. Meanwhile, an escaped American named Shears (William Holden) goes back into the jungle as part of a team sent to destroy the bridge, eventually overseen in its construction by a vindicated and increasingly daft Guinness.

Adapting from Pierre Boulle’s novel, blacklisted screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson have the three major characters grappling with the demands of masculinity by exceeding, transforming, or abdicating their roles. Shears initially impersonates an officer, thinking he’ll receive cushy treatment in the POW camp, then admits his chicanery only when it might allow him to wriggle out of the dangerous mission. Nicholson fulfills his leadership responsibilities by refusing to abandon principles even when placed under excruciating torture, but he becomes so obsessed by the letter of the law that he nearly sides with the enemy. Saito himself can only watch in awed and impotent dismay as the British soldiers prove the ineffectiveness of his command. Though visually monumental in its ’scope renderings of tropical jungles and intricate ergonomics, Bridge earns the “epic” appellation due to its depth: Every display of moral courage is countered by its opposite, and Lean captures man in the darkest of circumstances and grayest of existential areas by refusing to sentimentalize heroism. Just as much as with his masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, the director uses his outsize canvas to portray humankind as bound to the very nature that doesn’t just surround but envelop him.

The Bridge on the River Kwai plays September 24–30 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.

Michael Joshua Rowin