“Be happy in your work.”
It’s easy to be happy in your work when you’ve got a film like The Bridge on the River Kwai to review. I had been looking forward to seeing the film again ever since Columbia made its DVD announcement earlier this year. I was a trifle young to see it when it first appeared in theatres in 1957, but I remember what an event it was when it first made its way to network television and then the pleasure of owning my own copy when it appeared on VHS. I avoided the Laserdisc version even though it was widescreen, for the transfer was substandard for such a great film.
Now we finally have the film in a package worthy of it — or actually two packages, so you have your choice. Columbia has given us a film only version on one disc and an Exclusive Limited Edition with an extra disc of supplements. Naturally, I chose to get the latter and I wasn’t disappointed.
A group of British World War 2 prisoners of war are marched into a Japanese prison camp deep in the jungle of southeast Asia. They are expected to construct a bridge over the River Kwai — a vital component of a railway that the Japanese are building from Singapore through Malaya into Burma. The British are under the command of Colonel Nicholson. The Japanese camp commander is Colonel Saito. A tremendous battle of wills develops between these two when Nicholson refuses Saito’s demand to have his officers to work along side the rest of the men on the bridge. While Nicholson and the rest of the officers languish in small metal enclosures in the sun as punishment, work begins on the bridge under the command of the Japanese bridge designer. Little progress is made due to both the lack of control by the Japanese designer and attempts at sabotage by the British prisoners.
As it becomes apparent that the bridge is falling far behind schedule, Saito is desperate to get it back on track and finally gives in to Nicholson. Nicholson then sees the bridge as an opportunity to restore the discipline of his men as well as a possible monument to British ingenuity and hard work, so he takes the initiative to redesign the bridge and works his men hard to try to meet the completion deadline. With construction nearly finished, he enlists men in sickbay and even the officers to do work so that the target date can be met.
Meanwhile, an American — Commander Shears — has escaped from the camp and has managed to make it to freedom. He is convalescing in Ceylon when he is approached by a British commando unit to return to the camp area in order to blow up the bridge. Under the command of Major Warden, the small commando unit is parachuted in and begins an overland march to the site of the bridge. They arrive just as the bridge has been completed, late in the afternoon of the day before it is to be used for the first time.
Overnight, the commandos wire the bridge with explosives and then await the next day and the arrival of the first train.
The Bridge on the River Kwai starring Cary Grant as Shears and Charles Laughton as Nicholson. It boggles the mind, but those are some of the possibilities first contemplated. In fact, half of the actors in Hollywood and Britain appear to have been considered and asked to play the leading roles.
Alec Guinness was far from one of the top choices to play Col. Nicholson and even when he came to be considered, he himself wasn’t initially interested. By this point, the film’s producer Sam Spiegel was getting desperate, however, and he invited Guinness to dinner in a last-ditch effort to change Guinness’ mind. Such were Speigel’s powers of persuasion that Guinness later said, “I started out maintaining that I wouldn’t play the role and by the end of the evening we were discussing what kind of wig I would wear.” Another hurdle was an antipathy that seemed to develop between Guinness and the director David Lean as to how the role of Nicholson should be played. Despite all this, Alec Guinness proved to be the perfect Colonel Nicholson. Much of Nicholson’s portrayal owes itself to the excellence of Guinness’ acting, but Lean’s own suggestions played an important part in some of the result, occasionally despite Guinness’ misgivings. The best example is the exchange on the completed bridge between Nicholson and Saito that occurs near sunset. Guinness had been careful to time his words to the setting sun, but then found that Lean was going to film him from behind as he spoke. Guinness was not happy, but he later acknowledged the correctness and added impact of Lean’s approach. Similarly, Guinness was unhappy with the protracted walk that Lean expected him to make across the parade ground after his release from the hot box. On seeing the rushes later (in company with his wife and son), Guinness again realized the merit of what Lean had asked him to do. So the portrayal of Nicholson was really a collaborative effort — one that was rewarded with the Best Actor Academy Award for Guinness — and all for a role that he had never wanted.
William Holden on the other hand was quite interested in playing Commander Shears and his efforts in the part add substantially to the quality of the film. Holden’s great ability was always to make acting look easy because he was so good at imbuing his roles with naturalness. Part of the problem with that was that Holden never really received the full degree of acclaim that his talent warranted. Certainly he did win an Academy Award for Stalag 17, but his career is filled with excellent performances never properly recognized. His Col. Shears is but one good example.
The excellence of the rest of Bridge on the River Kwai‘s principal cast is also worth emphasizing, from Sessue Hayakawa as Saito, to Jack Hawkins as Major Warden, and to James Donald as Dr. Clipton, But this film is also more than just acting; it’s truly an epic story on an epic scale. It was filmed completely on location in Ceylon and the bridge itself was constructed full size and sufficiently strongly to enable it carry the weight of a real locomotive and railcars. The bridge and train were intended to be actually destroyed in the final explosion, so the filming of the event had to be planned very carefully because there’d only be one chance. Perhaps the most familiar symbol and lasting impression of the whole film is the Colonel Bogey March that the prisoners whistle as they enter the camp for the first time. Colonel Bogey was very much a British military song which conveyed a sort of contempt for authority. There were misgivings about using it in the film, for some thought that no one would know the piece or its significance and the suggestion was made that it be replaced with the much more familiar “Bless ‘Em All.” Lean, however, prevailed in his desire to retain the song, although the whistling of it rather than singing was a compromise to avoid the use of its derogatory words. Now, of course, the film would be unthinkable without it and it has made The Bridge on the River Kwai easily the film most readily identifiable by the playing of a few bars of music.
For David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai was the break-through film in the sense of making him a truly internationally-recognized film director. Although he had had many British successes to his name prior to 1957, he had not profited greatly from it all and part of his reason for doing Bridge on the River Kwai was the fact that at the time, he was flat broke. In fact, on signing the contract to do the film, he immediately asked for an advance from Columbia so that he could get his teeth fixed. Lean was a perfectionist and he immersed himself in all aspects of the project. Much of the final script is directly attributable to his work, and certainly the great attention to detail that we see on the screen is all due to him. If he had a short-coming, it was a seeming inability to actually finish; he always wanted one more shot. Even after principal shooting was wrapped up in Ceylon (having taken 8 months, not including the time to actually build the bridge), Lean still had ideas for a few more shots that he wanted to incorporate in the final film. Finally he was left behind with a single cameraman, and he soldiered on long after everyone else had gone home. Lean, of course, was rewarded for his efforts with an Academy Award also, but the real legacy for him was a propensity for excellence achieved through a willingness to spend as much time as necessary to get it just right. This characteristic led to his great success with Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but tended to get out of hand thereafter so that he managed to complete only three more films during the remaining 29 years of his life (Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, A Passage to India), to diminishing returns in the view of some, though not mine.
Columbia has given The Bridge on the River Kwai a DVD treatment well worthy of the film. The Exclusive Limited Edition is a two-disc effort attractively packaged in a plastic case with a cardboard cover designed to look like a book. The only difficulty is the discs are devilishly hard to get off the spindles holding them in place. The risk of damaging the discs is high unless you take a great deal of care. Slightly rotating the discs as you try to pull them up seems to help a bit, but why do companies keep changing things from the tried and true? Accompanying the discs is a very interesting 12-page booklet containing production information included in the original souvenir book of the film, printed in 1957.
Disc One has the basics. There is a widescreen, anamorphically-enhanced presentation which delivers the film in its original Cinemascope 2.55:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The image is generally a thing of beauty with colours brightly and faithfully rendered. There are a few minor instances of lack of sharp focus, edge over-enhancement, and moiré effects, but this is certainly by far the best this film has ever looked on video. The opening credit sequence is somewhat poorer than the rest, which made me a little nervous at first, but as soon as it was over, the image improved markedly. Overall, Columbia is to be congratulated for its efforts. Take note that the layer change pause is somewhat longer than the norm. This is apparently due to the fact that this is a double layer disc but is not RSDL, thus the laser transport must return to the center of the disc and spin out again. A consequence of this is the loss of both correct timing of the length of or the time remaining in the film. It was no big deal for me, but may annoy some. But why would Columbia do that you ask? I don’t know for sure, but I understand it may be due in some way to the DVD-ROM content that was included on the disc. It seems a strange way to treat one of your signature titles, though. I’d have skipped including the DVD-ROM content if that were the case.
Columbia has included the original stereo soundtrack and a newly created DD5.1 track. There are actually some rather nice directional effects generated for the new track, but the vast majority of the time, it is confined to the fronts. Dialogue sequences are clear and pleasing. I quite enjoyed the new track, but the original is there for those who would prefer it. The music score has also been isolated.
Disc Two contains the bulk of the special content. The highlight is an excellent 52-minute documentary written, directed and produced by the prolific Laurent Bouzereau. It covers in detail — using interviews with surviving crew — the adaptation of the novel by Pierre Boulle, casting, history of production, score, release, and restoration. It’s followed by a featurette produced at the time of the film’s original release and a USC short film introduced by William Holden. Each has a little fresh information to convey over and above the Bouzereau documentary, but much is repetitive. An appreciation by John Milius is also included. Rounding out the disc are a photo gallery of English and foreign language posters set to music from the film, talent files for Lean and the four principal actors, and four trailers for various Columbia films including a re-release trailer for The Bridge on the River Kwai.
I’m sort of grasping at straws to say something negative in this section, but perhaps the DVD-ROM content on Disc One is worth mentioning. I’d say it’s pretty uninspiring. There is a trivia game wherein you have to answer multiple-choice questions about the film while the bridge is being constructed in the background. The idea is to answer them all correctly before the bridge is completed and can be dynamited. Do it once, but you’ll never do it again. There is also a map of the actual area of Malaya-Thailand- Burma with locations you can click on to get information about the military situation and strategy of the times. Its informative enough, but rather incomplete. Rounding out the DVD-ROM content are screensavers from original film artwork and links to Columbia Home Video and Sony. If indeed Columbia compromised the RSDL nature of the disc to include this, it was a bad decision. Its value doesn’t warrant the annoyance over the layer-change pause and timing problems that some purchasers will experience because of it.
It’s too bad also that no audio commentary could have been included. Of course, all the principals have passed away, so it would have been necessary to go with a film scholar perhaps, but it would probably have been worthwhile to do so.
This will be short and sweet. You have to have this DVD. The film is a timeless work of art and its Exclusive Limited Edition is an example of doing a DVD right, particularly so for a classic title. Columbia is congratulated for a tremendous effort. I’m really looking forward to what they do with Lawrence of Arabia next year.
Case dismissed. Court is adjourned, and all spectators are urged to run out and get their own copies to see for themselves what this case was all about.