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Oscars Challenge #34: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Movie Review

THe Bridge on the River Kwai poster

When we speak, hear or read about what happened during World War 2, especially nowadays, we only mention a few things: The Atomic Bomb, the Holocaust, D-Day, Dunkirk, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, etc. But seriously there is almost none that speaks about the Burma Railway. I mean I never really knew about it until I watched this movie and did my own research.

Although this movie is just a fictional take on the real story, it is inspired by the real Burma Railway that was constructed during World War 2 when the Japanese occupied the country and other colonized states of the United Kingdom.

The movie begins when a new batch of British prisoners of war were sent to a prison camp in Thailand led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). He orders his men to not attempt to escape because they were ordered to surrender. Doing so would be a defy their orders and they could be killed on the spot.

A ruthless Japanese commander named Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), orders all the prisoners as well as their commanders to work on the construction of a railway bridge over River Kwai. Nicholson objects informing him of the Geneve Convention agreement that exempts officers of manual labor. Saito rounded up all the prisoners and threatened them that they will be shot if they object. A British medical officer prevented this since it will be a crime of murder for Saito. Instead, he left them all to stand under the intense heat. In the evening, Nicholson was sent to an iron box.

Saito and Nicholson

Three prisoners were able to escape, one of them is Commander Shears (William Holden). And in the turmoil only he survived and was able to reach the British colony of Ceylon. Meanwhile, the progress of the bridge construction is bad. The Japanese engineering plans were all wrong or poorly written. Saito is informed that if he doesn't finish the bridge on time, he will commit ritual suicide. The deadline he commits to is the anniversary of the country's win during the Russo-Japanese war just to extend more days. He released Nicholson and his officers and agreed that they would not do manual labor. During the Colonel's inspection of the bridge, he immediately noticed how poorly the structure was made. Intending to complete the bridge despite his officers' disagreement, because for him the structure signifies the British army's resolve and ingenuity

Commander Shears now enjoying his life in Ceylon met with several American officers. They instruct him to form a commando team to destroy the bridge just as it completed. Despite disagreeing at first he eventually agrees. He and his team, parachute their way toward the bridge construction site. With the assistance of nearby Siamese women, they were able to reach the site on time with a few of them wounded. They planted several explosives on the foot of the bridge. Meanwhile, Nicholson and the others celebrate as they finally complete the bridge marking their achievement along with the Japanese.

Nicholson and Saito discussing

The next day, the water level on the river got very low which exposed the detonation wires. Nicholson spots it and informs Saito. The two of them investigate and during the commotion, Saito was stabbed to death. Nicholson attempting to stop the detonation encountered Shears. Then a mortar was fired and immediately killed Shears and fatally wounded Nicholson. As he's dying he fell down to the detonator and the bridge collapses along with the train that passes by it.

The sheer scale of the movie is absolutely insane. They hired a lot of extras. They really built a bridge and blew it up at the same time. The practical effects in the movie are enormous and you think everything is made in animation. But in reality, it's not. Everything just looks very real.

Nicholson inspecting his injured men

What really stands out in the movie is the story itself as well as the message that it carries along. I have seen several war movies and most of them always say that between the 2 sides there is always good and evil. But in this movie, there is none. It just focuses on the individual's actions toward their decisions. Then those choices can conflict based on their ideals even if it tests their loyalty.

This film is more about how you define one's perspective. In times of war can you really work while following your principles even if it satisfies your enemy? Or can you still be compassionate towards other people just because you want to finish something? Or has the pressure of war already allowed you to lose trust in others? There are so many things that can be discussed in this film and even I may not have seen it all.

It's too easy for us audiences to point out the villains of this movie. But if you look at it in a wider picture, you can see that there is really no one that can truly be called a villain.

Marking the completion of Bridge over Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai offers a very wonderful character development. One example here is the character of Saito. At the start of the film, he is a ruthless villain-like figure but as the story goes along, he becomes compassionate and appreciative not only towards his men but to the British prisoners as well who helped him complete the bridge before he commits ritual suicide. I will not doubt that this is one of the reasons why you liked this movie. It's just so brilliantly executed that you kind of root all the characters by the time you get to the climax.

Then again the climax is what puts the icing on the cake in this film. It fills you up both with excitement and fear as the train is about to pass the bridge while knowing there are explosives set to destroy it.

To be honest, I feel like the story is well-structured, well-written, and well-balanced. It's like a big puzzle board where the pieces get put in the right place as the story progresses.

The Bridge destroyed

The acting in this film is brilliant. A big round of applause to Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa. Both of them played their roles wonderfully.

If you are looking for a movie that has a big set with practical effects, top-notch acting, and contains a nice story, this will be your cup of tea. The elements of action, comedy, thriller, and drama are all in this film. Just don't get intimidated by its long runtime and the lack of fight scenes despite it being a war movie. I swear you will never regret watching this one.

Despite premiering more than half a century ago, it still aged very well. And for the most part, it is well ahead of its time. You can even compare this one to World War 2 movies today and still find this one better than most.

Surely this film deserves a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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