The Best Picture Project – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

File:194ER57.jpgDirected by David Lean

Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, from the Pierre Boulle Novel

Starring Alec Guiness and William Holden

A few weeks ago – or maybe a few months ago – I wrote in these pages about Lawrence of Arabia, Best Picture winner of 1962.  One of the complaints I had about Arabia is that, for all its arresting imagery, which the film had in spades, was the way everything bogged down in the second half when all the adventure turned to politics.  After all, the film is practically four hours long anyway and to throw politics into the mix – well, the only reason I made it to the end is because the first half was so damned good.Coming to Kwai, which I’ve seen before, I’m struck by how history likes to remember Arabia as the crowning jewel of David Lean’s oeuvre when clearly it is Kwai that should be so honored.  While it doesn’t have the visual spectacle of Arabia, or the grand sweep of the desert, and has got to be one of the sweatiest films ever made, it doesn’t need it.  It’s simply a story about a battle of wills and madness in the jungle and all that spectacle would have been off-putting.  No, all you need is that bridge blowing up at the end to justify all the straight-out restraint of the film.  Better, it doesn’t come with all the politics. 

Here’s a look at that ending:

A few years ago I read Bridge on the River Kwai in paperback.  I happened to pick up a copy at a used book sale at the library for $.10  – I also got Planet of the Apes at the same time, a novel by the same author, as well as Papillon – and what’s amazing is that for a film that’s more than 2 ½ hours long, the book is a little thin.  This was actually true of the novel Planet of the Apes, also.  Of course in a book as slim as Kwai, all the speechifying, which is a major player in the movie, is notably absent in the book.  Instead there is only the plain and dirty story to contend with, and it is what it is.

Unfortunately, the parts that are weakest about the movie are probably those things that weren’t there in the book, particularly the speechifying.  Throughout the movie Holden doesn’t miss an opportunity to offer us his cynical ‘wisdom’, sometimes to the point of nausea.  Fortunately Guinness’ character didn’t need a lot of speeches to get his point across, he needed only to show quiet determination. 

Guinness’ performance as Colonel Nicholson, more than any other in history, might be the most lauded not for its theatrics, but for its lack thereof.  Though Guinness won the Oscar as Best Actor, he’s hardly forced to act at all – and from his Ealing Studio Comedies, like The Lavender Hill Mob, we know he could act.  Honestly, sometimes he merely seems to be sleepwalks.  Sometimes I ask myself if, should the actors in the movie changed parts, would the part that won the Oscar still win with the new face playing it?  At times the answer is clearly no – Gregory Peck is the Atticus Finch – and at other times the answer is decidedly yes.  I think the part of Colonel Nicholson, in Bridge on the River Kwai, is one of those examples of, it didn’t matter who played the part, it still would have taken the Oscar.

Despite all of its drawbacks, though, Kwai is the superior film to Arabia, and in a year where Paths of Glory and A Face in the Crowd couldn’t even muscle into the Oscar race – while Peyton Place could – Bridge on the River Kwai is the true Best Picture of 1957.


Given it’s pedigree, it’s strange that Kwai didn’t end up taking a more poitical stance.  After all, the film was adapted for the screen by two blacklisted screenwriters – Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman – who only received screen credit, and true Oscar recognition for their work, years after they were dead.  You’d think that for men who knew they wouldn’t be credited they might up the political activism a bit, but they never did.  Anyhow, it’s worth noting that because Wilson and Foreman were blacklisted the screenplay was credited to Pierre Boulle, author of the novel and a Frenchman who couldn’t speak English.

A real bit of trivia here has to do with Sam Spiegel. In a previous post, about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest I mentioned Saul Zaentz being one of the two producers to win three Oscars for Best Picture. The other, was Sam Spiegel, winner of Oscars for On The Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. He was nominated for a fourth for Nicholas and Alexandra, and was also a recipient, in 1964 of the Thalberg Award. Not too shabby when you think about it.

For the other winners and films left to see, click here.

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