During World War Two a group of British prisoners of war are ordered to build a bridge for the Burma-Siam railway. First and foremost, wouldn’t your first thought be to sabotage it? Yet, under Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), they are encouraged to build the construction as a motif of ‘Great British’ morale, spirit and righteousness in dire circumstances. To begin with, the PoWs admire their superior officer when he’d rather endure pain than throw his values for the appeasement of the Japanese commandment Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).
Nicholson is ego-driven and arrogant, a man who is little by little shown to be beguiled and a fanatic in persuading himself that the monument is a testament to sound British character, but in reality, it’s a shrine to himself. Further on, the bridge’s construction becomes a mild hint of collaboration with the Japanese enemy. Meanwhile, unknown to Colonel Nicholson, the Allies have organised an assault. Their mission, to blow up the bridge, led by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) and an American called Shears (William Holden). “What have I done?” indeed.
Along with Oliver Stone’s Platoon, this is one of the few times where I’m watching a war film and not feeling slowly taken over by Hollywood’s propaganda techniques to persuade me into thinking that killing is good as long as the enemy live in a country I can’t pronounce. War is not made for light entertainment in this film, even if the film is entertaining. Winning best picture in 1957, this is more than just a story about war. It’s a story about men and how even seemingly good ones can be corrupted by the badness that occurs out there in conflict. But it’s also about those who have seen conflict get to a point where they just want to assert some morality. Is that too much to ask?
We are taken on a great adventure by director David Lean, deep through the canopies of the Burmese jungle, to analyse some of the bigger conflicts, and the repercussions of evil circumstances on ordinary people. Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) is a man of stern values and ideals, to whom compromising such things is not an option. Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) has an uncompromising code of conduct and is alike to Colonel Nicholson, in their perspectives on their values. All of which solidifies their dignity and honour. Then we have Commander Shears (William Holden), a man who’s had enough of war. He just wants to go home and live.
Generally, I don’t like war films and I pick the ones I watch carefully. I’m glad I gave my time to this. There is not a part of this film that is not accolade-worthy. David Lean’s tight and provocative direction is marvellous. The cinematography is great, though I think I would enjoy it more if I had watched it in black and white, and not the remastered colour version. Alec Guinness picked up an Oscar for his performance and he’s very much worthy of the golden statue and more. He hit a big six, middled it out of the ground. Sessue Hayakawa is highly authentic and convincing with William Holden and Jack Hawkins good in support ti carve the cast out nicely.
My favourite elements of the picture are not the superb acting, nor is it the direction or cinematography. My favourite parts of this film are the on-location sets and the moving musical score, composed by Malcolm Arnold (Thin Red Line), a composition for which he walked away with one of this film’s seven golden statues. The musical score is certainly on par with Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings or Nino Rota’s The Godfather Trilogy. The score entwined with the cinematography and direction leaves the viewer feeling humbled in being given the privilege of watching this feature, as the viewer grows to care about the characters and their plights.
In my view, Kwai is an anti-war film. It is not glorified in the slightest. It’s brutal and aggressive, without a shadow of doubt. It’s harshness is not captured through severed limbs and their like (see Hacksaw Ridge). It’s through the mentality of man. Despite this, it shows how resilient the world of men is, using their will to resist as beginner’s guide to humanity. It also begs me to ask whether if the afflicted characters were simultaneously psychologically tormented and liberated by their time in conflict? War can act as both, often finding beauty and ugliness in what is defined as a callous sentiment.