Andre MorellAlec GuinnessDavid LeanHeihachiro Okawa
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Medium: film
Year: 1957
Director: David Lean
Writer: Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman, Pierre Boulle
Keywords: Oscar-winning, World War II
Country: UK, USA
Language: English, Japanese [a little], Thai [a little]
Actor: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne, Andre Morell, Peter Williams, John Boxer, Percy Herbert, Harold Goodwin, Ann Sears, Heihachiro Okawa, Keiichiro Katsumoto, M.R.B. Chakrabandhu, Vilaiwan Seeboonreaung, Ngamta Suphaphongs, Javanart Punynchoti, Kannikar Dowklee
Format: 161 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 30 September 2009
My Dad doesn't like this film. He served in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), although not in the war, and he declined an offer from me to watch this film on the grounds of historical inaccuracy. I didn't push it but I was a little surprised, since it's supposedly one of the British greats. It was the biggest film of 1958 at the box office, but it also won seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Music, Best Editing and Best Cinematography. That's not even mentioning Sessue Hayakawa's nomination for Best Supporting Actor, by the way.
Besides, it was directed by David Lean and starred Alec Guinness. There was absolutely no way I wasn't watching this. Having seen it at last, I can agree that's it's as great as everyone says it is... but it's also borderline offensive in the liberties it takes with history.
Let's give a quick run-down of the story behind the film, so we know where we stand. The film's based on a novel of the same name by the French writer Pierre Boulle, who apparently based his rendition of the Alec Guinness character on his personal memories of French officers who'd collaborated with the enemy. Unfortunately his story also happens to be based on the building of the bridge at Tha Ma Kham, which was part of the notorious Burma-Siam railway which was built by the Japanese using Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war as their labour force. 13,000 of these prisoners of war died, not to mention another 80 to 100,000 conscripted civilians. The Alec Guinness character in real life was one Colonel Philip Toosey and it's been said by a real-life camp survivor that no such man could have risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the British Army and that even if one had done so, his men would have quietly eliminated him.
Some of the characters in this film even share the names of real people involved in the Burma Railway. Sessue Hayakawa's character, for instance, is called Colonel Saito and he's the brutal camp commander. There was in fact a Sergeant-Major Risaburo Saito at the real camp, but he was only the second in command and he was respected by the prisoners for being comparatively fair in his treatment of them. Toosey personally defended him at his war crimes trial after the war and the two men later became friends.
In other words, this film is libelling the memories of real men who lived through horrors that the film doesn't even begin to portray properly. For the most part I can stomach that, but the ending in particular is soaring off into realms of fantasy that are likely to trip up even people who know nothing of the historical period. The British in this film are mad. There are two men in particular here who are explicitly compared with each other, each a "stiff upper lip" British officer who's brave and honourable to the point of near-insanity and as a result of their character traits end up going off the rails. Alec Guinness originally turned down the role because he disliked it and regarded Pierre Boulle's novel as anti-British, although his performance is so brilliant that he'll get you cheering for him even when he's completely flipped his lid. As a film, it's a tour de force. As a story that could be interpreted as being based on real people, it's a bit shameful.
Then there's the Japanese side of things, which is simply a joke. It's almost Disney-fied. What the Japanese did to their captured enemies was worse than the Nazis' European concentration camps and probably even outdoes the atrocities in Russia. Needless to say, this film can't even show a shadow of that. You could show it to children. That in itself I don't mind so much, since this is a 1957 film. The cinema of that era was never going to do a Schindler's List. However what did surprise me was how poor was its portrayal of the Japanese themselves, which in practice means Hayakawa.
Despite his Oscar nomination, Hayakawa never even seemed real to me. That's not a 1943 Japanese officer we're looking at in this film. That's a Westernised version, softened into something more comprehensible to American sensibilities. Admittedly Hayakawa's not helped by the fact that there aren't really any other Japanese characters in the film, leaving him to play all his scenes opposite Alec Guinness rather than his fellow countrymen, but even so I didn't buy it. Sorry. In many ways it's a wonderful performance, with a couple of scenes in particular that are deliciously strong, but as a portrayal of a Japanese officer of the time, for me it's a failure. What the hell is that accent, for a start? Hayakawa had been a huge Hollywood star in the silent era, of all things, and had even spent time in France. You can tell. His character's supposedly done three years' study at London Polytechnic. Er, no.
I'm not normally a history nerd, but this is actually insulting. However leaving all that aside, this is a great film.
For starters, all that history-mangling is making a point. It's a character study of a certain kind of Englishness, taking that stereotyped courage and honour to such extremes that it becomes insanity. It's a powerful theme, developed in depth and almost justifying all that history-mangling I was complaining about earlier. Alec Guinness is every kind of awesome. He takes this lunatic who could have been a dried-up old stick, stripped (at Lean's insistence) of anything that smacks of humour or sympathy, and turns him into something epic. The clash of wills between Guinness and Hayakawa during the first hour of the film is eye-popping and ends with the kind of emotional release that any other films would be proud to have as their climax. I was all but punching the air.
Then you've got the fact that this is essentially two films, thematically linked but mostly dealing with different characters. That's what keeps the pace so strong, despite the running time. They don't feel disconnected, though, partly because everything's focused on that bridge and partly because William Holden's character is our link from one to the other. It's hilarious to see him getting screwed by the British. They're so polite and gentlemanly about the fact that they're being complete and utter bastards.
Then there's the sheer visual impact of the film. Its Ceylon will practically eat you up. I've never seen anything quite like that baking tropical jungle filmed in Jack Hildyard's saturated colours. Oh, and the music deserves its Oscar too despite the fact that there's precious little of it and it can feel overbearing when it does show up, simply for Lean's use of Colonel Bogey.
Not having watched any Mel Gibson films in a while, this is the worst travesty of history I've yet seen in a movie. It's far more offensive than the likes of Tomb of the Cybermen or The Talons of Weng-Chiang, partly because those aren't pretending to be anything more than good-hearted SF nonsense but mostly because this is real history involving real people that's being hacked up here. However at the same time it's also a magnificent movie with "punch the air" awesome characters and important, interesting things to say about war, honour and courage. It's probably a must-watch just for Alec Guinness. Just don't be in too much of a hurry to show it to anyone who's either Japanese or is familiar with the history.