Movie Project #49: The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]
Director: David Lean
Writers: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson
Country: USA/UK
Genre: Adventure/Drama/War
Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa
Running Time: 161 minutes

David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is not a conventional prisoner of war story, even though it appears to be at first. At the beginning of this 1957 epic, a large group of British soldiers are led through the jungles of Burma to the closest POW camp — all while whistling the catchy opening strain of the “Colonel Bogey” march. It is here where they meet the local commandant, a very stern Japanese man named Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). His orders are to make these prisoners finish the construction of a railroad bridge over the nearby River Kwai.

Saito immediately discredits any notion of fairness by ordering everyone, officers included, to begin work immediately. The senior British officer, Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), cites the Geneva Conventions and refuses to make his fellow officers work. This draws the ire of Saito, who forces every officer to stand all day in the sweltering tropical heat. Nicholson is sent off to “the oven”, a small box for solitary confinement.

At this point, it appears the film is going to be about the conflict between the Japanese and the British officers. Yet it is here where things go in a different direction.

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

Three prisoners attempt to escape — two are shot dead, the other is wounded but manages to get away. The surviving escapee, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Shears (William Holden), stumbles onto a village and eventually ends up in the open arms of the Mount Lavinia Hospital. Just as he begins settling into a relaxing life on the beach, he is approached by the British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), who forcefully coerces him into “volunteering” for a commando mission. The goal? To blow up the very bridge the prisoners are working on.

Meanwhile, back at the camp, Nicholson is suffering from a very bizarre variation of “Stockholm syndrome” where he changes his tune and pushes his soldiers to do the best job possible on the bridge, even going so far as to tear down the original one in favor of starting from scratch at another point of the river. These two subplots eventually merge together at the end of the film, an absolutely thunderous, unpredictable climax.

The journey to this point is admittedly a bit of a taxing one. The film takes its sweet time setting up its plot devices, and it could use a bit of trimming at certain points. At the same time, the film is visually stunning, especially on the big screen (which I was fortunate enough to see). The Burmese jungles (actually filmed in Sri Lanka) are beautiful, with long sweeping shots of the scenery. The environment is also used to wonderful effect in the form of its sound effects — the bird calls, running water, etc. are constantly heard in the background. And of course, the whistling is insanely catchy, and it has been in my head for days.

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

The cast here is phenomenal, with Alec Guinness being the biggest highlight. In fact, I found myself wishing more time had been spent on his plight rather than that of the impending commando mission. Both stories are tied together perfectly at the end, but it’s Guinness’s character’s spiral into madness that I found most captivating.

Really, that’s what the film is all about — madness — and it’s even the very last word uttered on screen. Perhaps the most glaring example is how Nicholson and Shears, both prisoners of war, have completely different goals. One wants to finish the bridge as a matter of British pride, the other wants to blow it up to save his own ass. Altogether, it’s a really interesting take on the tolls of war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is quite lengthy, but it is a viewing experience I will never forget.


Movie Project #48: Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]
Director: David Lean
Writers: T.E. Lawrence (writings), Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Genre: Adventure/Biography/Drama
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif
Running Time: 216 minutes

The word “epic” is thrown around a lot these days, especially when it comes to film. Just this year alone, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit and The Dark Knight Rises were recipients of this buzz word. But if there were one film to truly deserve the “epic” moniker, it would be Lawrence of Arabia.

Arguably the most intimidating entry in my project — largely due to its nearly four hour running time — I waited until just the right time to finally see the film. Thanks to this year being the 50th anniversary of its release, a fully restored version has been making its way around select theaters nationwide. As such, I spent my Christmas evening at my favorite cinema, the Music Box Theatre, taking in Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen as it was meant to be seen.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

The film tells the story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a man who I knew little about beforehand. Set during World War I, we follow along as Lawrence rises from being an eccentric British Army lieutenant to an improbable leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks. The journey there is anything but conventional.

Lawrence befriends a number of desert leaders along the way, including Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness). He earns their trust and respect thanks to his noble actions. In one pivotal moment, the Arab group notices a man has fallen off his horse quite a ways back. While the general consensus is that it is too risky to go back for him, Lawrence takes matters into his own hands and rides back alone. He emerges, a small blip in the seering desert horizon, no longer alone, but with the man clinging to his back. This response cements Lawrence’s status as a leader, and soon the Arabs become even more accepting of him.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

The fact that Lawrence is able to emerge as a crucial figure in the Arab revolt is nothing short of fascinating. He is anything but a traditional military hero, and it’s easy to see why director David Lean wanted to film his story. Peter O’Toole, in his first leading role, delivers an unprecedented performance as Lawrence, bringing about an unusual form of charisma. He is enigmatic, a rebellious figure who is also a bit effeminate. He’s a man of action, and some of his behavior near the end of the revolt is startling.

The supporting cast is phenomenal as well. Omar Sharif plays a key role as Lawrence’s main compatriot in the desert, with Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn also performing admirably as important Arab leaders. On the British side of the spectrum, Donald Wolfit and the always reliable Claude Rains play military and political leaders, respectively. Arthur Kennedy makes an appearance as an American war correspondent, looking to make Lawrence out to be a hero. Special mention should be made of José Ferrer, who is only in the film for five minutes but is a driving force in one of the most memorable scenes.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Perhaps the most important figure in Lawrence of Arabia is the desert itself. The cinematography by F.A. Young is simply amazing, and the landscape is used to maximum efficiency. Several scenes show the sun beaming down on those below, with long, sweeping shots that show just how minuscule humans are in the grand scheme of things. An especially memorable moment happens when Sherif Ali is introduced. At first, we see a tiny dot in the distance. In the hazy heat, it’s difficult to tell if there is actually something there or if it is an illusion. Slowly but surely, the small dot grows bigger, and it isn’t too long before Ali enters the scene. What happens next is unexpected, but this moment perfectly encapsulates just how daunting these massive deserts truly are. I can’t recall another film that so effectively uses Earth’s own natural beauty.

Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning seven of them (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography). It’s one of the most widely recognized films of all time, with unanimous praise from most. The accolades are more than deserved, as this is a near flawless work of art. As of this writing, the film is still being shown in a handful of theaters. If it’s playing anywhere near you, this is a cinematic viewing experience you must not miss.