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The Bridge on the River Kwai(1957)
A group of British POWs is forced to build a bridge in Burma for the Japanese. Led by Colonel Nicholson, they not only build the bridge but organise the whole building program and are proud of the final result. However, unbeknownst to the POWs, a British commando team has been given a mission to destroy it.
For more about The Bridge on the River Kwai and the The Bridge on the River Kwai Blu-ray release, see The Bridge on the River Kwai Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on October 27, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, Geoffrey Horne, James Donald
Director: David Lean
» See full cast & crew
The Bridge on the River Kwai Blu-ray Review
This is how classic cinema should be treated in the 21st century.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, October 27, 2010
There is no barbed wire, no stockade, no watch tower. They are not necessary. We are on an island in the jungle. Escape is impossible.
Imagine the word "epic" and, at least in the world of exceptional cinema, only a few names spring immediately to mind. Atop that list must be Director David Lean, a British filmmaker with some of the 20th century's finest pictures to his credit. Lawrence of Arabia. Doctor Zhivago. A Passage to India. The Bridge on the River Kwai. That's about as formidable a foursome as there ever was, every one of them an undeniable classic of story, scope, production, and movie magic. The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of Lean's most commercially, critically, and aesthetically complete pictures. It's a rare film that manages rousing success with its audience, almost universal acclaim from critics, and tells a story centered on the human condition rather than the typically wartime run-and-gun elements that defined most World War II pictures of the era. With Kwai, Lean defies all cinematic preconceptions with a wartime film that's not necessarily about a war itself but rather obsession, pride, and duty, whether it's the obsession of victory, the pride in oneself, or the duty to country or a cause. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film that tells three distinct stories, the first a battle of wits, the second an adventuresome mission into enemy territory, and the third the tale of a man who becomes lost in his own pride, unable to see anything but the work directly in front of him. Each story comments on the human condition at several levels, not the least of which is summed up at film's end with the repetitious cry of "madness! madness!" that perfectly encapsulates not only the destructive force of war but what is often man's own inability to see the greater consequences of his actions, consequences that differ for each main character but nevertheless end with the same tragic, maddening results.
It is the year 1943, and the Japanese army is using prisoners of war as slave labor to further its war effort. An American Naval officer by the name of Shears (William Holden, The Towering Inferno) is one of only two prisoners to have survived the forced construction of the camp that is now under the command of the harsh Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). The camp is soon restocked by fresh British bodies -- led by the stalwart Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness, The Ladykillers) -- who are tasked with the construction of a nearby bridge that will connect railways between Bangkok and Rangoon. Nicholson and Saito immediately square off, with Nicholson refusing to obey orders for he and his officers to participate in manual labor, an act expressly forbidden by the Geneva Convention and defiantly ignored by Saito. What follows is a battle of wits with neither man conceding to the other, no matter how harshly Saito treats Nicholson or how he threatens his men and officers. Meanwhile, Shears manages to escape from the camp and is several days later returned to allied-controlled territory where he is tasked with spearheading a mission to destroy the vital bridge over the river Kwai before it's put into general operation.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is more a Character Drama than it is a typical War picture. The film's several action elements are few and far between, with the violence reserved for a final act that's defined not by gunshots and explosions but rather the follies of man and the madness of not only war, but that which both war and personal obsession engender inside a man. The film is about adherence to principles, beliefs, and ideals; it's about finding one's true self in the midst of brutal and unnatural conditions; and most of all, it's about pride and narrow-mindedness, both of which seem capable of overwhelming even one's most deeply-held and personal beliefs and attributes, such as loyalty and clearheadedness. The Bridge on the River Kwai is primarily the story of a stalwart British Colonel who exists only to win out, to prove his worth, and to show that he's the superior soldier. Perhaps his headstrong ways are a result of decades in the service and the loss of any semblance of a personal life; he's long since forgotten what it means to be a man of depth and with the ability to adapt to and understand a scope greater than what's placed directly in front of him. His long service time and, by extension, his very life, has come to be defined by his ability to accomplish only whatever task lies in front of him, whether that's besting Colonel Saito or proving that he can lead the construction of the best bridge built during the war, even if that means he's lost sight of the larger picture: the welfare of his men, his goals as a prisoner of war, or adhering to a strategy that will benefit his allies rather than his enemies. All of the picture's themes -- whether personal courage, bravery, sacrifice, focus, fear, obsession, dedication, and foolhardiness -- are all personified at one point or another through the picture in Colonel Nicholson's character, and it's through Alec Guinness' exemplary performance that the character truly comes to embody all of the madness of war through his experiences in building the bridge on the river Kwai.
Of course, the film wouldn't work without a counterbalance to Nicholson's obsessions. He finds that foe in the Japanese Colonel Saito, a man of equal shortsightedness and dedication more to self and hubris rather than country and position. Saito ultimately loses to Nicholson, who is but the same man but with a different face, a different name, and a different uniform. Never is Saito a master over Nicholson and his fellow British POWs, even as they arrive in camp whistling "Colonel Bogey March;" Saito only ever appears to be in command over the stubborn English Colonel. Nicholson finds in Saito a "reasonable fellow" not because Saito threatens to kill the British officers for their insubordination, demands that they work as manual laborers, or proves stubborn in his ways, but because he immediately finds a man like him but with weaknesses he can exploit. Those weaknesses -- excess pride, a narrow focus -- are shared by Nicholson to an obvious fault that completely manifests itself by film's end, but he's merely the greater of the two equally stubborn men. Saito comes to realize that Nicholson is his better, but he succumbs to his adversary at every turn only in the knowledge that he'll ultimately earn the credit for Nicholson's successes with his own superiors by default, though he's ready to give up at the expense of his own life if Nicholson lets him down, the ultimate submission to a life controlled by nothing but the most stubborn of hubris. Sessue Hayakawa is Alec Guinness' equal in terms of his ability to lend to his character a crazed single-mindedness throughout the movie; he handles the part extraordinarily well and sells the shame that comes with losing out to Nicholson in those moments where the audience sees the character in solitude and wondering how a man of his stature could fall so far to a filthy, worn-down, and arrogant British officer, to the point that Nicholson becomes the de facto head of the camp and the bridge project. Even then, however, Nicholson respects the chain of command and his military training and traditions to the point that he's willing to figuratively bow to Saito's recognized but empty position of leadership.
Amidst the back-and-forth between the film's flawed and obsessed characters lies the story of Shears, played by William Holden. Shears, too, is a character obsessed with self, but unlike Saito and Nicholson, he's not concerned with gaining leverage or proving his worth as a man and a leader, but instead his own survival. As one of the only men to escape the prison and live to tell about it, he's something of a traditional action hero, but he manipulates the system along the way to his own advantage until he's forced back into action by the threat of exposure of who he really is. Shears cares more about flirting with pretty women and sipping drinks on an exotic beach than he does the war effort and the hell he left behind at Saito's camp, not to mention the men left to suffer and die under the Japanese Colonel's harsh methods. Shears knows firsthand how brutal it can be -- he and one other man were the only two of their prisoner group to survive the experience -- but that doesn't stop him from looking for a way out of going back to help a team to destroy the war-critical bridge. Holden's character may receive the glory as the picture's de facto action star and shirtless Hollywood hunk who earns top billing, but his character is the least interesting of the three from a dramatic and thematic perspective. Nevertheless, he balances the film with a free and easy attitude that's the antithesis of the Saito and Nicholson characters; he sees the bigger picture which they cannot, and it's that realization that war is indeed hell -- or sheer madness, as the film so simply but eloquently states -- that drives him to do anything he can to stay away from it. Though he may be the film's good-looking hero, he actually represents the audience more so than any of the other major characters, save, perhaps, for the good Doctor Clipton (James Donald) who "has a lot to learn about the army" but clearly sees that the whole mess around the bridge on the river Kwai has disintegrated into "madness."
All of the excellently-played and strongly-scripted characters almost threaten to overshadow David Lean's exceptional work on The Bridge on the River Kwai. Almost. Lean does a masterful job of accentuating his characters through his reserved but exacting visual style, one that precisely captures the action both in the foreground and in the background. Lean's picture comes alive as a lavishly detailed production that doesn't look in the least bit fancy or overdone, but instead plays with a decidedly realistic tenor where the picture seems always alive and bustling with activity around the frame, giving off a sense of real space, real time, and a real environment. His framing is consistently perfect, his shots extraordinarily precise, and the picture perfectly edited. The film enjoys a very deliberate structure that allows the action to play out in its own time and its own space, but never at the expense of pace; Lean often seems content to allow his actors to do the work in his perfectly-realized frame, and it's his faultless understanding of what the picture needs -- not necessarily what a lesser director might want -- that puts the finishing touches on a great movie. No doubt The Bridge on the River Kwai is a beneficiary of fantastic acting, a top-notch script, stupendous editing, and a fabulous but not excessively-used score; Lean understands what he's working with and does only what he needs to do to make the picture complete, and that style is what separates the legendary filmmaker from the average director. Lean proves with The Bridge on the River Kwai that the best directors are about getting the most out of their script and their actors. Lean doesn't use the film as a showpiece for cinematic excess or his position as director as a platform for showmanship; instead, he sets out to tell a complete story and use his abilities as a master craftsman to the benefit of the production and not as a platform for accolades, which is exactly why the accolades come steadily and even years after the film and in his death.
The Bridge on the River Kwai Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Bridge on the River Kwai has received a glorious 4K restoration for its inaugural Blu-ray release. Sony's 1080p transfer is nothing short of marvelous; the film has never looked better for home consumption, and save for a couple of minor nitpicks, the studio's transfer is pretty much perfect. Both the immaculate detailing and pristine color reproduction will impress longtime fans of the film and newcomers alike from the opening moments forward. The yellow titles have never appeared so bold, clean, and sharp, and the remainder of the movie is home to a color palette to die for. The technicolor presentation looks fantastic; even if much of the film is made of the earthen hues that define the dusty terrain, the ragged British fatigues, the wooden bridge, or the bamboo structures, Sony's transfer handles them all with precision and attention to detail that's second-to-none for an aging picture. Bolder colors impress, too, whether the bright green foliage seen around the various locales or the red rising sun offset against a white backdrop that makes up the Japanese flag. Fine detail is exemplary, too, with the 1080p transfer capturing the slightest frays in uniforms, the texture of the dirt terrain around the camp, sweaty and scraggly faces, or the wood grains on the planks that make up the bridge. Better still, The Bridge on the River Kwai retains a handsome layer of grain that gives the picture an oftentimes breathtaking cinematic texture. Black levels are strong, appearing inky and honest without overwhelming any details around the frame, and flesh tones appear accurately reproduced throughout. There are a few soft shots scattered about the movie and viewers will notice sloppy scene transitions that tighten up in an instant, but both elements are source-specific and not a fault of the Blu-ray transfer. Only a few random speckles and slight shimmering seen on several shots of a curtain with horizontal striping represent the only real drawbacks to the transfer. The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the finer looking Blu-ray discs on the market; it's not going to wow audiences hoping for a movie that looks like it was filmed six months ago, but as far as vintage catalogue titles go, they don't get much better than this.
The Bridge on the River Kwai Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Bridge on the River Kwai's inaugural Blu-ray release features a steady DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack. Like the video, it's not going to overwhelm those in search of pitch-perfect, modern-sounding 360-degree mixes, but Sony's track hits all the right notes and delivers a wonderfully clear and perfectly stable sound presentation. The track is generally front-heavy with the surround speakers engaged primarily in the delivery of light atmospherics. The sound of heavy falling rain and the din of jungle wildlife plays with more of a cursory rather than pronounced surround presentation; listeners won't feel engulfed into the environment around the bridge and prison camp, but the quality of the film supersedes the absence of a more directionally-specific and seamless sound field. Primary and more pronounced sound effects -- such as an ear-piercing blow of a whistle -- enjoy a decidedly realistic tone, but several end-of-film effects, such as explosions and gunshots, play noticeably muffled due not to the quality of the track but instead the innate elements used in creating the sound for the original picture. The low end doesn't see much use, though there is a noticeable uptick in bass during some of the military music. Dialogue is effortlessly delivered via the center channel with no perceptible issues of note. The Bridge on the River Kwai isn't a spectacular show of sonic delights, but fans should be appreciative of Sony's efforts in bringing this track to a level of excellence never before achieved for home video.
The Bridge on the River Kwai Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Bridge on the River Kwai features a nice assortment of extra content. The Blu-ray disc begins with Crossing the Bridge: Picture-in-Picture Graphics Track, a multi-purpose secondary video feature that offers insights into the making of the film, facts about World War II and POW camp experiences, first-hand accounts from soldiers who worked on the Burma-Thailand railway, and book-to-screen comparisons. The feature film plays in a small window on the left-hand side of the screen while a changing background accompanies the various text-based notes across the bottom of the screen; it's more of a glorified trivia track than anything else, but it's a solid supplement that's a fine companion to the film. Sony has smartly designed the supplement to allow users to immediately skip to the next fact via a forward arrow located at the top right hand side of the screen. Next is Making of 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' (480p, 53:03), an extensive supplement that covers the entirety of the filmmaking process, including the hiring of David Lean, his insistence on reworking the script, the usage of the "Colonel Bogey March" whistled tune in the film, the changes between the novel and script, the inclusion of the William Holden character, the work of the cast, shooting locales and set design, the process of building the bridge, David Lean's directorial style, the differences in the story's ending between the novel and the film, and much more. This is a fast moving piece; fans will find it well worth the effort.
Next up is The Steve Allen Show with William Holden & Alec Guinness (480p, 6:30) which features two of the film's stars talking up their then-latest picture on a 1957 television program. 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' Premiere Narrated by William Holden (1080p, 1:50) features the star discussing the picture's premiere over a series of still photographs. A vintage black-and-white piece that chronicles the building of the bridge is seen in Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant (480p, 6:13). USC Short Film Introduced by William Holden (480p, 15:52) is another black-and-white vintage supplement that features the actor comparing literature and motion pictures as he hosts a short film made during the shooting of 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' that's meant to educate viewers on the process of analyzing film and literature and discussing the three primary challenges of making a motion picture. This is one of the best supplements to be found in this set. An Appreciation by Filmmaker John Milius (480p, 8:06) is next. This extra features the Red Dawn director sharing the many reasons he loves the film. Also included on disc one is BD-Live functionality; a photo gallery (480p, 7:28); the film's theatrical trailer (1080p, 3:23); the film's re-release Academy Awards trailer (1080p, 3:08); and additional trailers for Columbia Classic Treasures (480p, 3:34), TCM Classic Film Festival (1080p, 1:02), Tommy, and Midnight Express. Disc two houses a DVD copy of The Bridge on the River Kwai. This DigiBook release also contains a full-color 32-page booklet built into the packaging and a dozen replica theatrical lobby cards.
The Bridge on the River Kwai Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a masterful film and one of but a handful of pictures that could be described as both "legendary" and "epic." The Bridge on the River Kwai is a complete work, an exemplary Human Drama that's as much about the follies of man as it is the follies of war; the film is a buildup towards madness, wether the narrow-mindedness of its characters or the destructive nature of war itself. The madness that is excess pride, shortsightedness, and dedication to a foolhardy goal rather than a greater cause are the picture's primary themes, with the action elements merely supporting rather than defining the film. David Lean's film is a masterpiece of directorial craftsmanship, and his reserved but steady approach is one of the film's greatest assets. Lean understands that a great film need be a complete one, and his direction is merely a compliment to a greater whole, and that adherence to what makes a perfect film may be seen as his defining attribute. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a timeless classic that's been reborn on Blu-ray; the film looks and sounds just as it should and is accentuated by plenty of top-notch extras. Sony's Blu-ray release of The Bridge on the River Kwai earns my highest recommendation.
The Bridge on the River Kwai: Other Editions
The Bridge on the River Kwai Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Bridge on the River Kwai Gets Non-DigiBook Blu-ray - March 28, 2011
On June 7, Sony Pictures Home Entertaiment will re-release The Bridge on the River Kwai on a regular Blu-ray edition. This classic movie directed by David Lean had been released by SPHE in November 2010 in a book edition with an accompanying DVD and a set of lobby ...
• This Week on Blu-ray - November 2-8 - November 2, 2010
Rescued from a direct-to-video death sentence, Toy Story 3 went from a potential embarrassment to an Oscar-worthy sequel with the kind of magic only Pixar can perform. Creating a successful sequel is hard enough; creating one that can stand up to the original is ...
• Bridge on the River Kwai Blu-ray Announced - August 23, 2010
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has officially announced The Bridge on the River Kwai on a Collector's Edition Blu-ray/DVD set, with a release date of November 2. This WWII classic, winner of seven Academy Awards, has received a 4K restoration from the original ...
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