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Bridge proves to be strong first pillar of trio

Brian Doxtader | Friday, January 20, 2006

David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was the first in a brilliant trio of films that became turning points in the history of cinema.

The 1957 film, which won the Best Picture Academy Award, was followed by 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (undoubtedly Lean’s magnum opus) and 1965’s “Doctor Zhivago.” While all three share many of the same themes (pitting humans against a grand historical backdrop with an epic flavor), the focus and relative conciseness of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” grants it an urgency and clear sense of purpose that outstrips its successors.

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is nominally a war film, but its ambiguity and thematic lack of resolution transcends those genre limitations. It follows British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness) and his troops, who are under the thumb of Japanese prison camp commander Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Saito orders Nicholson’s men to build a bridge on the river Kwai (hence the cleverly descriptive title) that will allow for the transportation of munitions. While Nicholson originally balks at the idea, he eventually agrees and soon becomes obsessed with completing the bridge to perfection – this, he believes, will prove the superiority of the British over the Japanese.

Like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” two decades later, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is less about war than it is about the effects of war and an exploration of obsession and madness. Nicholson begins as a rigidly doctrined British officer, but ends steeped in his own mania – only Shears (William Holden) manages to maintain any sort of perspective, and even he is reduced to confusion by the film’s end. The closing scene, rife with ambiguity, is rightfully one of the most famous in motion picture history.

The film is dominated by Alec Guiness, whose powerfully hypnotic performance is the hinge on which the picture rests. As the increasingly obsessive Colonel Nicholson, Guiness turns in one of the century’s most memorable performances, and certainly among his finest (although considerably less famous than his portrayal of a certain Jedi Knight). Lean’s thinly veiled criticism of British ideals and ethnocentricity is embodied by Nicholson, and Guiness’ nuanced performance elevates him into an actual character rather than a mere metaphor.

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is often cited as Lean’s best picture, which in turn makes it one of the finest pictures of all time. The American Film Institute declared it the 13th greatest film of all time, and it was a runaway success at the Oscars, winning seven statues. While most of Lean’s films have withstood the test of time (“Lawrence of Arabia” and “Brief Encounter” in particular), “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is among his most timeless. Though not an epic on the scale of “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is still essential viewing and a great picture. Those unfamiliar with Lean’s work should find it a great starting point and it is especially recommended for those who only know Guiness as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” will be shown Jan. 21 at 3 p.m. in the Browning Cinema in the DPAC as part of the PAC Classic 100.