Classic Movie Countdown: Best Picture # 4 — The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

4. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Other Nominated Films:
Peyton Place, Sayonara, 12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution

I said this in an earlier post, but I feel that it’s only right to say it again: Davis Lean is one of the finest directors of all time. A few posts earlier, I spoke about the magnificence of what is, according to some critics, his best film ever, Lawrence of Arabia. Now, I’m here to present what I feel is the best film David Lean ever directed: The Bridge on the River Kwai. The film focuses on a unit of British soldiers who are brought to a Japanese prison camp.  The Japanese camp commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), addresses the new prisoners, telling them that, regardless of rank, they will be required to work on the construction of a bridge over the River Kwai. British commander, Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) takes great issue with this because the Geneva Conventions state that captured officers are exempt from manual labor. The next morning, Nicholson blatantly disregards Saito’s orders and refuses to let his officers work. Saito is infuriated and threatens to have the officers shot, but Nicholson stands firm. Major Clipton (James Donald), the British medical officer, intervenes, claiming that murdering the officers will result in scandal and inquiry. Saito instead decides to leave the officers behind all day to stand and suffer in the blazing heat. In the evening, Saito sends the officers to a punishment hut.  As for Nicholson, he is beaten, then sent to solitary confinement in his own special iron box known as “the oven”.  And so the intense battle of wills begins: Saito trying to force Nicholson’s officers to build the bridge and Nicholson willing to die for what he believes in. Clearly, one man must win, but I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling you who prevails!  Saito, at first glance, acts like a mad man: he disregards proper military code and brutally tortures prisoners to get his way. All of this is because he is morally bound to commit ritual suicide if he cannot complete the bridge on time.   On the other hand, Nicholson is, well…just as mad as Saito. Nicholson, a strict militarist is compelled to respect military code even on pain of death. This conflict sets up an interesting and advanced character study of these two individuals (it’s as if they were ‘made for each other’). The actor that truly made this film complete for me was Alec Guinness. My first exposure to Alec Guinness was in the BBC mini-series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as George Smiley. As Smiley, Guinness brought a sophisticated and calm approach to the role, and he was marvelous. Many people also know him for his role as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars films, which is, of course, one of the most memorable films of all time. But — The Bridge on the River Kwai would have to be, hands down, the best film that Guinness has ever made. He was able to bring the character of Colonel Nicholson to life, as if everything Nicholson believed was what Guinness himself believed as well.  In fact, during the casting of the film, there was a rumor about Charles Laughton being courted for the role of Colonel Nicholson. Apparently Laughton turned down the role since he felt he wouldn’t know how to play the part convincingly because he didn’t understand the character’s motivation. After watching the completed film with Guinness as Nicholson, Laughton understood.  Guinness would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, being the lone win of his career (excluding his Honorary Award). This would also be David Lean’s first win for Best Director and Sam Spiegel’s second win for Best Picture (#1 is #2 on this list). The Bridge on the River Kwai would win seven of the eight Academy Awards it was nominated for, and was the highest grossing film in the year 1958.

Nominated for 8 Oscars, Winner of 7
Best Actor in a Leading Role - Alec Guinness (WON)
Best Cinematography - Jack Hildyard (WON)
Best Director - David Lean (WON)
Best Film Editing - Peter Taylor (WON)
Best Music, Scoring - Malcolm Arnold (WON)
Best Picture - Sam Spiegel (WON)
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium - Pierre Boulle, Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson (WON)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Sessue Hayakawa

Colonel Nicholson: What have I done?

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