Release Date(s)1957 (November 2, 2010)
Studio(s)Columbia (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
It’s easy to be happy in your work when you’ve got a film like Columbia’s The Bridge on the River Kwai to review. I had been looking forward to seeing the film again ever since Sony made its Blu-ray announcement earlier this year. After all, it’s almost ten years since the DVD version first appeared.
That release, particularly in the Exclusive Limited Edition version, was a package worthy of the film, even if the film transfer wasn’t entirely the final word. Now, in its new Blu-ray trappings, we have a superb rendering of the film that should entirely satisfy all but the inveterate nit-pickers.
The story, based on the book “The Bridge over the River Kwai” by Pierre Boulle, concerns a group of British World War II prisoners of war who are marched into a Japanese prison camp deep in the jungle of southeast Asia. They are expected to construct a bridge over the River Kwai – a vital component of a railway that the Japanese are building from Singapore through Malaya into Burma. The British are under the command of Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). The Japanese camp commander is Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). A tremendous battle of wills develops between these two when Nicholson, citing the Geneva Convention, refuses Saito’s demand to have his officers work alongside the rest of the men on the bridge. While Nicholson and the rest of the officers languish in small metal enclosures in the sun as punishment, work begins on the bridge under the command of the Japanese bridge designer. Little progress is made due to both the lack of control by the Japanese designer and attempts at sabotage by the British prisoners.
As it becomes apparent that the bridge is falling far behind schedule, Saito is desperate to get it back on track and finally gives in to Nicholson. Nicholson then sees the bridge as an opportunity to restore the discipline of his men as well as a possible monument to British ingenuity and hard work, so he takes the initiative to redesign the bridge and works his men hard to try to meet the completion deadline. With construction nearly finished, he enlists men in sickbay and even the officers to do work so that the target date can be met.
Meanwhile, an American – Commander Shears (William Holden) – has escaped from the camp and managed to make it to freedom. He is convalescing in Ceylon when he is approached by a British commando unit to return to the camp area in order to blow up the bridge. Under the command of Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), the small commando unit is parachuted in and begins an overland march to the site of the bridge. They arrive just as the bridge has been completed, late in the afternoon of the day before it is to be used for the first time. Overnight, the commandos wire the bridge with explosives and then await the next day and the arrival of the first train.
Consider a The Bridge on the River Kwai film that stars Cary Grant as Shears and Charles Laughton as Nicholson. It boggles the mind, but those are some of the possibilities first contemplated. In fact, half of the actors in Hollywood and Britain appear to have been considered and asked to play the leading roles.
Alec Guinness was far from one of the top choices to play Col. Nicholson and even when he came to be considered, he himself wasn’t initially interested. By this point, the film’s producer Sam Spiegel was getting desperate, however, and he invited Guinness to dinner in a last-ditch effort to change Guinness’ mind. Such were Spiegel’s powers of persuasion that Guinness later said, “I started out maintaining that I wouldn’t play the role and by the end of the evening we were discussing what kind of wig I would wear”. Another hurdle was an antipathy that seemed to develop between Guinness and the director David Lean as to how the role of Nicholson should be played. Despite all this, Alec Guinness proved to be the perfect Colonel Nicholson. Much of Nicholson’s portrayal owes itself to the excellence of Guinness’ acting, but Lean’s own suggestions played an important part in some of the result, occasionally despite Guinness’ misgivings. The best example is the exchange on the completed bridge between Nicholson and Saito that occurs near sunset. Guinness had been careful to time his words to the setting sun, but then found that Lean was going to film him from behind as he spoke. Guinness was not happy, but he later acknowledged the correctness and added impact of Lean’s approach. Similarly, Guinness was unhappy with the protracted walk that Lean expected him to make across the parade ground after his release from the hot box. On seeing the rushes later (in company with his wife and son), Guinness again realized the merit of what Lean had asked him to do. So the portrayal of Nicholson was really a collaborative effort – one that was rewarded with the Best Actor Academy Award for Guinness – and all for a role that he had never wanted.
William Holden on the other hand was quite interested in playing Commander Shears and his efforts in the part add substantially to the quality of the film. Holden’s great ability was always to make acting look easy because he was so good at imbuing his roles with naturalness. Part of the problem with that was that Holden never really received the full degree of acclaim that his talent warranted. Certainly he did win an Academy Award for Stalag 17, but his career is filled with excellent performances never properly recognized. His Commander Shears is but one good example.
The excellence of the rest of Bridge on the River Kwai’s principal cast is also worth emphasizing, from Sessue Hayakawa as Saito, to Jack Hawkins as Major Warden, and to James Donald as Dr. Clipton. But this film is also more than just acting; it’s truly an epic story on an epic scale. It was filmed almost completely on location in Ceylon and the bridge itself was constructed full size and sufficiently strongly to enable it carry the weight of a real locomotive and railcars. The bridge and train were intended to be actually destroyed in the final explosion, so the filming of the event had to be planned very carefully because there’d only be one chance. Perhaps the most familiar symbol and lasting impression of the whole film is the Colonel Bogey March that the prisoners whistle as they enter the camp for the first time. Colonel Bogey was very much a British military song that conveyed a sort of contempt for authority. There were misgivings about using it in the film, for some thought that no one would know the piece or its significance and the suggestion was made that it be replaced with the much more familiar “Bless ’Em All.” Lean, however, prevailed in his desire to retain the song, although the whistling of it rather than singing was a compromise to avoid the use of its derogatory words. Now, of course, the film would be unthinkable without it and it has made The Bridge on the River Kwai easily the film most readily identifiable by the playing of a few bars of music.
For David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai was the break-through film in the sense of making him a truly internationally-recognized film director. Although he had had many British successes to his name prior to 1957, he had not profited greatly from it all and part of his reason for doing Bridge on the River Kwai was the fact that at the time, he was flat broke. In fact, on signing the contract to do the film, he immediately asked for an advance from Columbia so that he could get his teeth fixed. Lean was a perfectionist and he immersed himself in all aspects of the project. Much of the final script is directly attributable to his work, and certainly the great attention to detail that we see on the screen is all due to him. If he had a short-coming, it was a seeming inability to actually finish; he always wanted one more shot. Even after principal shooting was wrapped up in Ceylon (having taken 8 months, not including the time to actually build the bridge), Lean still had ideas for a few more shots that he wanted to incorporate in the final film. Finally he was left behind with a single cameraman, and he soldiered on long after everyone else had gone home. Lean, of course, was rewarded for his efforts with an Academy Award also, but the real legacy for him was a propensity for excellence achieved through a willingness to spend as much time as necessary to get it just right. This characteristic led to his great success with Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but tended to get out of hand thereafter so that he managed to complete only three more films during the remaining 29 years of his life (Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage to India), to diminishing returns in the view of some, though not mine.
Sony has packaged its Blu-ray release in a thick digibook format with the Blu-ray disc inside the front cover and an updated DVD version inside the back cover. The book is encased in a solid slip-case that gives a professional look to the enterprise. The 32-page digibook focuses on production information and publicity material reproductions, mainly culled from the original 1957 souvenir book. A nice set of 12 lobby card reproductions is also included in a pocket at the end of the book.
Sony’s Blu-ray release presents the film in its originally intended 2.55:1 aspect ratio. The resulting image is an excellent example of how classic films can benefit from their presentation on Blu-ray when proper care is paid to the transfer. Compared to the old DVD, the Blu-ray image is cleaner and very noticeably sharper throughout (the evidence is apparent right away in the opening credits which before were problematic), but more importantly, colour fidelity is now superb and image detail really impresses. Although much of the film is dominated by muted browns and other earth tones, the flashes of primary colour that otherwise appear really jump off the screen. Blacks are suitably deep and inky, and skin tones appear spot on. A modest level of grain is quite evident and really imparts a smooth film-like look to the image. There is the odd soft-looking passage or transition, but that is an issue with the source elements rather than the transfer.
Sony has chosen to deliver only a 5.1 DTS-HD lossless track on this release. The original mono has not been included. (It was present on the previous DVD release, along with a 5.1 Dolby Digital track.) The lossless track is a solid one. The film is not one that focuses on aggressive action sequences, but rather on dialogue, ambient effects, and a rousing score by Malcolm Arnold. All three of the latter are nicely balanced and clearly conveyed by the lossless track. The ambient effects have been attributed to the surrounds with subtlety. The initial introduction of the Colonel Bogey March whistled by the prisoners as the counterpoint of Arnold’s River Kwai March starts to overlay it is particularly impressive in its execution on the track. French and Portuguese 5.1 DTS-HD lossless tracks and a Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital one are included, as are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai.
Carried over from the original DVD release are all the major supplements including the very good 52-minute making-of documentary put together by Laurent Bouzereau, the archival featurette on the building of the film’s bridge in Ceylon, a USC short film introduced by William Holden, an appreciation by director John Milius, a photo gallery, and the theatrical trailers. Missing are some talent files, the mediocre DVD-ROM content, and the isolated score. To compensate, the Blu-ray has some new content that includes a segment of a 1957 Steve Allen show that features William Holden and Alec Guinness speaking on camera from Ceylon, and newly-discovered archival footage of William Holden narrating The Bridge on the River Kwai London Premiere. There is also Crossing the Bridge: Picture-in-Graphics track, a feature that presents text-based information on the making-of the film, background on World War II and prison camps, comparisons between the film and original book, and accounts from individuals who experienced the real building of the Thai-Burma railroad. The information accompanies a reduced image of the pertinent scene from the film shown in a small box on the left side of the screen. It’s a feature I personally can’t imagine being bothered with, but others may feel differently.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is truly one of those films about which it can be said – “they don’t make them like that anymore”. On Blu-ray, all of its glories are firmly intact and it’s very highly recommended.
- Barrie Maxwell