The Bridge on the River Kwai: Limited Edition
David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the more unusual World War II films, despite the fact that it's also one of the most enduring. But Lean was never the sort of director to string a series of taut battles on a few storylines for the sake of an adrenaline-rush. Rather, the 1957 Kwai is a small, thoughtful story told in epic scope (clocking in at two hours, 40 minutes) about a handful of men forced into difficult, sometimes contradictory positions by the vagaries of war. Based on true events chronicled in the 1954 novel by Pierre Boulle, Alec Guinness stars in Kwai as Col. Nicholson, a British Army officer whose company has surrendered to the Japanese, and thus interred in a Japanese labor camp in Burma, where they are forced to build a railway bridge by the ruthless Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Right away Nicholson and Saito butt heads, as the Japanese commander insists that both British officers and enlisted men will be used for manual labor. Nicholson a bulldog of a British officer who believes that the rules and customs of civilized people should dominate everything, even in times of war notes that the use of officers is a violation of the Geneva Convention and refuses to cooperate, which earns him a long stretch in solitary confinement. But when Nicholson finally wins out, he decides his soldiers should build the best bridge possible, which would be a testament to the character and skill of the British long after the war is over. Meanwhile, a British commando team fights their way through the jungle and towards the bridge, led by one Major Warden (Jack Hakwins) and camp escapee Shears (William Holden), who are intent on blowing up Col. Nicholson's personal monument to Western superiority.
Shot entirely on location in Ceylon (and with a genuine, full-scale bridge made expressly for the film), Kwai was an instant hit upon release and dominated the Academy Awards. More than 40 years later, it remains one of the crown jewels from the golden age of cinema. It's hard to believe that Charles Laughton was originally cast as Col. Nicholson, which eventually became one of Alec Guinness's signature roles, while supporting work from Holden, Hawkins, and others never falters, right down to the unpredictable, ironic conclusion. Conventional World War II movies pit allied against axis forces, and they offer viewers a mix of noisy action and moral comfort, since we know which characters to support, and who will eventually prevail. Kwai effectively avoids this template. Rather, the main players are myopic and morally flawed, driven by their own pride and self-interest. Holden's "Commander" Shears isn't even an officer, and he's looking to take a medical leave under a false identity before he's forced to join the commando raid. Meanwhile, the actual officers — Nicholson, Saito, and Warden — engage in tortured rationales that are effectively shielded by flag, country, and duty. Even with a legitimately suspenseful final act, the brilliance of Bridge on the River Kwai emerges from a handful of well-drawn characters and how they collide.
A print restoration of The Bridge on the River Kwai was recently completed by Sony, and Columbia TriStar has released a fantastic two-disc "Limited Edition" DVD with a solid feature-set. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is flawless, and the print has a remarkable quality for a film of this vintage. Audio is in Dolby 2.0 Surround or a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Features include the 53-minute documentary "The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai" with comments from many of the film's principals; the featurettes "The Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant" (about the bridge in the film), a short USC film narrated by Holden, and an "appreciation" by filmmaker John Milius; a montage sequence with original advertising materials; trailers for Kwai, The Guns of Navarone, Fail-Safe, and Lawrence of Arabia; talent files; a collectible booklet based on the original "souvenir book" from the film; and additional DVD-ROM content, including a trivia game, maps, and a screensaver.
(Editor's Note: The Bridge on the River Kwai is also available on DVD in a one-disc version without most of the supplemental features.)