DVD: Bridge on the river Kwai

The epic adventure and anti-war film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was both popularly and critically acclaimed when released in 1957, being the highest-grossing film of the year, and also scooping seven Academy Awards. The tale, based very loosely on a true World War II story, follows the fate of a group of British prisoners of war who arrive at a camp to build a bridge for the Japanese. Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, a former silent screen star) and his English counterpart, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), clash over the fact that British officers are being forced to carry out manual labour. Meanwhile, an American sailor who has escaped from the camp (William Holden) is co-opted into British efforts to get back to the camp to blow the bridge up.

The epic adventure and anti-war film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was both popularly and critically acclaimed when released in 1957, being the highest-grossing film of the year, and also scooping seven Academy Awards. The tale, based very loosely on a true World War II story, follows the fate of a group of British prisoners of war who arrive at a camp to build a bridge for the Japanese. Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, a former silent screen star) and his English counterpart, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), clash over the fact that British officers are being forced to carry out manual labour. Meanwhile, an American sailor who has escaped from the camp (William Holden) is co-opted into British efforts to get back to the camp to blow the bridge up.

The film was shot on location in the colourful jungles of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). The beautiful, languorous cinematography mirrors the heavy steaminess of the conditions the men were under, foreign to the Japanese and British alike. To viewers today the shots may seem overly slow – indeed many of them are undoubtedly indulgent — but they’re a wonderful invitation to really immerse oneself in the world created on the screen.

While the theme of the film – the futility of war – has sustained the decades to remain at least marginally interesting, much in the detail is now quite laughable, but fascinatingly so. For example, it’s difficult to rouse much sympathy for the British officer for his “bravery” when all he’s doing is trying to get British officers to avoid manual labour. The subtext is that mere enlisted men should just put up with their rotten conditions. (These conditions are not actually represented to be as gruesome as history asserts they were.)

The representation of British colonialist attitudes, too, is unintentionally awful. “Here there is no civilisation,” complains one soldier. “Well then, we’ll just have to introduce it,” says Colonel Nicholson. The Brits will show the Japanese “Western efficiency”, even if that means they have to “build them a better bridge than they could have built themselves”. And although not meant to be historically accurate, what is chosen to be represented on the screen is still indicative of the era. “I hope the people who use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built, and who built it – the British.” In fact, the railway overall was worked on at its peak by 61,000 Allied soldiers, as well as 250,000 Asians. Many from various nations died.

There’s a curious lack of geographical knowledge of the region, which audiences in Thailand will find amusing. A British officer points to a map to indicate the camp’s location, for instance, and mistakenly points to Burma instead of Thailand. At least they really do speak Thai with the villagers who help them. But in the accompanying documentary on disc two, they’re called Burmese!

Directed by David Lean, who would later go on to make Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai is an important, and quite fascinating piece of film history, rather than an epic that will have audiences completely captivated today.

The DVD

VIDEO: The transfer appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 widescreen, and has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The extras are shown on a second disc. Given the age of the print, substantial flaws are to be expected, but Columbia Tristar has done a good job technically with the transfer. The opening scene of a vulture flying overhead is quite dusty, but the dramatic start credits, in their bold yellow font splashed over the lush green jungles, give a better indication of what’s to come. Some imperfections – grit, hair and so on – are occasionally visible, but for the most part the transfer is clean.

Most of the film is sharp, the brightness is good, and the colours in particular are very vivid, with the jungle background and browns of skins and uniforms dominating the palette. No pixellation was evident. Subtitled in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese and Thai.

SOUND: The original sound track is presented here as a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. The surround sound lends great natural depth to many of the action scenes, such as men marching into camp and scuttling along in rail cars. However, the general quality of the soundtrack does vary, with some scratchiness and a discernable variation in volume on numerous occasions.

MENUS: Basic, with the nice touch of bamboo doors opening and closing.

EXTRAS: There are plenty of extras if you think that 162 minutes is not enough. A basic trivia test and screen saver appear on the first disc, but the second contains the bulk of the extra features.

The Making of the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’: This newly made documentary, nearly an hour long, features interviews with film historian Adrian Turner and various people involved in the production of the film. While they provide some interesting trivia about the difficulties of production – the British War office for instance refused to cooperate – there’s a lot of fluff as well, such as discussion on how the actress who plays William Holden’s love interest, who reads all of about six lines, was chosen, what sort of an actress her sister was, and whether she looked better as a blonde or brunette.

The Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant: This short piece contains plenty of footage taken on the set, and provides some further trivia on the making of the film.

On Seeing Film: This is one of those offbeat gems that DVD devotees love. William Holden presents a 15 minute film from the University of Southern California on how to watch a film, using Bridge as a bit of a case study. Its beauty is in its datedness – can you imagine being told in 15 minutes how to watch a film today?

An Appreciation By John Milius: This short piece splices clips of the film with film-maker John Milius talking about the film’s brilliance.

Also: There’s a photo montage, various film trailers (including Lawrence of Arabia), and brief filmographies. The DVD pack comes with a souvenir booklet that replicates the original released with the film back in 1957. Mine did not seem to have the page numbers in the right order, but this probably happened to a small batch only.

Final Thoughts: Bridge on the River Kwai is an important film historically (in terms of film, not in terms of what it presents, which is largely inaccurate), and this DVD adaptation recognises this. Much of the detail in the film has not aged well, but again makes intriguing viewing in terms of history. This is a film for buffs, not for those who wish to idly be entertained for a few hours.

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