Classic 50s Movie: “The Bridge on the River Kwai”

May is Classic 50s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Tom Peterson.

Movie Title: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Year: 1957

Writers: Screenplay by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, Story by Pierre Boulle (Novel “Le Pont De La Riviere Kwai”)

Lead Actors: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, and Geoffrey Horne

Director: David Lean

IMDb Plot Summary: During World War II, British prisoners of war are forced to build a railway bridge for their Japanese captors. Ordered to surrender by his superiors, their commander, Colonel Nicholson, endures torture rather than allow the mistreatment of his men at the hands of Japanese Colonel Saito, whose very life is dependent upon the bridge being completed on time. Believing Nicholson’s actions are honorable, his troops admire and respect him. He convinces the men that the bridge is a monument to British character, but it becomes apparent that the bridge is actually a monument to himself when his delusional insistence on its rapid but expert construction becomes subtle collaboration. Unknown to him, British commandos, led by duty obsessed Major Warden, are on their way to blow up the bridge. He is accompanied by the officer-impersonating American, Shears, who recently escaped from the very camp he is expected to return to, and Joyce, a Canadian untested by battle.

Why I Think This Is A Classic 50s Movie: This film is about battles. Conflict is ever present as Nicholson battles Saito, Saito battles his destiny, Shears battles his duty, Warden battles his injury, and Nicholson battles his pride. All among multiple other conflicts, including the largest, World War II.

But it was also a battle of political wills within Hollywood. Both screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, were blacklisted when they wrote screenplay, and their names do not appear in the film credits on screen or on the script.

Recognizing the error of the (bad) blacklist, the Academy added their names, posthumously, to the Academy Award for Writing. In subsequent releases of the film, their names appear in the credits.

EDITORIAL NOTE: You can see the actual moment in the 1958 Academy Awards where Doris Day and Clark Gable give the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar to Kim Novak on behalf of Pierre Boulle. He not only didn’t write the script, he couldn’t have written. Boulle barely spoke English. All of Hollywood knew this Award was a lie, yet because of the Blacklist, they put on smiling faces, and allowed this injustice to occur in full view of the public.

In 1997, The Bridge on the River Kwai was selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry.

Historically, this film is significant because it dramatizes the brutality, though to a lesser extent, of the use of POWs by the Japanese to construct the Burma-Siam railway. It is estimated that over 13,000 Allied POWs and up to 100,000 civilians died building the railway as forced labor. Pierre Boulle, the author of the novel, was a POW in Siam (Thailand) and was used as forced labor on the railway. Incidentally, even though he did not speak English, he was the original winner of the Academy Award for Writing.

Culturally, while the film was recognized as the 1957 Best Picture by the Academy, the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, and several other prestigious organizations, the film was widely viewed (including by Alec Guinness) as being anti-British, and the Japanese issued a formal objection for the portrayal of their engineers as being incompetent. Among the POWs who were forced to work on the railway, the picture was widely panned for the less than authentic portrayal of their Japanese captors.

Aesthetically, the picture was filmed in modern day Sri Lanka, and the river side jungle scenery is spectacular. The high humidity is almost palpable throughout the film. There is a surprisingly little use of music, despite the near worldwide familiarity of the first strain of the “Colonel Bogey” march, instead allowing the natural background sound of the jungle to heighten drama.

It all adds up to an absolutely classic portrayal of human conflict within the drama of a classic war movie.

My Favorite Moment In The Movie: In the midst of war there are always comedic moments, and this scene is typical of jungle warfare. Although I’m not sure, I would bet my last dollar that this scene was written by Michael Wilson, who served as a U.S. Marine in the Pacific Theater during WWII -

The commando demolition team crosses a pond, waist deep in muddy water, their local partisan guide, Yai, points into the muck -

YAI: Leach! Leach!
WARDEN: Leaches.
SHEARS: (exasperated) Leaches.

The demolition team rests at a temporary camp to clean up after crossing the pond.

Warden roles up his pant leg, two large leaches are attached, he burns them off with a cigarette while Joyce fiddles with the radio, trying to get it to work. Shears takes off his uniform jacket, the woman porter who flirted with him on the trail tells him in Thai that she will get the leaches off his back..

WARDEN: She’s telling you to hold still, she wants to take the leaches off your back.
SHEARS: What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?
WARDEN: I’ll teach you in Siamese to say that, if you like.
SHEARS: No, no, that would spoil it. Too much talk always spoils it.
WARDEN: What’s wrong with that thing, Joyce?
JOYCE: I don’t know sir, it’s taken an awful beating. I can’t seem to get a strong signal.
SHEARS: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It’s wet, mildewed, corroded, rotten! Just like everything else in this rotten jungle. You might as well dump it!

Shears angrily kicks the radio, it crashes to the ground.

Suddenly the radio works and Tokyo Rose’s voice comes from the speaker signing off. The three surprised men, gratefully pull the radio back upright just in time for an unexpected cloud burst to drench everyone and everything, including the radio as Joyce broadcasts the mission status.

My Favorite Dialogue In the Movie: Shears was an ordinary sailor who stole the identity of an officer who was killed in order to receive better treatment as a prisoner. In exchange for not being prosecuted, he is “volen-told” that he will join the demolition team as an area expert. He has never had any commando training, so the talk of parachute jumping is foreign to him.

WARDEN: [to Col. Green] Sir, it’s most annoying. They say, in view of the time element, they don’t think a few practice jumps would be worthwhile.
SHEARS: No?
WARDEN: No, they say if you make one jump, you’ve only got 50% chance of injury, two jumps, 80%, and three jumps, you’re bound to catch a packet. The consensus of opinion is that the most sensible thing to do is to go ahead and jump, and hope for the best.
SHEARS: With or without a parachute?

Warden and Col. Green raucously laugh at Shears’ joke. Shears realizes his mistake and joins in the laughter.

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie: Look for why it won seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Guinness), Best Director, Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Music (Scoring), and was nominated for an eighth, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hayakawa).

1. Look for the layer upon layer of conflict. A lot of it is passive-aggressive, which adds a unique form of tension. But there is also physical conflict in the form of the battle against time to build the bridge, and the battle the demolition team faces against the jungle and the elements.

2. Notice how the characters are humanized. Shears is a ladies’ man, Warden a dedicated commando, Nicholson a man driven mad(der?) in the Oven. Saito a scared man. With Saito, particularly watch for the scene where he is sobbing as he contemplates having to commit ritual suicide because the bridge will not be done on time. That scene changes how we look at him — he is no longer a hardened enemy, he is a man with a terrifying problem.

3. The military accuracy is impressive. When the British battalion marches into Saito’s camp, they are actually marching. Even though uniforms are tattered, they are still accurate and correctly worn. Commands are given properly, too. The influence of years of war and conscripted service allowed for a level of accuracy generally not seen in the last twenty years, but that is quickly reemerging.

4. After spending nearly a month in “the Oven,” Nicholson emerges from the metal box and walks to Saito’s hut. Alec Guinness later said that he subconsciously based his walk on that of his son who was recovering from polio. Supposedly, Guinness called his walk from the Oven to the hut while being saluted by his men the “finest work I’d ever done.” Watching it, you can feel his pain and the confusion from dehydration as he struggles to maintain his honor, and his balance, before his men and his captors.

5. Notice how Nicholson’s logical and rational thinking gradually changes to logical but delusional thinking, and how not everyone sees it happening at the same time.

6. In 1915, Sessue Hayakawa (Saito), became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and a romantic idol for millions of American women, regardless of their race, after his performance in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film The Cheat. But by the time this film was made and he was nominated for an Oscar, he was making his third comeback in Hollywood after enduring the advent of sound, he had a very thick accent, and anti-Asian racism following both World Wars.

7. While not a bloody war movie, when blood is depicted, it looks like red paint — except for when Warden burns the leeches off his leg. Those were real leaches, both were really attached, and at least one was enjoying a meal courtesy of actor Jack Hawkins.

8. As noted above, the jungle scenery is beautiful. Sri Lanka is known for massive colonies of Indian Flying Fox bats, a species of megabat that can have wingspans of up to six feet across, and this film makes use of the colonies of thousands of bats that were spooked by explosions and gunfire. When happen or there is movement in the jungle, look for the hundreds of shadows that flicker across every part of the scene.

Also look for the very large flying fox that has a macaw’s voice dubbed over its otherwise silent flight.

Thanks, Tom! To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!

We already have a set of classic 60s Movies, 70s movies, 80s Movies and 90s Movies. This month, we’re working on 50s movies. And thanks to the GITS community, we’ve got 31 movies in the works! Those who I put in bold have already sent me their posts. If you haven’t sent yours to me, please do so as soon as you can:

12 Angry Men — Ipsita Barik
A Place in the Sun — Zach Jansen
A Star is Born — Melinda Mahaffey
A Touch of Evil — David Joyner
All About Eve — Ricardo Bravo
American in Paris — stefani1601
Bridge on the River Kwai — Tom Peterson
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — uncgym44
Commando Cody: Sky Marshall of the Universe — J Nilsson-Acosta
File on Thelma Jordon, The — David Joyner
Harvey — Felicity Flesher
High Noon — Jeff Messerman
Invasion of the Body Snatchers — Rick Dyke
Kiss Me Deadly — John Henderson
Marty — jetwillie69
Night of the Demon — David Hutchison
Night of the Hunter — Mark Twain
On the Waterfront — Bilbo Poynter
Pickpocket — Zach Jansen
Pick Up on South Street — Vincent Martini
Quiet Man, The — Traci Nell Peterson
Rear Window — Roy Gordon
Rebel Without a Cause — Jack McDonald
Searchers, The — mkm28
Seven Samurai, The — Paul Graunke
Singin’ in the Rain — Maegan Kelly
Some Like It Hot — Will King
Stalag 17 — James Schramm
Sunset Blvd. — Lisa Byrd
Tokyo Story — Jeff Messerman
Vertigo — Jason Pates

Thanks to everyone!

For the original post explaining the series, go here.

For all of the 50s movies featured in the series, go here.

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