David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai is as much an enduring classic today as it was when it opened over 50 years ago. Despite the fact that it's a nearly 3-hour WWII drama with very little action, it currently holds a place on the IMDb's top 100 films, and seems very currently in the hearts and minds of film buffs everywhere. This week it opens in a miraculous, digitally restored print that corrects several problems, including a few that couldn't have been corrected back in 1957.
According to a press release, the original negative was newly scanned at 4K, and from there all the restoration work was completed. The color was corrected, scratches and dirt were removed, and rips and tears were mended. In addition, some mismatched dissolves were also corrected. Apparently there was even a malfunctioning camera that resulted in a few unwanted effects that have all been corrected. Now, thanks to the digital transfer, the film can be shown in is proper aspect ratio of 2.55:1 instead of being cropped for 2.35:1. Finally, the real screenwriting credits are restored, including the formerly blacklisted Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman.
All this can be yours on a new Blu-Ray that will be released in November, but meanwhile the film will be playing in big city revival houses throughout the fall, starting this week in Seattle and in San Francisco's legendary Castro Theatre (where I was lucky enough to see a press screening last week).
Seeing the film today yields several different reactions. David Lean was one of many filmmakers making the leap from intimate, small-scale movies -- like his great, black-and-white masterworks Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) -- to gargantuan, epic-sized movies. Everyone, including filmmakers, critics, audiences and the Academy, was totally enchanted by the new format, but it fell to artists like Lean to figure out how to make it work (many artists, like Hawks, Ford and Ozu, resisted the new, bigger scale). If you subtract the spectacle, many films from this era would be left with very little underneath.
With The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean managed a good compromise. I don't think the film is quite on the same level as his early masterpieces or even Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but it's no less interesting. It includes some deliberate crowd-pleasing moments, orchestrated for cheers and applause at just the right moments, just as any of today's blockbusters might be. Among them is the famous "whistling" sequence, the shirtless William Holden frolicking on the beach with a pretty nurse, and the big explosion. After all, it was an expensive film, and the producers wanted to make sure that audiences actually enjoyed themselves. It worked: the film grossed over $27 million on a $3 million budget, and won seven Oscars.
But at the same time, it's a relatively mature and sophisticated movie, far more so than any popular film made today. As many writers have pointed out, it's a war movie with no real battle scenes. There's no "good vs. evil." The drama falls on three different characters with three different viewpoints, and all of them are valid and human. There's Holden as the cynical US Navy Commander Shears, stuck in a Japanese prison camp somewhere in the jungles of Thailand. He has learned the rules and games of the place and knows how to play along.
Then we meet the British Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who refuses to let his officers work on the bridge, according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. He endures many hours of agony to prove his point, and the Japanese commandant in charge of the camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), winds up losing face; he becomes a sympathetic villain, the type of bad guy that can sit down and have a cup of coffee with the hero. Nicholson begins building the bridge, but insists on doing a good job, knowing that good and proper work will keep up the morale of his men. He eventually becomes obsessed with building a sturdy and true bridge. When Shears escapes, he is reluctantly recruited to go back to the camp to blow up the bridge.
Thus, the climax comes, hinging on three distinct points of view, none of them entirely good or correct. Instead, the final spoken line, "madness... madness," is what remains. However, it's not a mad film, and Lean was never a mad director. Instead, I suspect that Lean aligned himself with Nicholson in order to keep his sanity. His Bridge is the equivalent of the movie's bridge, a connection between jungle and civilization, between art and commerce. He built the movie for many reasons, some of them not particularly honorable, and some of them extremely honorable. Thankfully, unlike the bridge in the movie, this Bridge stands for all time.