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David Lean
William Holden, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins
Writing Credits:
Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson

After settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.

Rated PG

Aspect Ratio: 2.55:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
French DTS-HD MA 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Portuguese DTS-HD MA 5.1
Chinese Traditional
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 162 min.
Price: $14.99
Release Date: 6/7/2011

• “Crossing the Bridge” Picture-in-Graphics Track
• “The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai” Documentary
The Steve Allen Show with William Holden
• “The Bridge on the River Kwai Premiere” Narrated by William Holden
• “Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant” Original Featurette
• “USC Short Film Introduced By William Holden”
• “An Appreciation By John Milius” Featurette
• Photo Gallery
• Trailers and Previews


Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


The Bridge on the River Kwai [Blu-Ray] (1957)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 2, 2017)

David Lean first opened me to the viewing possibilities of older films. Actually, that’s not completely true, as I’d checked out quite a few “vintage” movies prior to my revelatory experience, but it wasn’t until I saw 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia in 1992 that I accepted the potential pleasures of older works.

Prior to that point, my knowledge of “classic” films was decent but unexceptional. I’d watched a fair number of the really famous titles such as Casablanca, Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane, but none of them really did that much for me.

Perhaps the weight that went with the high regard attached to these movies made my expectations absurdly high. For whatever reason, I thought these and other “classics” were interesting but not anything that really impressed me.

Lawrence changed that. My Dad got the letterboxed laserdisc of the “director’s cut” and although I didn’t think I’d like it, I decided to give it a spin.

To my surprise, I found a movie as fresh, visceral, exciting and compelling as anything I’d seen. Lawrence possessed a vital sense of visual energy and fluidity that made it involving and memorable. Once and for all, it changed my opinion that old movies were stodgy and stiff.

Logically, one would expect that I’d seek out more Lean after such a positive experience. However, since I’ve spent my life being illogical, this didn’t happen. In fact, I wouldn’t see another Lean film until I watched 1946’s Brief Encounter in 2000, and that small, personal picture was a virtual opposite of Lawrence’s widescreen epic grandeur.

Had I bothered to check out more Lean films, the sensible choice would have been 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. As with Lawrence, Kwai dealt with war, but on a much smaller scale than the 1962 epic. Lawrence spanned years and covered an entire campaign during World War I, whereas Kwai takes on a period of only a few months during World War II and only briefly moves beyond the confines of a Japanese prisoner camp in Burma.

The story follows a group of British prisoners-of-war assigned to this work camp. Their Japanese captors assign them to construct the titular span. Led by proper Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), this crew overcomes early difficulty to launch into their assignment with zeal and talent.

Simultaneously, an American sailor named Shears (William Holden) escapes from the camp and eventually winds up at a recuperation hospital in Ceylon. There he’s forced to participate in a mission to destroy the bridge being constructed by the British prisoners. As the film follows the different sides of this equation, it builds to a nice climax in which we discover which side will come out on top.

Actually, the dual nature of the plot provides one of the film’s minor flaws, as Lean doesn’t balance coverage of each side terribly well. This means that Kwai will focus on Nicholson and his soldiers for an extended span with no signs of Shears, and vice versa.

While this construction has its advantages - it keeps the film from feeling too splintered and disjointed, for instance - I don’t care for it because it becomes too easy to forget one side or the other. Really, Kwai almost feels like two different movies, and the reunification at the end seems a little awkward.

I also think that the depiction of life in a POW camp appears wholly unrealistic. The Japanese were notorious for their brutal treatment of prisoners, yet we get very little sense of that here.

Granted, Nicholson and some other officers spend an extended period caged during the early parts of the movie, as Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) uses torture to break their wills. However, once it becomes evident the ill treatment won’t work and Saito frees them, the camp takes on a Hogan’s Heroes air.

This means the prisoners seem to run the show and the captors come across as little more than hapless buffoons. At almost no point do I get the impression this camp was a truly horrible place to be. The film often tells me it was a terrible experience, but the on-screen action rarely makes it feel that way.

Despite these problems, Kwai provides a solid experience ,and one positive aspect stems from its ambiguous treatment of its characters and situations. In Shears we find a true anti-hero, so while I don’t know if I’d call him a coward, he certainly has no stomach for warfare and displays little tolerance for what he perceives as inane protocol. Holden plays Shears with an appropriate cockiness but also adds a nice layer of humanism and weariness that makes his opinions more clear.

Hayakawa neatly portrays the dilemmas faced by the beleaguered Japanese colonel. On one hand, he can’t stand to lose face by acceding to a variety of demands made by the insolent British commanders, but he also has to remain practical. If he fails to complete the bridge, he’ll not only look incompetent to his bosses but he’ll also have to take the “honorable” way out and kill himself.

As such, he sucks it up and tolerates the British eccentricities to ensure the completion of the span. Hayakawa makes us feel the pain experienced by the character and prevents him from becoming a gross caricature.

Actually, although I dislike the unrealistic depiction of the quality of life in the work camp, I do appreciate the fact that Kwai doesn’t turn the Japanese into stereotypical monsters. Clearly Japanese soldiers performed some absolutely horrific actions during World War II, but those kinds of behaviors would be more appropriate for a different film.

Kwai wants to avoid any form of clear moralizing about war, which leads to its ambiguous portraits. No one here is really right or wrong, and it lets the viewer determine their own conclusions.

The deft and memorable performance of Guinness as Colonel Nicholson becomes a major cog in that point. He’s easily the most difficult to read character in the bunch, and Guinness really forces us to think for ourselves to determine his motivations and state of mind.

Nicholson can be seen as an exemplary demonstration of military discipline and virtue or an unthinking Ahab who can’t see the forest for the trees. Even his final action in the film leaves an enormous amount of room for interpretation. Guinness won his only Oscar for his work here, and he deserved it for this compelling and vivid performance.

As a whole, I definitely like The Bridge on the River Kwai, but I wouldn’t put it in a league with Lawrence of Arabia. Many will argue with my opinion, I’m sure, but I simply prefer the larger canvas on which the latter paints and think its scope and grandeur make it more effective.

However, Kwai clearly provides a solid film that holds up nicely over the years. A war film that features little combat, the movie does something that’s rare these days: it lets the viewers make up their own minds about what they’ve seen.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B-/ Bonus B

The Bridge on the River Kwai appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though not without minor concerns, the transfer made the movie look better than ever.

Sharpness was one of the disc’s strong points. For the vast majority of the film, the picture appeared crisp and well-defined. A few instances of mild softness occurred, but these were minor and caused little concern. No issues with shimmering or jagged edges marred the presentation, and edge enhancement remained absent.

In addition, source flaws were virtually absent; perhaps one or two tiny specks appeared, but that was it. I did notice an odd glitch at the start of chapter 12, though. It showed a flying bat, and it briefly showed a “skip”, as we saw the bat retrace its flight for about half a second. I don’t still have my old DVDs, so I don’t know if this glitch has always been a part of Kwai, but I don’t recall it from prior releases.

As for the colors, the environment featured mainly tans and browns, with some greens from the foliage. Occasionally I saw brighter hues – mostly at the medical compound where Shears recuperates - but the majority of the tones tended toward “military drab”. I felt the hues looked fine within those parameters. This never became a dynamic presentation, but the colors seemed good given their restraints.

Black levels looked deep and dark with good contrast. For the most part, shadow detail seemed appropriately heavy but not excessively thick; I found the majority of the low-light situations to come across as clear and very watchable.

The exceptions related to the usual culprit: “day for night” photography. That technique frequently results in overly dark images that could be a little hard to see. These weren’t a real nuisance, though, and they were an inevitable outgrowth of the processes. Overall, the movie looked excellent, as this was the best presentation of it to date.

I also liked the remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of Kwai, though not as much as the picture. Not surprisingly, the forward soundfield clearly dominated the action. The music and effects created a nice spread across the front speakers and offered a good sense of spatiality.

I discerned some mild panning from side to side as well, though this effect was inconsistent; for instance, we might hear the whistling troops move across the channels, but then a driving car would stick to the center. Nonetheless, the impression seemed fairly open and lively.

The surrounds kicked in with some adequate reinforcement of the forward image; examples include a rainstorm and scenes with explosions. The rears also featured quiet but generally solid ambiance at other times. No, the soundfield didn’t compete with more modern efforts, but it worked nicely for a picture of this vintage.

As a whole, the quality of the film’s audio seemed fairly good, but it also was inconsistent. These variations were most evident through the movie’s dialogue. Much of the time, speech sounded acceptably natural and accurate, but it could often become edgy and strident. I always found the dialogue to be intelligible, but the variations in tone were occasionally jarring.

Effects generally sounded relatively clear and full. Some thinness affected them, and distortion could be heard in scenes that included gunfire or explosions, but the effects usually came across as acceptably realistic and clean.

Kwai didn’t offer much music, but when the score did appear, it was decently smooth and clear. Actually, it boasted some respectable low end but showed fairly flat highs; the upper ranges came across as somewhat dull. Bass appeared boomy but relatively good. The soundtrack of Kwai clearly showed it age, but it seemed pretty solid nonetheless.

How did the picture and audio of the Blu-ray compare to those of the 2008 Collector’s Edition DVD? I thought the audio was a wash, as I didn’t hear any notable improvements via the lossless DTS mix. The source material simply had too many restrictions for the new track to demonstrate much growth.

One auditory disappointment: the Blu-ray dropped the monaural mix found on the DVD. Why? That track wouldn’t take up much space, so why omit it?

As for the visuals, they showed substantial improvement on the Blu-ray. This disc was significantly more detailed and precise, and it showed darker blacks and clearer shadows as well. Even the “olive drab” hues offered better delineation. I was fine with the DVD, but the Blu-ray looked substantially superior.

In terms of extras, we find a mix of old and new materials. For a repeat feature, we launch with The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai. This 53-minute, three-second piece combines film clips, footage from the set and new interviews with film historian Adrian Turner, Lean’s assistants Norman Spencer and Pamela Mann Francis, camera operator Peter Newbrook, assistant editor Teddy Darvas, production designer Donald Ashton, and property master Eddie Fowlie.

While I thought the program provided a decent look at the creation of the film, it was too general for my liking. The participants provide a lot of solid anecdotes, but I never got a strong feeling for the movie’s day-to-day workings.

From what I understand, Kwai was a long and difficult shoot, but that impression doesn’t come across very clearly from this documentary. As such, this show offers a fairly good view of the shoot but it isn’t as definitive as I think it could be.

A Blu-ray exclusive arrives via Crossing the Bridge: Picture-in-Graphics Track. This essentially presents a gussied-up version of the standard subtitle commentary, as it provides text notes along with some photos.

The info breaks into four different categories: “POW Perspective”, “Creating Kwai”, “Lean’s Adventure”, and “Beyond the Bridge”. “Perspective” looks at the experiences in the POW camps, with an emphasis on inspirations/influences for Kwai. The other three mostly look at the creation of the film, though “Beyond” also contributes some notes about the war and historical elements.

The format becomes a bit of a nuisance. When one of the blurbs appears, the movie shrinks into a small box to allow the text and photos to dominate. This makes it a drag to attempt to watch the movie while the track proceeds; sure, you can still see the flick in the little box, but you won’t enjoy it that way.

Happily, the disc’s producers offer a chapter option that allows the viewer easy access to the information. You can easily skip from one blurb to the next, so you can zip through the text without the need to sit through the entire movie.

I did this, and it made the track more enjoyable. We get quite a lot of good information here, especially in terms of the POW side of things; the track digs into those areas in a satisfying way. We also learn a fair amount about the production. Despite potential frustrations related to the format, this becomes a useful component.

Next comes an excerpt from The Steve Allen Show. In this six-minute, 30-second clip, Allen appears to interview William Holden and Alec Guinness in a link-up with the film set.

That’s not the truth, though. Instead, Allen provides questions/comments to match pre-filmed remarks from the actors. It’s pretty uninformative promotional stuff that’s vaguely interesting for archival reasons, but it’s not something you’ll want to watch twice.

After this we find the one-minute, 50-second Bridge on the River Kwai Premiere Narrated by William Holden. We see photos as Holden talks about events at the premiere. Most of the pictures come from the production, which creates a disconnect.

It sounds like Holden discusses images from the premiere, not shots from the set, so his remarks don’t always fit the elements well. It’s an odd reel and not a terribly interesting one.

An “original featurette” appears as well. The Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant is a six-minute, 12-second piece that seems to have been shown during a post-Oscars re-release of the movie. It doesn’t mention Lawrence of Arabia, so I don’t think it comes from a 1960s re-issue, though.

In any case, this program obviously lacks depth but it’s a mildly interesting clip nonetheless. It touts the marvels of the film but doesn’t stick to a purely promotional perspective as it relates some basic details about the shoot.

The best parts of the featurette stem from the copious amounts of footage taken on the set; while it also includes some movie snippets, it includes a high percentage of candid material. Those bits make “Jungle Giant” worth a look.

Another historical piece appears as well. Titled On Seeing Film…, this 15-minute, 52-second clip was produced by the University of Southern California and comes hosted by William Holden. Apparently it came as part of a series to educate folks on how to get the most out of their movie-viewing, and Holden discusses a number of issues to consider as one watches a film. It’s a bit pedantic but it’s kind of cool, and it also features more nice behind-the-scenes shots from Kwai, so it deserves some attention.

Less interesting is An Appreciation By John Milius. This eight-minute, six-second piece combines film clips with talking-head shots of filmmaker Milius as he tells us why he likes Kwai so much. Granted, it’s occasionally interesting to get his perspective on the movie, but I can’t say it did a lot for me.

The Photo Gallery doesn’t use the traditional stillframe format. Instead, it films the images and presents them as a running video program. The piece lasts for seven minutes, 28 seconds as it features a mix of movie posters, lobby cards and other advertisements. It’s a fairly nice little collection.

We also get two trailers for Kwai and some Previews. That area includes ads for Tommy, “The Treasures of Columbia Classics”, “TCM Classic Film Festival” and Midnight Run.

An Oscar Best Picture winner that holds up after 60 years, The Bridge on the River Kwai does well for itself. The film offers a compelling and entertaining anti-war film that should provoke much post-viewing thought and discussion. The Blu-ray provides excellent picture, erratic but usually positive audio, and some generally interesting supplements. Largely due to the high quality visuals, this becomes the best Kwai on the market.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.8571 Stars Number of Votes: 14
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Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main