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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: 2.55:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Monaural
French Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 162 min.
Price: $24.96
Release Date: 4/15/2008

• “The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai” Documentary
• “Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant” Original Featurette
• “USC Short Film Introduced By William Holden”
• “An Appreciation By John Milius” Featurette
• Photo Montage
• Theatrical Trailers
• Talent Files


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 (Collector's Edition) (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 really 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 DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus C+

The Bridge on the River Kwai appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The transfer didn’t come free from concerns, but it usually proved quite satisfying.

Sharpness was one of the DVD’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 minor.

Given the film’s age, I figured it’d suffer from a mix of source flaws. To my pleasant surprise, these remained almost totally absent. I noticed a speck here or there and some minor debris around the edges on a couple of occasions, but that was about it. Most of the time, the movie remained clean and fresh.

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 usually looked deep and fairly 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 can be very hard to see, and this occurred during Kwai whenever the method was used. Despite a few minor quibbles, I found myself pleased with this solid transfer.

I also liked the remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Kwai, though not as much. (The DVD also included the film’s monaural audio.) 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.

Some of these changes actually occurred within the same scene; for example, during Colonel Saito’s address in chapter 11, the quality fluctuates pretty radically between front shots of the Colonel and side angles. 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 this 2008 Collector’s Edition compare to those of the 2000 edition? Both offered similar audio, but the 2008 transfer provided moderate improvements. The new disc looked cleaner and a bit brighter. It also demonstrated somewhat more natural colors, as the old release tended toward more of a mustard hue.

Don’t expect a night and day change here, though. I rewatched the 2000 DVD and was surprised that it still held up pretty well. When I re-examined the 2001 release of Lawrence of Arabia, I was struck at how poorly it compared with more modern DVDs, and I expected similar problems from the 2000 Kwai.

However, that release still looked perfectly acceptable and could often be quite attractive. The 2008 DVD provided stronger visuals, but it didn’t blow away its predecessor.

The 2008 CE includes most of the same extras found on the 2000 Limited Edition, and all of these show up on DVD Two. We find a few different video programs, starting with The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai. This 52-minute and 59-second piece includes 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 the program provides a decent look at the creation of the film, it seems too general for my liking. The participants provide a lot of solid anecdotes, but I never get 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 have been.

An “original featurette” appears as well. The Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant is a six-minute and 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, 51-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 Montage doesn’t use the traditional stillframe format. Instead - ala the series of “Universal Classic Monsters” DVDs - it films the images and presents them as a running video program. The piece lasts for seven minutes, 28 seconds and features a mix of movie posters, lobby cards and other advertisements. It’s a fairly nice little collection.

Lastly, we find trailers for Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone, Fail-Safe, and a re-release of Kwai that touts its connection to Lawrence of Arabia.

We also get Talent Files for Lean plus actors Holden, Guinness, Hayakawa and Jack Hawkins. As is typical of the other biographies found on Columbia-Tristar DVDs, these are very brief and provide little information.

The Bridge on the River Kwai offers a compelling and entertaining anti-war film that should provoke much post-viewing thought and discussion. The DVD provides very good picture, erratic but usually positive audio, and some decent extras. This is the best release of Kwai to date.

And that makes it the one for fans to own, including folks who already have the original package from 2000. While the 2008 CE provides similar audio and boasts no new extras, it offers a moderate improvement in picture quality. That may make it worth an upgrade, though I think the 2000 DVD still looks pretty decent.

To rate this film visit the Blu-ray Review of THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main