Oscar: Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)–Lean’s Prison Epic Drama, Starring William Holden, Alec Guinness

The Bridge on the River Kwai The Bridge on the River Kwai

A turning point in David Lean’s career and the first of his big-budget, large-scale epic movies, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” swept most of the Oscars in 1957.

Set during WWII, the prison drama is rich in characterization and marked by an ironic and ambiguous point of view, here in the manner in which it presents the conflict between Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a rigid British officer committed to the military code of integrity at all costs, the Japanese commander of the prisoners’ war camp (Sessue Hayakawa), and the American man of action (William Holden), who at first seems to be just a cowardly wise-guy.

Through these multi-nuanced individual characters, we also get a poignant look at the respective national cultures of which they are both products and victims. Hence, the construction of the bridge bears different meanings for these men. At the end, when the Colonel dies by falling on the detonator that destroys the bridge, the irony of the story becomes explicitly stinging.

“Bridge on the River Kwai” is compelling as a psychological study of character, suspense, action, and a visual epic. As the critic Ivan Butler noted, “Bridge” is one of those rare pictures that satisfy audiences emotionally, cerebrally, and aesthetically.

Based on fact, the film is still one of the finest and most exciting war films in general and prison dramas in particular.

Unacharacteristically of its times, “Bridge on the River Kwai” is more morally ambivalent and complex than most WWII pictures. If nothing else, the film illustrates the contradictions in the phrase “civilized warfare.” Perhaps for the first time in a Western film, the Japanese got to play a role that was not a clichéd villain.

Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman did a good job at adapting Piere Boulle’s book to the screen, retaining much of his tough and terse dialogue, even if they departed from some of the facts. However, the writers were denied screenwriting credit due to blacklisting problems. But in 1996, the Writers Guild of America officially restored their names.

Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, and particularly William Holden deliver masterful performances.

A Blockbuster

In 1966, when the movie played on American TV for the first time, it attracted 60 million viewers, the biggest TV audience for any show to date.

Oscar Alert

Nominated for eight Oscars, “Bridge on the River Kwai” won seven:

Picture Director: David Lean Actor: Alec Guinness Screenplay (Adapted) Pierre Boulle, Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman. Cinematography: Jack Hildyard Editing: Peter Taylor Score: Malcolm Arnold

The only category in which the movie lost was the Supporting Actor (Sessue Hayakawa), which in 1957, went to Red Buttons for “Sayonara.”

Director Alert

After this movie, Lean made four more pictures: the stunning epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” which swept the 1962 Oscars, “Doctor Zhivago,” the disappointing “Ryan’s Daughter” 1970) and the wonderful “A Passage to India” (1984), which became his swan song; Lean died in 1991.

Oscar Context

In 1957, “Bridge” was not the most nominated picture. That honored was claimed by “Sayonara,” with 10 nominations, and “Peyton Place,” with 9. The other two nominees were courtroom dramas: Sidney Lumet’s brilliant feature debut, “Twelve Angry Men” and Billy Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution.”

Three of the Best Picture nominees, “Peyton Place,” “Twelve Angry Men,” and “Witness for the Prosecution” didn’t win any awards.