Apologies to the makers of Saving Private Ryan, Das Boot, Cross of Iron and countless other great war films but this one is for the Brits only. Stiff upper lips, gritty realism and tally ho’s all round.
Based VERY LOOSELY on the story of the building of a bridge on the Burma railway by British prisoners-of-war held under a savage Japanese regime in World War II, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is one of the greatest war films ever made. The film received seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Performance (Alex Guinness), for Sir Malcolm Arnold’s superb music, and for the screenplay from the novel by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote Monkey Planet, the inspiration for Planet of the Apes). The story does take considerable liberties with history, including the addition of an American saboteur played by William Holden, and an entirely fictitious but superbly constructed and thrilling finale. Made on a vast scale, the film reinvented the war movie as something truly epic, establishing the cinematic beachhead for The Longest Day (1962), Patton (1970) and A Bridge Too Far (1977). It also proved a turning-point in director David Lean’s career. Before he made such classic but conventionally scaled films as In Which We Serve (1942) and Hobson’s Choice (1953). Afterwards there would only be four more films, but their names are Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dr Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984).
Despite the film taking huge liberties with the truth it is still a great film. Best bits include the brilliant River Kwai March and the memorable finale in which Alex Guinness finally realises what he has done.
Before the age of the CGI, the bridge was real and at 100% scale. Built over 8 months its explosion was caught from many angles and despite some problems with shipping back to the UK it is one of the most memorable war film scenes ever made.
Colonel Nicholson: We can teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame. We’ll show them what the British soldier is capable of doing.
Colonel Nicholson: I’m adamant. I will not have an officer from my battalion working as a coolie.
Colonel Saito: I hate the British! You are defeated but you have no shame. You are stubborn but you have no pride. You endure but you have no courage. I hate the British!
Colonel Nicholson: One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity.
Colonel Nicholson: What have I done?