The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a widely popular and acclaimed film from one of the most famous British directors of all-time: David Lean. With 7 Oscars and a #83spot on the not-so-viable IMDb Top 250, the movie should at least ring a bell to anyone. As for its over-heroic characters or its La Grande Illusion wannabe war prisoner flick, The Bridge on the River Kwai sure lets you with an illusion of a great movie. Like François Truffaut said Le pont de la rivière Kwai est un film conçu pour épater l’Académie et empiler les statuettes dorées ornées d’un homme nu tenant une épée en guise de phallus. Well, I’ll translate this citation like this : The Bridge on the River Kwai was made to impress the Academy and pill up those little golden naked men holding their sword as a phallic substitute. The guy couldn’t be more right.

I have a profound aversion towards those films made for a moment, I even prefer the Tom Hanks/John Candy comedy Volunteers where they built a bridge for an important convoy of Viets to cross a river. The Bridge on the River Kwai tells the story of British soldiers captured and forced to built a bridge over the Kwai river. The many face to face between the two leaders wants to demonstrate how mentally strong they are and how they will fight for their men. Anyhow, I kept comparing the dynamic of the prison camp with the dynamic of La Grande Illusion, made twenty years earlier. Renoir’s film is so much deeper and richer than Lean’s spectacular film about courage and brainwashed Army concepts can’t keep the pace and level of the inventive “mise-en-scène” from Renoir just make The Bridge on the River Kwai look even lesser than it actually is.

However, as a whole, the movie is entertaining and the goal is achieved, heroism and courage sweat from the entire film. Although even if they are oversimplified and stereotyped every character still works. The whole story makes you hold your breath and there are moments of pure cinema, but the film isn’t as great as Lean’s other films, say Brief Encounter or Lawrence of Arabia.

David Lean is the kind of filmmaker capable of great and less than average pictures, a fellow critic, Kevyn Knox compared him to Steven Spielberg which I think are two similar filmmakers. They both made superb technical films with great budgets, great recognition, and lots of box-office entries while having a constant lack of soul in their filmmaking approaches.


  1. I think a "lack of soul" is just about the last thing you could accuse Lean of. He's probably the only director of epics who can mix character so well with a huge scope. Lean wasn't an experimental filmmaker but he was quite extraordinary at what he did. Unless you have a different definition of "soul" than myself, this seems a bizarre comment.

    I understand most of your criticisms, and agree with a few. It's very hard to take Kwai seriously on a realistic level, but then I don't think it's meant to be realistic. On the other hand, I strongly disagree about the "stereotyped" characters (especially Saito); here Lean and his writers vastly improve on the source novel and provide a well-rounded central cast.

    The Grand Illusion comparison isn't especially apt as Gabin and Stroheim are never really at odds in that film, and the balance of that film is preoccupied with the two goofy enlisted men.

    Anyway, I think Kwai is an excellent film, if not as grand as Lawrence of Arabia.

  2. Thanks for your comment it's much apreciated!

    I know I was strong on the criticism with The Bridge on the River Kwai but when a film wins seven Oscars it deserves to be judged as one of the greatest films of all time. My comment is, that in 1957, it was the year we saw 12 Angry Men, Wild Straberries, The Seventh Seal, Mon Oncle, Nights of Cabiria, Throne of Blood, Paths of Glory, The Cranes are Flying, and Sweet Smell of Success. All these films had great souls. I don't think that The Bridge on the River Kwai is the best film of 1957, a year that the titles above proved to be a very rich year.
    Anyway, it's far from being a bad film but put in context you have the result of my review...

    I like your Blog, it's interesting and I like its selection of films!

  3. Fair enough. I like several of the films you list better than Kwai, however I'm not going to quibble over the Academy's selection.

    Thanks for your comments. I've enjoyed what I've read of your blog and I'll definitely link to it. Cheers!

  4. I've already done the same thing for your blog! Glad you enjoy mine.
    Thanks for spreading the word!


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