100 Movies to See Before You Die- “Bridge on The River Kwai”

“The Bridge on The River Kwai” as directed by David Lean (who also directed “Lawrence of Arabia”) is without a doubt a fine piece of cinema. The film was the winner of seven academy awards including picture, director, and actor (Alec Guinness). My viewing of the film this afternoon was the first time I had seen it. I honestly knew very little about the film or why it is considered by so many to be a classic. So I guess you could say my opinion of this film has not been shaped by popular opinion like it probably has been in films that I am more familiar with. So the big question is, does this film belong with the all time greats?

Should this film be considered a classic? I can’t give an unqualified yes here. The production values of the film are truly remarkable. The sets are top notch. The acting from the top billed cast all the way to minor parts is spot on. The camera work is excellent.  Alec Guinness definitely deserves the accolades for his role in this film. He completely owns the role of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson and was the highlight of the entire film for me. That said, I think the biases of the French author (Pierre Boulle) of the book the film was based on spoil a lot of the film for me. Alec Guinness is said to have had some problems with the film because he perceived it as having an anti-British bent which was also present in the source material.

I agree with Guinness and spotted this early on. I think I spotted it because I’m so used to seeing America and Americans portrayed badly in modern films that I was quick to spot the tell-tale markings in this film. The film ultimately portrays the British as bumbling and incompetent; caring more about personal pride and accomplishment than anything else and incapable of rational decision making. By the end of the film it’s obvious the anti-war bent as the Major Clipton character sees the carnage and ends the film with the statement, “Madness! Madness!” It reminds me of a less heavy handed “Apocalypse Now.” The really sad thing about it is that it obscures the real life story of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. He protested the portrayal of events in the film and judging from a brief reading of his Wikipedia article is a man who deserved to have his story and that of the men he was imprisoned with told in a much truer fashion. It’s hard to see why the real life events weren’t deemed as movie-worthy as the fictional events in Boulle’s book which have thus wrongly shaped western culture’s historical perception of the event.

Would I own this film? Before watching this film, I had the Blu-Ray version of it on my Amazon wishlist. Now that I’ve seen it and been made aware of how it twists a brutal historical event to make the anti-British and anti-war points of the author, I think I’ll be removing it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a well made film and I do believe it stands among the greats in terms of the quality of production and overall storytelling. That said, even though it is meant to be fictional I still struggle with such a twisting of history especially when it comes at the cost of painting the real life heroes like Philip Toosey in a bad light. Maybe if more people were aware of the real heroes of the story it wouldn’t be such an issue. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. I for one will be doing some more research and reading about Philip Toosey so that I can learn more about the real history of the bridge on the river Kwai.

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