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Bridge on the River Kwai

Year: 1957
Director: David Lean
Writer: Pierre Boulle
Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness
David Lean's best effort was still Lawrence of Arabia, but Kwai is still more interesting as both a story and a piece of visual art than Dr Zhivago.

As was his style, it's a sweeping, epic, hours-long journey that takes plenty of time to spin the tale and let us get to know the characters. He wasn't any sort of auteur or arthouse director (if there was such a thing in those days) - more than anything else, Lean simply told stories. He did so with an ironic blend of leanness and length, some of the finest character actors of the times and an eye for incredible scenery rarely seen on a screen at the time or since (the most notable contemporary comparison can be made with The Mission).

It's midway through WWII when a regiment of British infantry are received at a remote Japanese POW camp in the jungles of Thailand. Current inmate Shears (Holden) has almost had enough and makes a break for it. Career commander Nicholson (Guinness) clashes over his senior officers doing manual labour with the camp commander, who wants to commit every hand to the project of building a bridge across the local river so the railway can continue on.

A battle of wills ensues which Nicholson wins, almost taking over the whole camp in working his way into his captor's confidence and convincing him the Brits can do a much better job of the bridge.

The film moves ahead following the seemingly impossible task of getting the bridge built by deadline, but the stakes are higher; Shears was taken in and looked after by villagers after his escape, then sent on his way to return to allied territory where he enjoys a life of constant R&R.

When his British hosts learn of his 'borrowed' identity, they virtually blackmail him to go on their commando mission to destroy the bridge with him as their guide, being the only one who knows exactly where the camp is. Two strands of story diverge dramatically, only to inevitably entangle again with the single repeated word 'you!'

The Asian jungle doesn't provide nearly as many opportunities for the extreme wide shots that made Lawrence so breathtaking, so Lean has to rely more on story and performance, but both stand up to scrutiny.

And like all Lean's films, one of the parts that will stay with you is the little musical riff - in this case, the whistled Colonel Bogey march. The original novel was written by Pierre Planet of the Apes Boulle, who received the only writing credit after the actual screenwriters were blacklisted in McCarthy's commie scare.

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