Release Date(s)1957 (June 7, 2022)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
[Editor’s Note: The film portion of this review is by Barrie Maxwell, based on his look at the 2010 Blu-ray Disc release. The 4K Ultra HD and Steelbook portions of the review are by Bill Hunt.]
David Lean’s 1957 film classic The Bridge on the River Kwai, based on the book of the same name by Pierre Boulle, concerns a group of British World War II prisoners of war who are marched into a Japanese prison camp deep in the jungle of southeast Asia. They are expected to construct a bridge over the River Kwai—a vital component of a railway that the Japanese are building from Singapore through Malaya into Burma. The British are under the command of Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). The Japanese camp commander is Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). A tremendous battle of wills develops between these two when Nicholson, citing the Geneva Convention, refuses Saito’s demand to have his officers work alongside the rest of the men on the bridge. While Nicholson and the rest of the officers languish in small metal enclosures in the sun as punishment, work begins on the bridge under the command of the Japanese bridge designer. Little progress is made due to both the lack of control by the Japanese designer and attempts at sabotage by the British prisoners.
As it becomes apparent that the bridge is falling far behind schedule, Saito is desperate to get it back on track and finally gives in to Nicholson. Nicholson then sees the bridge as an opportunity to restore the discipline of his men as well as a possible monument to British ingenuity and hard work, so he takes the initiative to redesign the bridge and works his men hard to try to meet the completion deadline. With construction nearly finished, he enlists men in sickbay and even the officers to do work so that the target date can be met.
Meanwhile, an American—Commander Shears (William Holden)—has escaped from the camp and managed to make it to freedom. He is convalescing in Ceylon when he is approached by a British commando unit to return to the camp area in order to blow up the bridge. Under the command of Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), the small commando unit is parachuted in and begins an overland march to the site of the bridge. They arrive just as the bridge has been completed, late in the afternoon of the day before it is to be used for the first time. Overnight, the commandos wire the bridge with explosives and then await the next day and the arrival of the first train.
Consider a The Bridge on the River Kwai film that stars Cary Grant as Shears and Charles Laughton as Nicholson. It boggles the mind, but those are some of the possibilities first contemplated. In fact, half of the actors in Hollywood and Britain appear to have been considered and asked to play the leading roles.
Alec Guinness was far from one of the top choices to play Col. Nicholson and even when he came to be considered, he himself wasn’t initially interested. By this point, the film’s producer Sam Spiegel was getting desperate, however, and he invited Guinness to dinner in a last-ditch effort to change Guinness’ mind. Such were Spiegel’s powers of persuasion that Guinness later said, “I started out maintaining that I wouldn’t play the role and by the end of the evening we were discussing what kind of wig I would wear.” Another hurdle was an antipathy that seemed to develop between Guinness and director David Lean as to how the role of Nicholson should be played. Despite all this, Alec Guinness proved to be the perfect Colonel Nicholson. Much of Nicholson’s portrayal owes itself to the excellence of Guinness’ acting, but Lean’s own suggestions played an important part in some of the result, occasionally despite Guinness’ misgivings. The best example is the exchange on the completed bridge between Nicholson and Saito that occurs near sunset. Guinness had been careful to time his words to the setting sun, but then found that Lean was going to film him from behind as he spoke. Guinness was not happy, but he later acknowledged the correctness and added impact of Lean’s approach. Similarly, Guinness was unhappy with the protracted walk that Lean expected him to make across the parade ground after his release from the hot box. On seeing the rushes later (in company with his wife and son), Guinness again realized the merit of what Lean had asked him to do. So the portrayal of Nicholson was really a collaborative effort—one that was rewarded with the Best Actor Academy Award for Guinness—and all for a role that he had never wanted.
William Holden, on the other hand, was quite interested in playing Commander Shears and his efforts in the part add substantially to the quality of the film. Holden’s great ability was always to make acting look easy because he was so good at imbuing his roles with naturalness. Part of the problem with that was that Holden never really received the full degree of acclaim that his talent warranted. Certainly he did win an Academy Award for Stalag 17, but his career is filled with excellent performances never properly recognized. His Commander Shears is but one good example.
The excellence of the rest of Bridge on the River Kwai’s principal cast is also worth emphasizing, from Sessue Hayakawa as Saito, to Jack Hawkins as Major Warden, and to James Donald as Dr. Clipton. But this film is also more than just acting; it’s truly an epic story on an epic scale. It was filmed almost completely on location in Ceylon and the bridge itself was constructed full size and sufficiently strongly to enable it carry the weight of a real locomotive and railcars. The bridge and train were intended to be actually destroyed in the final explosion, so the filming of the event had to be planned very carefully because there’d only be one chance. Perhaps the most familiar symbol and lasting impression of the whole film is the Colonel Bogey March that the prisoners whistle as they enter the camp for the first time. Colonel Bogey was very much a British military song that conveyed a sort of contempt for authority. There were misgivings about using it in the film, for some thought that no one would know the piece or its significance and the suggestion was made that it be replaced with the much more familiar “Bless ’Em All.” Lean, however, prevailed in his desire to retain the song, although the whistling of it rather than singing was a compromise to avoid the use of its derogatory words. Now, of course, the film would be unthinkable without it and it has made The Bridge on the River Kwai easily the film most readily identifiable by the playing of a few bars of music.
For David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai was a breakthrough film in the sense of making him a truly internationally-recognized film director. Although he had had many British successes to his name prior to 1957, he had not profited greatly from it all. Part of his reason for doing Bridge on the River Kwai was the fact, that at the time, he was flat broke. In fact, on signing the contract to do the film, he immediately asked for an advance from Columbia so that he could get his teeth fixed. Lean was a perfectionist and he immersed himself in all aspects of the project. Much of the final script is directly attributable to his work, and certainly the great attention to detail that we see on the screen is all due to him. If he had a short-coming, it was a seeming inability to actually finish; he always wanted one more shot. Even after principal shooting was wrapped up in Ceylon (having taken 8 months, not including the time to actually build the bridge), Lean still had ideas for a few more shots that he wanted to incorporate in the final film. Finally, he was left behind with a single cameraman, and he soldiered on long after everyone else had gone home. Lean, of course, was also rewarded for his efforts with an Academy Award, but the real legacy for him was a propensity for excellence achieved through a willingness to spend as much time as necessary to get it just right. This characteristic led to his great success with Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but tended to get out of hand thereafter so that he managed to complete only three more films during the remaining 29 years of his life (Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage to India).
The Bridge on the River Kwai was shot on 35 mm photochemical film in 1956-57. That original camera negative was scanned in 2009 in 4K resolution and given a full restoration for its 2010 re-release in theaters and on Blu-ray. In addition to the usual age-related defects, this film suffered from unique issues that included bad optical dissolves, excessive dupe stages, and camera malfunctions. Given this, and the fact that the film was made some 65 years ago now, it’s a rather wonderful experience to finally see the fully restored image at full resolution. The film is presented here in full native 4K (2160p) at the intended 2.55:1 aspect ratio. It’s been graded for color in high dynamic range (and this new Steelbook edition now includes both Dolby Vision HDR and HDR10—only the latter was available on the original 2017 4K UHD release), but that’s been done very tastefully and with a restrained hand, the goal being simply to expand the film’s overall dynamic range and enhance color rather than create a more modern look. (Note that the difference between the Dolby Vision and HDR10 is modest at best.) The first thing to say here is that (as longtime fans of this film will already know) you shouldn’t judge the image quality by the film’s opening credits, which suffer from the same fading and lack of detail that many of the film’s optical dissolves do. Once you get into the film proper, however, the image is actually quite extraordinary. Grain is moderate throughout, but detail is very good—sometimes, truly outstanding—and always a marked improvement over the previous Blu-ray image. Texturing is strong most of the time, visible in skin, woven hut roofs, and uniform fabrics. The film’s color palette has always been warm, dominated by muted browns and earth tones, and it occasionally looks a little desaturated, but skin tones are natural and the colors of sky, water, and jungle canopy are rich and bold. The HDR allows for truly dark blacks that are occasionally a bit crushed but mostly exhibit a surprising amount of detail. The highlights are enhanced too, seen in little things like the sun shining off of sweat-glistening faces, the brilliant sky, and reflections on water. Image-wise, this obviously isn’t going to compare to a newer film or one shot digitally, but this is certainly the finest presentation of Bridge we’ve ever seen, and by a wide margin. It’s an improvement that those familiar with this film will appreciate enormously.
Sony has upgraded the primary audio here to English Dolby Atmos (a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 compatible mix). This isn’t a sonic experience that’s geared toward aggressive action sequences, but rather one that focuses on creating a nice balance between dialogue, subtle ambient effects, and Malcolm Arnold’s rousing score. Clarity is very good, given the age of the elements. The staging is impressively large and natural, with the height channels employed to enclose and complete the soundfield. Subtle atmospheric cues filter in from all directions, including bird chirps, wind, softly rushing water, and construction sounds, creating a good sense of immersion in the film’s environments. There are a few instances late in the film that really stand out, including the parachute drop, the rattle of gunfire when a Japanese patrol is ambushed, and the subsequent deluge of screeching bats taking to the air from the trees. The film’s concluding moments impress too. Again, keep in mind that this is an Atmos mix for a vintage film originally released in mono, but the sound experience here is everything you would hope it to be. Note that the additional audio and subtitle options available on this new Steelbook 4K edition differ slightly from the 2017 4K release. Not only do you get the same 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that was available on the previous Blu-ray release, the original mono is also now included in DTS-HD MA format. Also on board are 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes in Czech, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Castilian Spanish, and Latin Spanish, though it should be noted that the Japanese track found on the 2017 4K has been omitted. Optional subtitles are available in English, English SDH, Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, Portuguese, Slovak, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Swedish, Thai, and Turkish, though again the Japanese subtitles from the 2017 4K release have been omitted.
Sony’s new 2022 4K Ultra HD Steelbook edition is meant to celebrate the film’s 65th anniversary. That said, save for the addition of Dolby Vision HDR, the slight audio and subtitle changes, and new menus and encoding, the release is in every other way identical to the studio’s original 2017 UHD. There are no extras on the UHD disc, but the enclosed Blu-ray (essentially the same disc that was released as part of the 2010 Collector’s Edition) offers the film in 1080p HD with the following extras:
- Crossing the Bridge Picture-in-Graphics Track (feature length)
- The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai (SD – 53:03)
- The Steve Allen Show with William Holden & Alec Guinness (SD – 6:30)
- The Bridge on the River Kwai Premiere narrated by William Holden (HD – 1:50)
- Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant (SD – 6:13)
- USC Short Film introduced by William Holden (SD – 15:52)
- An Appreciation by Filmmaker John Milius (SD – 8:06)
- Photo Gallery (SD – 7:28)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 3:23)
- Re-Release (Academy Awards) Trailer (HD – 3:08)
Of this material, all some carried over from the previous DVD and Blu-ray editions, the 53-minute documentary by Laurent Bouzereau is the best of the lot. The Picture-in-Graphics track presents text-based information on the making-of the film, background on World War II and prison camps, comparisons between the film and original book, and accounts from individuals who experienced the real building of the Thai-Burma railroad. It’s interesting, but probably not something you’ll look at more than once. Missing from the early DVD release is an isolated score, and from the 2010 Blu-ray the physical swag isn’t here (including a reproduction lobby cards, a reproduction souvenir program, and a book of liner notes and photographs), but otherwise all the previous disc-based extras carry over. And the 4K Steelbook packaging includes a paper insert with a Digital Copy code.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is truly one of those films about which it can be said: “They don’t make them like that anymore.” Fans will be pleased to know that, on Sony’s UHD release, all of its glories remain firmly intact. And for those who don’t already own the film in 4K, the new Steelbook edition (with its newly-added Dolby Vision HDR and original mono audio) is very highly recommended.
- Barrie Maxwell with Bill Hunt