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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs, Pick of the Week: Blu-ray. The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai (Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.S./U.K.: David Lean, 1957 (Columbia/Sony)

Moviemaker David Lean was a master of the epic (Lawrence of Arabia) and a master of the intimate (Brief Encounter), and his greatest films often straddle some strange, sublime borderland between the two.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle, is an Oscar winner that’s also a masterpiece, fusing perfectly those two sides of director Lean. Set in the jungles of Burma in World War II, it’s the story of a group of British prisoners of war, imprisoned in a Japanese P. O. W. camp, who are compelled by the harsh prison commandant, Colonel Saito (played by one time silent movie matinee idol Sessue Hayakawa) to build a bridge connecting two parts of the jungle, crossing over the River Kwai.

Saito is proud, tyrannical, and sometimes brutal, and he’s infuriated by delays. But he meets his match in the British Col. Nicholson, cool and punctilious, a gent not to be bullied, a soldier not to be pushed, a man not to be bent or broken.

Nicholson was played, superbly, by Alec Guinness, one of Kwai’s many Oscar-winners — as was Lean, producer Sam Spiegel, cinematographer Jack Hildyard, composer Malcolm Arnold, and also, to his embarrassment, novelist Boulle, who was covering for the actual scriptwriters, black list victims Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman. (Boulle, who couldn’t write or speak English, had to accept the Oscar in person, before millions of TV watchers).

In the film, Nicholson is a supreme, stalwart but self-deluding product of the British class system, and he clashes with Saito over the treatment of his officers, over the progress of the bridge, over the rules of the game. With his nasal whine of a clipped British voice slipping softly and implacably past the stiffest of stiff upper lips, Nicholson bends the hot-tempered brute/jailer to his will, then becomes fascinated by the building of the bridge, and just as determined as Saito to see it completed — to see a job well done. (In real life, the treatment of British P.O.W.’s in Burma was so brutal that some British veterans objected to what they considered Lean’s “rosy” picture.)

But, as Nicholson and his men build the bridge, meanwhile, another ex-prisoner at the camp, Nicholson’s absolute opposite number, the happy-go-lucky American con-man, seducer and fraud Sears (played by that consumate POW hustler, ex-Stalag 17 inmate William Holden) — who escaped after Nicholson and his men arrived — is returning to the camp, against his will, in a commando team led by the almost boyishly adventurous, yet sturdily competent and deadly determined Warden (Jack Hawkins). Their mission: Blow up the bridge on the River Kwai.

God, did I love this movie when I saw it, at eleven years old! I bought the book, and began looking for Lean’s name — and Guinness’ and Holden‘s and Hawkins’ — on other movies playing on TV or in the theatres. It was the very first picture I ever thought of as my favorite movie of all time, and even though it was replaced in that slot the very next year by Citizen Kane (which I saw on TV) and also by Vertigo (which I saw in the same theater, in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, where I had seen Kwai), The Bridge on the River Kwai remained something special and exciting to me, and does to this day. (Kane and Vertigo, by the way, are still atop my list, which may mean that I never grew up — or that I was really lucky to see them all when I was young.)

What hooked me? I loved Lean’s mixture of beautifully written and acted drama and explosive, relentless action (in vibrant color and wide screen), of gorgeous settings and high emotion, of hot savage jungle and cold irony…


I loved the grim coda: circling buzzards and doctor James Donald‘s final scream, “Madness! Madness!” I loved the performances, the way Holden smirked, and Hawkins made calm genial threats, and the way Guinness’ Nicholson muttered “What have I done?” before he staggered in a crazy loop and fell on the plunger. The Bridge on the River Kwai made me feel that movies could do much more than I imagined — just as the next year, Citizen Kane made me feel they could do anything.


Of course, I also loved the opening of River Kwai: the titles over the views of the beaten-down P.O.W.s around the train tracks in the steaming heat, while, unforgettably, Col. Nicholson’s troops, in rigid discipline, marched through the jungle to the camp, whistling that jaunty soldier’s song, the Colonel Bogey March. Mitch Miller and the Gang, the bearded Miller’s choral group, had a hit record out of that tune, and they did it in the era of Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry. But the Gang never sang any lyrics and, years later I learned why.

There were lyrics to Col. Bogey‘s March, but they were so obscene, and so well-known to most World War 2 veterans, that the words couldn’t be sung on screen or on a record in the Eisenhower era — though they would still leave a distinctly ribald echo for every soldier who had sung them or heard them. (I bet ex-General Ike knew them too.)

Here they are (at least the WW2 version of them):

“Hitler…has only Got! One! Ball!
“Goering…has two, But They! Are! Small!
“Himmler…has Something Similar,
“But poor old Goebbels! Has No Balls! At all!”

Of course Goebbels doesn’t really rhyme with “No Balls” — though it looks like it does, and everybody tends to call Hitler’s propaganda minister  “Gobels” anyway. But the near-rhyme “Fur Balls” doesn’t make as punchy a last line. I’m glad I didn’t learn those lyrics when I was twelve, because I probably would have kept singing them at school, and gotten expelled.

As for The Bridge on the River Kwai, I still think it’s great. No arguments please. Remember: Madness! Madness! And Hitler has only Got! One! Ball!

Extras: Booklet, with essay from original 1957 souvenir book; Graphic film-in-film notes; Featurettes; Holden and Guinness on The Steve Allen Show.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon