The Bridge on the River Kwai (Collector's Edition)
Program Length: 162 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.55:1 1080p
Languages: English, French, Portuguese 5.1 DTS-HD MA; Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai
Do not speak to me of rules! This is war! This is not a game of cricket! -- Colonel Saito, Commanding Officer, Japanese Prisoner of War Camp
Madness...Madness! - Major Clipton, British Medical Officer
The Bridge on the River Kwai is perhaps the greatest war movie ever made. It also is one of the finest films ever made of any genre. After many years of anticipation, it is now being released by Sony in a stunningly spectacular Blu-ray edition.
As befits a film of its fame, it is unlikely that there are many readers of this review who are not already familiar with the plot of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Based upon a novel by the French author Pierre Boulle, the film is directed by David Lean and written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Based in part on fact, the story takes place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in the jungles of Thailand (Siam) in 1943. The Japanese are building a crucial railroad link between Bangkok and Rangoon, but to complete it they must erect a bridge across the River Kwai. Allied prisoners of war have been brought to the nearby camp to do the construction work. The commanding officer of the camp is Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who was educated in England but who has nothing but contempt for his captives. Japanese POW camps in World War II were remarkable for the brutality which was inflicted upon prisoners. By most accounts, the prisoners of the Japanese were seven times for likely to die - from disease, malnutrition, beatings, executions, etc. - than POWs held by Germans or Italians. For American prisoners, the outlook was even bleaker. Fully 35% of the American prisoners held by the Japanese during World War II failed to survive the war.
It is no surprise, then, that The Bridge on the River Kwai opens with images of handmade crosses marking the graves of deceased POWs. It is during a burial detail that the film introduces the only American in the camp, Navy Commander Shears (William Holden). Shears survived the sinking of his ship, but he was captured by the Japanese when he made it to shore. He has thus far survived by his wits, finding a compliant guard who is willing to periodically place Shears on the sick list in exchange for bribes. The prison population has been decimated, but a company of British soldiers, forced to surrender in Singapore years earlier, is marched into camp, to be put to work completing the bridge. The British soldiers are led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a by-the-book (but intriguingly ambiguous) officer who is determined to maintain morale and good order among the soldiers in his command.
Colonel Nicholson initially is impressed by Colonel Saito, except for the fact that Saito has announced that he expects the British officers to do manual work along with the enlisted men. This is a violation of the Geneva Convention (which, incidentally, Japan signed but never ratified), and Nicholson has no intention of complying with Saito's order. This leads to a compelling battle of wills between the two officers. Nicholson is cruelly beaten and placed into "the oven," a solitary confinement cage. Saito expects to break Nicholson's will, but the British officer's resolve cannot be shaken. In the meantime, little progress is being made on the bridge, and Saito has a deadline to meet.
There are really two parallel stories here. The other story focuses on Commander Shears, who is determined to make an escape attempt even though a successful one appears to be an impossibility. The camp has no walls, no barbed wire, and no watchtowers. It is, in effect, a Southeast Asia version of Devil's Island. Getting out of the camp is easy, but what then?
While Shears tries to make his way to freedom, Colonel Saito becomes increasingly desperate to complete the building of the bridge. He eventually accedes to Colonel Nicholson's demand that the British officers will not do manual labor, but in return he receives a pledge that the British soldiers will erect not just a bridge, but a better and stronger bridge than the Japanese were capable of building. The dilemma, of course, is that in securing better treatment and living conditions for his men Colonel Nicholson runs the risk of undermining the war effort by helping the enemy.
The parallel story lines eventually come together and lead to a shattering climax.
Although The Bridge on the River Kwai has a running time of nearly three hours, there is not a single superfluous scene. The drama is intense and riveting, and the performances are nothing short of brilliant. Alec Guinness won the Academy Aware for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Sessue Hayakawa received a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. William Holden gives one of his best performances as Commander Spears, and Jack Hawkins provides sturdy support as a British commando. David Lean won the Academy Award for Best Director, and The Bridge on the River Kwai was named the Best Picture of 1957. The film also took home Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Jack Hildyard), Best Music Score (Malcolm Arnold), Best Film Editing (Peter Taylor), and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The screenplay award deserves special mention because it was given to Pierre Boulle, who wrote the novel but who had essentially nothing to do with the screenplay (Boulle did not even speak English). The real screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, had been blacklisted because they refused to "name names" during investigations of Communists in Hollywood. This was eventually rectified in 1984, when Foreman and Wilson were posthumously given awards for the screenplay, and their names now appear in the film's credits.
When The Bridge on the River Kwai opened 53 years ago, it was reviewed in The New York Times by Bosley Crowther. He closed his review with these words: "Here is a film we guarantee you'll never forget." More prescient words have rarely been written.
The 2.55:1 1080p Blu-ray transfer by Sony is positively stunning. When The Bridge on the River Kwai was released on laserdisc, I was pleased with how good it looked, although there were some issues with the transfer. The first incarnations on DVD were significant improvements, but now the film apparently replicates the way it looked when it opened in 1957. This is what our resident expert, Robert Harris, has to say about the Blu-ray presentation: "Finally, under the steady hand of Columbia's Grover Crisp, Kwai has been brought back to its early glory with pitch perfect color, densities, grain structure and shadow detail, all in their proper places."
An A/B comparison with the previous DVD release bears out Mr. Harris' assessment. The Blu-ray image is substantially sharper, and the difference in color accuracy and intensity is striking. In the opening scene of the railroad tracks and crosses, on the DVD the jungle foliage is a pale green. The Blu-ray is like viewing another film altogether. Here the foliage is a deep green, just as one would expect to see it in a damp, tropical climate. The movie was filmed on location in Ceylon, and distant shots of mountains and rivers which are muddy and indistinct on the DVD are now breathtaking in their detail.
Flesh tones are realistic and accurate, black levels are solid, shadow detail is very good and the contrasts are strong. As Mr. Harris has noted, The Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed to be shown at 2.55:1, but was cropped to 2.35:1 to make room for the audio track. Here it is shown as originally intended. In fact, there is slightly more information on the Blu-ray transfer than on the prior DVD release. For example, in the scene where Colonel Saito is making his first address to the prisoners, on the DVD the soldiers at both ends of the front line are partially cropped out of the image. On the Blu-ray, nearly their entire bodies can be seen.
There is one slight hiccup which I had not noticed previously, but which also exists on the prior DVD release. At the 1:50:36 mark there is a shot of a bird flying, and for a split second the bird disappears, only to immediately reappear. I went through it in slow motion and it appears that a frame or so is shown twice, creating this "disappearing" effect. I compared it with the previous DVD release, and as noted the same effect is seen there. I have no way of knowing if this was a mastering error somewhere along the line or if this anomaly has always been present. It is a very minor thing and many viewers may not even notice it.
Overall this is a grand video presentation of a truly remarkable film.
If there is going to be any bone of contention about this Blu-ray release, it will (and to some extent already is) about the audio. Sony has elected to provide only one English soundtrack, in lossless 5.1 DTS-HD MA. The mono soundtrack with which fans of the film are familiar is nowhere to be found (the prior DVD release included both a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack and the mono soundtrack).
As Mr. Harris has explained, the film originally was planned to be released with a stereo soundtrack. The good news for purists is that the surround effects in the new soundtrack have been applied (again, using Mr. Harris' words) "with a delicate hand." The surround channels are used primarily to create a more realistic sensation of being in the jungle. Sounds of birds, rain, and waterfalls which previously were confined to the center channel are now effectively spread to the surround channels, while dialogue remains mostly confined to the center channel. An A/B comparison of the new audio to the mono soundtrack reveals the latter to be somewhat harsh. For a war movie, The Bridge of the River Kwai contains very little in the way of gunfire and explosions, so the new soundtrack really is not a major departure from the mono. I found the new soundtrack to both more enveloping and more pleasing, but the "more pleasing" part is really a matter of individual preference.
I would have preferred to see Sony offer the mono soundtrack as an option for those who prefer it, but I would not discourage anyone from buying this Blu-ray release solely because the mono soundtrack is missing.
The superb musical score by Malcolm Arnold benefits from the expanded soundstage provided by the 5.1 mix. The best-known part of the musical soundtrack is the "Colonel Bogey March," which is whistled by the British prisoners as they march into camp.
There are numerous extras in this collector's edition. First I will discuss the Blu-ray exclusives.
William Holden narrates an audio description of the film's London premiere. The narration is supplemented by still photos from the film and of the premiere, and it runs for just under two minutes.
An appearance by William Holden and Alec Guinness on "The Steve Allen Show" in 1957 is shown in 4:3 black and white. Holden and Guinness were interviewed "remotely" by Allen while the actors were still working on the film in Ceylon. The questions obviously were sent to the actors in advance, their answers were then filmed and Allen dubbed in the questions during the telecast. This segment runs for 6 1/2 minutes.
"Crossing the Bridge" is what Sony calls a "picture-in-graphics" track. While the film is playing, factoids about the novel, the historical background of the film, the experiences of real POWs, etc. appear. When the graphics come up, the scene from the film which is playing is reduced by roughly 80%. When the graphics disappear, the film image returns to its full size. I am not a particular fan of such features, but this one includes a considerable amount of interesting information for those who are willing to spend the time to sit through it.
Also included are the original theatrical trailer and the re-release trailer. The re-release trailer apparently dates to 1962, based upon its mention of Lawrence of Arabia. Both trailers are in very good shape, although not nearly as sharp and clean as the feature.
The remaining extras have been ported over from the Collector's Edition DVD which was released in 2008. Included are four featurettes:
"Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai" is a featurette which is self-explanatory.
A black and white University of Southern California short film which is narrated by William Holden includes extensive footage from The Bridge on the River Kwai.
"The Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant" is a black and white film which describes how the bridge was built and covers other aspects of the filming. The crew spent 251 days in Ceylon.
"An Appreciation by Filmmaker John Milius" is an eight-minute featurette which was made in 2000. It is presented in standard definition 4:3, with excerpts from the feature which are letterboxed.
A photo gallery/slide show runs for seven minutes and shows posters and lobby cards from around the world, as well as some still photos taken during the filming.
Also included are a Sony promotion for its classic films, a trailer for the first Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, and trailers for Tommy and Midnight Express.
In addition to the Blu-ray disc, this Collector's Edition also includes the new DVD of The Bridge on the River Kwai. A sampling of various scenes revealed that the new DVD is an improvement over the prior release, though it still falls well short of the Blu-ray version. The DVD version also includes the four featurettes mentioned above, but like the Blu-ray it does not include the mono soundtrack.
Finally, Sony also has included a packet of a dozen lobby card reproductions.
There are two discs, one containing the Blu-ray version and one containing the DVD version. The discs are packed in a rather thick digi-book. The book itself contains 34 pages of commentary, photographs and cast information. The digi-book fits into a sturdy slipcase. For those concerned about shelf space, the slipcase is 1 inch wide and 7 1/2 inches high.
The Final Analysis
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a time-honored classic film which has lost none of its impact since it was released more than a half-century ago. Over the years I have seen this film on television, on VHS, on laserdisc and on DVD, but watching it on Blu-ray is like seeing it for the first time. The only caveat that I have is that there are going to be fans of the film who will be disappointed that Sony has not included the mono soundtrack. However, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack has been mixed with the greatest of care. Those who want to retain a copy of the film with the mono soundtrack should plan on holding onto the older DVD release, although by no means should they avoid the Blu-ray. This Collector's Edition is a magnificent achievement and is a presentation which demands repeated viewing.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display, calibrated to THX specifications by Gregg Loewen
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: November 2, 2010