Happy Birthday Sir Alec Guinness- as many of you know him doesn’t need to be told, one of the greatest actors of 20th century. To most people he is Obi van Kenobi, the sagely Jedi of Star wars, for some he is King Feisal of Lawrence of Arabia, for some he is General Yevgraf of Zhivago and to me is he is sweetly remembered as Colonel Nicholson of River Kwai
Sir Alec and I crossed path during the shooting of David Lean’s Passage to India at Bangalore Cantonment Railway Station. I recall that’s 1982, I was twelve years then accompanied by my father to see him act in the location. I never knew who that man was and never had watched any of his movie until then!! Seeing him as Professor Godbole still charms my heart, and his chivalrous nature cherished entire crowd there and his two minutes conversation with my dad….Still makes me special to think about that day!
Today 3rd April 3, 2014, marks Actor Sir Alec Guinness’s 100th birthday, and what an illustrious career this man had. He is one of a select few actors, whom I will actively seek out a film of just for his presence alone. What makes him special? His ability as a chameleon – to play any part, transcending national, class, and even racial and gender boundaries – witness his eight performances in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and yes his amazing voice delights the audience . I have to date seen 20 plus films with Sir Alec in them. In honor of what would have been his 100th birthday…..Today I would like to pick my personal favorite “The Bridge on the River Kwai”
This is one of those films that I can watch at any time and be completely enchanted. I also have a soft spot for Sir Alec and honestly would have watched this film more than a dozen times in last twenty years….
This movie was made before Lawrence. On the surface, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai sums to an outstanding epic filled with themes of courage, bravery, and idealism, all set against a grandiose backdrop of powerful images captured by breathtaking camerawork of Jack Hildyard. This movie was shot in exteriors of Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). The bridge in the film was located near Kitulgala.
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” captivates a courageous image that both challenges and amuses. It tells the story of men who refuse to accept defeat; and while striving for their slim meanings of honor, their demise in the film’s climactic finale illustrates the lunacy of war. Through the enormity of its human drama, the movie became an immediate and unique slice of cinema history, not only for its eminent standing as a classic, but for bringing international recognition to David Lean as a master filmmaker. It would become the first, and perhaps the greatest, of Lean’s signature late-career epics in which he places involved relationships between a few complex characters within vistas of uncommon splendor.
Based on the eponymous French novel (1952) by Pierre Boulle. The film is a work of fiction but borrows the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942–43 for its historical setting. It stars William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa and the master Alec Guinness.
The plot sets in the World War ll, the British prisoners arrive at a Japanese prison camp in western Burma. The commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), informs them that all prisoners, regardless of rank, are to work on the construction of a railroad bridge over the River Kwai. The senior British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), reminds Saito that the Geneva Conventions exempt officers from manual labour.
At the following morning’s assembly, Colonel Nicholson orders his officers to remain behind when the recruited men are sent off to work. Saito slaps him across the face with his copy of the conventions and threatens to have them shot, but Nicholson refuses to back down. When Major Clipton (James Donald), the British medical officer, intervenes, Saito leaves the officers standing all day in the intense tropical heat. That evening, the officers are placed in a punishment hut, while Nicholson is locked in an iron box.
Colonel Nicholson refuses to compromise and not to settle until his demands to stop POWs from manual labour. Meanwhile, the prisoners are working as little as possible and sabotaging whatever they can. Should Saito fail to meet his deadline, he would be obliged to commit ritual suicide. Anxious and desperate, Saito uses the anniversary of Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War as an excuse to save face and announces a general amnesty, releasing Nicholson and his officers.
Nicholson conducts an inspection and is shocked by the poor job being done by his men. Over the protests of some of his officers, he orders Captain Reeves (Peter Williams) and Major Hughes (John Boxer) to design and build a proper bridge, despite its military value to the Japanese, for the sake of maintaining his men’s morale. The Japanese engineers had chosen a poor site, so the original construction is abandoned and a new bridge is begun downstream.
In the camp, there are attempts of POWs for an escape, and in meantime, three prisoners make an effort to escape, two are shot dead and one the US Naval Commander Shears (William Holden), gets away, although acutely wounded. He stumbles into a village. The residents help him escape by boat.
Shears lands up in the hospital and enjoys his stay in Ceylon which is a British governed area (part of colonial India), when British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) asks him to volunteer for a commando mission to destroy the bridge before it’s completed. Shears is appalled at the idea and reveals that he is not an officer, switched uniforms with a dead officer after the sinking of their cruiser as a ploy to get better treatment. However Shears volunteers because he fears of the prospect of being charged for impersonating an officer.
In the Japanese occupied Burma- Colonel Nicholson drives his men hard to complete the bridge on time. This becomes important for the Colonel, in its completion of the bridge will exemplify the ingenuity and hard work of the British Army for generations. When he asks that their Japanese counterparts join in as well, a resigned Saito replies that he has already given the order.
Soon the British with the help of US friend Shears, the commando operations take place with the parachute land in the Japanese occupied place. One man is killed on landing and the British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins)) is wounded in an encounter with a Japanese patrol and has to be carried on a litter. He, Shears, and Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) reach the river in time with the assistance of Siamese women bearers and their village chief, Khun Yai. Under cover of darkness, Shears and Joyce plant explosives on the bridge towers below the water line.
A train carrying soldiers and important dignitaries is scheduled to be the first to cross the bridge the following day, so Warden waits to destroy both. However, at daybreak the commandos are horrified to see that the water level has dropped, exposing the wire connecting the explosives to the detonator. Making a final inspection, Nicholson spots the wire and brings it to Saito’s attention. As the train is heard approaching, they hurry down to the riverbank to investigate.
Joyce, manning the detonator, breaks cover and stabs Saito to death. Aghast, Nicholson yells for help, while attempting to stop Joyce from reaching the detonator. When Joyce is shot dead by Japanese fire, Shears swims across the river, but is fatally wounded as he reaches Nicholson. Recognizing the dying Shears, Nicholson exclaims, “What have I done?” Warden fires his mortar, mortally wounding Nicholson. The dazed colonel stumbles towards the detonator and collapses on the plunger, just in time to blow up the bridge and send the train hurtling into the river below. Witnessing the carnage, Clipton shakes his head uttering, “Madness! Madness!”
River Kwai’ marks an implausible performance from Sir Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson. Nicholson is simply the most fascinating character in the film. He is a proud man, proud of himself, proud of his men, and proud of his country. He isn’t proud in a boastful or arrogant way though. It’s more of a quiet dignity and self-worth. For example, he’s always been respectful to Saito despite being held prisoner by him. In fact if I had to pick one word to describe Nicholson, it would be respect. This is a character that demands your respect while always remaining tremendously respectful to others. Some of his best scenes are early on during the power struggle with Saito. Despite everything Saito throws at him, Nicholson remains strong. Alec Guinness displays all this flawlessly. The strength he exudes is amazing because it doesn’t feel forced or that he’s even trying. Nicholson comes off has being naturally strong willed.
One of the best things about Guinness’ performance is just how likable he is. The first time I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai I was so charmed with Nicholson, the way Guinness played him that I didn’t recognize the dangers of his actions. I mentioned two paragraphs ago how Nicholson willingly aids the enemy during war time, and he does. But the thing is, I didn’t really think of it that way. I was so caught up in the character that it didn’t seem like he was doing anything wrong. I didn’t truly see the consequences of Nicholson’s actions until the film’s climax, the same time Nicholson realizes what he’s done. Had Nicholson been a real person, I’d have followed him through anything. That’s how powerful Alec Guinness’ performance is.
The other memorable feature of the film is the tune that is whistled by the POWs—the first strain of the march “Colonel Bogey”—when they enter the camp. The march was originally written in 1914 by Kenneth J. Alford, a pseudonym of British Bandmaster Frederick J. Ricketts. The Colonel Bogey strain was accompanied by a counter-melody using the same chord progressions, then continued with film’s mucis composer Malcolm Arnold’s own composition “The River Kwai March,” played by the off-screen orchestra taking over from the whistlers, though Arnold’s march was not heard in completion on the soundtrack. Mitch Miller had a hit with a recording of both marches.
The soundtrack of the film is largely diegetic; background music is not widely used. In many tense, dramatic scenes, only the sounds of nature are used. An example of this is when commandos Warden and Joyce hunt a fleeing Japanese soldier through the jungle, desperate to prevent him from alerting other troops. Arnold won an Academy Award for the film’s score.
For Major Shears, William Holden was the first and only choice for Lean. At the height of his celebrity, the charismatic Holden earned his paycheck through popularity, although his talent was often overlooked in favor of his good looks. But the actor behind Sunset Bolvard and Stalag 17 deserved every cent of his then-unprecedented paycheck of $300 thousand and ten percent of the box office receipts. Japanese silent film star Sessue Hayakawa was chosen as Nicholson’s rival as Col. Saito.
Yet, for all its size and brilliance and influence, it remains curious that The Bridge on the River Kwai did so well. The imposing size of David Lean’s films often leads to doubts that a single man could be responsible for such ambitious stories. But Lean’s personal touch, his defining characteristic as an auteur director, resides in his skill for bringing the human question into stories otherwise defined by their majestic scenery and narrative magnitude. The Bridge on the River Kwai grows from his control as an artist and craftsman whose place belongs among the greatest of all directors.
And to me this is always been Colonel Nicholson’s film. I also have a long listed favorite of Sir Alec’s movies and some of his gems are Great Expectations; Oliver Twist; Kind Hearts and Coronets; The Lavender Hill Mob; Man in the White Suit; The Card; The Captain’s Paradise; The Prisoner; The Ladykillers; The Swan; The Horse’s Mouth; Our Man in Havana; Tunes of Glory; Lawrence of Arabia; The Fall of the Roman Empire; Doctor Zhivago; The Quiller Memorandum; Murder by Death; Star Wars, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and so on… A legend of Alec Guinness is forever matchless, his spirits remain indomitable, and a priceless Icon for all the moviegoers around the World…
Lastly in Colonel’s words …… “I’ve been thinking. Tomorrow it will be twenty-eight years to the day that I’ve been in the service. Twenty-eight years in peace and war. I don’t suppose I’ve been at home more than ten months in all that time. Still, it’s been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything? Hardly made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking’s very healthy; but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight… tonight!
- Directed by David Lean
- Produced by Sam Spiegel
- Screenplay by Carl Foreman & Michael Wilson
- Based on ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai ‘by Pierre Boulle
- Starring:William Holden,Jack Hawkins,Sessue Hayakawa & Alec Guinness
- Music by Malcolm Arnold
- Cinematography by Jack Hildyard
- Editing by Peter Taylor
- Studio: Horizon Pictures
- Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
- Release dates:2 October 1957
- Running time:161 minutes
- Language: English