There is a penalty to pay in watching The Bridge On The River Kwai, the great 1957 movie that is almost the film negative of The Great Escape (#19 earlier this month). You will NOT get that Colonel Bogey March out of your head for the next month. You'll be hearing the song whistling through dreams, nightmares and daytime nod-offs due to lack of sleep.
But I digress.
This is one of the few memorable occasions English classes had for me during school. As a class, we read the Pierre Boulle novel when I was in Grade 9. I quite enjoyed the novel and was glad to hear we were going to see the movie at the local theatre a week later. It was to be one of two movies of books we were forced to read and later watch, that I actually enjoyed during my school years (To Kill a Mockingbird being the other one). Most times, I found ways to weasel out of these trips, but not this time. And I was glad I wasn't motivated to do otherwise.
The setting is a Japanese POW camp in Burma. The Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito, played with Oscar-worthy relish by Sessue Hayakawa, is determined to get his mix of allied prisoners to construct a bridge over the River Kwai (the novel's title in some editions is Bridge Over the River Kwai ... translations can get like that). He's, let's say ... enthusiastic, about forcing the (Col. Nicholson) Alec Guinness-led Brits. William Holden (Commander Harry Shears), an American, escapes the camp and almost immediately turns around and leads a small commando unit back towards the camp. It's almost like he's trying to break back in. In fact, he, and his unit, need to blow up the bridge the Japanese are forcing the prisoners to build, a key link in creating the supply line the Japanese need in southern Asia.
What Shears encounters is the fact that Guinness, in an Oscar-winning role himself, feels honour-bound to build the best bridge possible and does exactly that. The internal fight over honor to his troops, to his side, to his bridge, is fascinating to watch play out. Right to the last moment, you cannot anticipate how he will perform. There just isn't any version of that internal struggle in The Great Escape.
The act of not breaking out, quite the reverse, is one of the main differences between the two movies. The Far Eastern setting is very different than The Great Escape's setting in Germany. The prisoners have a completely different building goal in the two movies, The Great Escape's tunnels and the bridge of the title in this movie. In fact, Saito and Nicholson are such honour-bound characters, they almost seem like two faces of the same man, something completely different in The Great Escape. There are many other polar opposites that pop up amongst the similarities that movies about World War II POW camps have to have. It's fascinating enough to fill up almost three hours of screen time.
Of course, the ending, with Nicholson stumbling through the muddy water towards the firing controls of the explosives planted on the bridge is unforgettable.
Almost as much as that damn song.
NOTE: It should be noted that the original source material IS a novel, which was loosely based on a real event during the war. The Nicholson character was made up of whole cloth, quite different from the actual prisoner leader in the River Kwai POW encampment. And Saito was a second-in-command and was actually a decent-enough fellow that the actual prisoner leader interceded on his behalf at the War Crimes Tribunal after the war. These facts should not take away from the exceptional film made by David Lean. But it IS a work of fiction.