When British P.O.W.s build a vital railway bridge in enemy-occupied Burma, Allied commandos are assigned to destroy it in David Lean's epic World War II adventure The Bridge On The River Kwai.
Spectacularly produced, The Bridge On The River Kwai captured the imagination of the public and won seven 1957 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Alec Guinness), and Best Director. Even its theme song, an old WWI whistling tune, the "Colonel Bogey March," became a massive wordwide hit. The Bridge On The River Kwai continues today as one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of all time.
"There is no barbed wire, no stockade, no watch towers. They are not necessary. We are on an island in the jungle…
Escape is impossible."
Sorry for the delay, folks. It may have taken a couple of months to get a copy of this disc reviewed here on HDD, but the good news is that this amazing film looks fantastic in high definition!
The HDD Blog recently ran a great article about the worst Oscar snubs. It seems the true classics, or perhaps our personal favorites, are rarely the films and performances identified by the insular Hollywood community as The Best. However, in 1957 Academy voters got it very, very right, awarding 7 Oscars (out of 8 nominations) to David Lean's 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay (interesting fact: two of the now-credited writers, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were blacklisted at the time and received their awards posthumously in 1984). I've spoken before about the era of Cecile B. DeMille and David Lean. Two men who practically invented (the former) and perfected (the latter) epic filmmaking. Never again will we see giant films where someone builds a real ninety-foot tall bridge in the middle of a jungle, using Elephants to haul an entire train through said jungle in order to film it crossing and later...
Whoops, let's not spoil things or get too far ahead. First, we must talk plot, and for a 162 minute picture, there's a bunch to cover. 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' is about World War II English POWs building a bridge in unbearable conditions cross cut against the team sent to blow it up. In addition to these two POVs, 'Kwai' also has two separate, dramatic arcs. Or in another sense, this film's first act is an hour long, with acts two and three covering the rest.
The first 60 minutes is a battle of wits between English Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and the Japanese POW camp commander, Col. Saito. Saito initially demands that all English officers will work alongside enlisted men in the manual labor needed to construct the bridge. Nicholson rejects this notion, per the articles of war provided in Geneva Convention. As punishment, Saito locks Nicholson in The Oven, a suffocating tin box left out in the sun (all told, Nicholson will reject Saito's demands and threats for over a month). Imagine spending a month alone in something so small you can't stand or stretch your legs, with temperatures soaring and starvation levels of food.
Nicholson versus Saito is, in many ways, Principle versus Honor. Nicholson is unwavering in what he believes to be Right and is willing to die for it, but Saito's life is equally at stake. He is a man who has studied in England, but hates the English because he doesn't understand them. Without Nicholson or the other officers to lead the English soldiers, the Kwai Bridge will never finish on time, and if Saito fails, he will be forced by honor and duty, to take his own life. It's a fascinating struggle, as riveting as a boxing match.
Also, let's not forget the second lead character, William Holden as Shears. He is an American POW who has survived this death camp by cheating and bribing guards. Shears is a thematic opposite to Nicholson; for him, there is no principle or right thing to do, other than to survive using any means necessary. With Nicholson sweating away in The Oven during the first act, Shears makes a daring escape into the formidable jungle. He nearly dies (many times) during the process, but eventually finds his way back to a British Army encampment.
Acts two and three, naturally, follow our two leads after they survive their traumatic ordeals. Nicholson, released, believes his men need discipline and something to achieve, so he takes over building Saito's bridge. But not just any bridge, a better bridge. A British Bridge. Something so grand that when the war is long over, people will look back and say, look here at what these brave soldiers accomplished. This is Nicholson's obsession, and layer-by-layer, we learn about this man who has been in the Army for 28 years. A man who doesn't feel as though he has left his mark on the world. The bridge will be his greatest achievement.
Shears, meanwhile, is living the luxurious life of a playboy at a British army base, and he's about to quit this war and go home. Only there's a catch. British Special Forces unit 316 has been ordered to blow up the Kwai Bridge, and Shears is the only man who has actually survived these jungles. The slacker just got re-upped for another tour of duty, and this one will most certainly be his toughest.
As the climax approaches, the film bounces between its two leads: Nicholson and his men and his bridge (his soldiers can't understand why they seem to be helping the enemy), and Shears, the anti-hero. Along with the team of British Commandos, he trudges through the unforgiving jungles with plastic explosives. The question, dear readers, is how will it all come to a head?
Simply put, 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' is an epic masterpiece. Part thriller and action movie; part character drama. Guinness and Holden are polar opposites as actors as well as thematic characters. Their strife and heroics and failures and redemptions are as riveting today as they were some 54 years ago when 'Kwai' first hit screens. So nuanced, deep, and interesting. How many times do we see a scenario where the film's protagonist in the first hour, slowly descends into becoming an antagonist by the riveting conclusion? There are others, of course, but it's certainly rare.And for readers who have not seen this film, guess what? There's a significant chance that you already know more about it than you think. Hell, the Theme itself --
--is so iconic, I knew it as a boy, having no connection with this film until I wandered into the American Cinematheque to see 'Kwai' on the big screen for the first time. In fact, I have now learned the song, Colonel Bogey March, had many variations on its lyrics (people simply added their own). For WWII British Troops, theirs involved poking fun at Hitler's balls. No joke. Apparently, David Lean knew this and selected this song on purpose because he could sneak it, sans lyrics, past the censors.
Then, there's the filmmaking itself. Watching 'Kwai' for the first time may bring up a touch of deja vu because its visual language is so familiar. Why? Because Spielberg borrowed heavily from Lean -- in terms of tracking shots and the famous Bats filling the daytime sky -- while shooting the jungle sequences on 'Temple of Doom,' among others.
So, how well does a movie with such iconic stature stand up? Fantastically. Having seen 'Kwai' numerous times on the big screen, the 2000 DVD, and now the Blu-ray, and it never gets old. I'll admit that perhaps it could be slow to modern audiences, but for me, the mini-series length is too short. Lean knows how to combine grand filmmaking and drama with sight gags and light-hearted jokes to keep every moment feeling fresh.
Lastly, we've already chatted a little bit about scale, but I can't emphasize enough how thrilling full-sized spectacle truly is. How engaging and energizing. How I wish modern movies could still have as many real stunts as they do computer graphics -- sadly, cost, time, and safety, have left modern Hollywood infatuated with the computer (hell, CGI is limitless). But the reality of what's happening in 'Kwai' is unparalleled in today's films.
The only real flaws for 'Kwai,' as I can see them, are the technological limitations of the time. The set-pieces are fantastic in their grounded nature, but that reality only highlights the un-reality of scenes shot Day For Night.. Also, as Sony noted during the Classics panel at last year's Blu-Con 2010, Lean shot this film in CinemaScope and there were some focus and other problems associate with one camera.
'The Bridge on the River Kwai' is a great movie, and the most amazing part, Lean managed to top himself -- even in terms of scale -- a few years later with 'Lawrence of Arabia' (dear Sony, please, please, please, please, please release that one on Blu-ray), which was shot in 70mm. And friends, that film blows 'Kwai' out of the water on the big screen. Can't wait.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Sony brings 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' to Blu-ray as a part of a 2-disc Collector's Edition. A single 50GB (Regions A, B, and C) dual layer Blu-ray holds the film and all the supplemental features. The second disc is a DVD, which features the same restoration as well as a handful of the supplements. There is also a booklet of text and photographs reprinted from the original '50s 'Kwai' souvenir book as well as a set of mini-posters. Overall, the package is very nice and easier to use than recent multi-disc sets like 'Back to the Future', 'Alien Anthology' and 'Avatar'. I also generally like the build quality and layout better than Warner's Digibook series. But, the pocket holding my mini-posters was already ripped when I opened the package, so it's not perfect. Popping 'Kwai' into your Blu-ray player brings users immediately to a Main Menu with no forced trailers (thank you, Sony!).
'The Bridge on the River Kwai' makes a stunning debut on Blu-ray thanks to a 4K digital restoration and its 1080p AVC-MPEG4 encode. This film has never looked this great in the home, and possibly not the big screen -- I've seen restoration 35mm prints (not from this restoration), but if anyone remembers the original '57 or '58 release, do tell!
Sony's work here is remarkable. For the purposes of judging the video, I watched back-to-back sequences from the 2000 DVD, the 2011 DVD, the 2011 Blu-ray, and the HD trailers (more on them below). The differences are dramatic and immediate. Gone from the previous releases are the hairs, dirt, and scratches. In fact, I also saw only two minor aberrations (slight damage in the top left corner at 19 mins, and a bit of hair on the bottom of the frame around 1 hr, 59 mins) when the whole DVD used to be awashed with them. And even when comparing HD material (the trailers) to what has gone through the restoration process (the film), the differences are stunning. In the trailers, the blacks are overly crushed and the contrast levels are too high. In the restored film, 'Kwai' has some minor crushing, but overall, the deep, inky blacks don't hinder the audience's ability to see details all over frame. The film's text graphics even get a bright new overhaul. In terms of edge enhancement and other dastardly tricks, I saw none. The film grain is always filmic and present, though some shots look better than others.
Most striking about the release is the general boldness of color. Crisp, electric greens make the jungles life-like; reds truly pop on Japanese flags and the blood; and the blue sky and sunsets are gorgeous. The skin tones themselves are a great counterbalanced. Most everyone on the film is deeply tanned, which matches the earth colors in sand, dirt, and tree trunks. Details are razor sharp (when available), from wood and clothing textures, to arm hair and sweat beading off of faces. Most of the film looks and feels brand new.
But, as one would expect with a film of this age, there are flaws. 'Kwai' has always suffered from badly processed optical dissolves, and troubles with certain lens and camera malfunctions (again, this is according to Sony themselves). Therefore, the only real problems with 'Kwai' as a Blu-ray release aren't really transfer or restoration related. It comes down to source material. Blu-ray and its HD codecs are inherently sharp, but this sharpness also reveals source limitation. Shots are sometimes partially out of focus, and while the optical dissolve and opening titles sequence look the best they ever have, there is a noticeable resolution drop during these moments. It's certainly forgivable, and quite likely won't get better than we have it right now, but for this reason, 'Kwai' will never be perfect. It simply can't be.
That being said, where should 'Kwai' realistically end up in the spectrum of an HD review (we must assign a numerical value, of course)? 'Kwai' looks better than ever -- sharp and bold -- but in terms of what Blu-ray can do, it can't compete with modern film stocks and lens. In a way, it can't even compete with itself thanks to mistakes made during production. So we'll call this one a very high 4. I'd easily give it a 4.25 if we had such a ranking here at HDD, but the inconsistency means it's not quite what a 4.5 or a 5 star video need to be. Though, please know, this movie looks very, very good.
Sony offers 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtracks in English, French, and Portuguese. (Spanish speakers, you get 5.1 Dolby Digital). This lossless soundtrack is a minor upgrade over its lossy predecessors, and is a bit on the quiet side, needing an overall boost in volume while watching (which isn't necessarily a flaw).
As one would expect of an original stereo mix (as CinemaScope allowed), the 'Kwai' soundtrack is front heavy. The stereo panning is nicely done, and the music is where the real upgrades in quality are heard; the whistling and the trumpets sound more open and less clipped. Rear channels are used only in the non-directional sound effects, like crickets or water, and the music. These surround moments add a nice immersion effect and are subtlety done. LFE is okay, but not very bombastic in a couple places where it may, or should, have been. Dialog is even, clear, and always intelligible, but show off the limits of a period sound track. Different actors within scenes have different tenors (check out Saito's speeches when address the camp), or the voices themselves can sound slightly compressed and less than natural. Again, given the age, this isn't really a surprise. In fact, it's a really nice track that feels like an expanded stereo experience. Can it compete with modern multi-channel sound? Not at all. But it really isn't trying to (and nor should it).
For those who like to read their movies, Sony offers up English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese Traditional, Korean, and Thai subtitles.
As a small side-bar, I accidentally started the film in Dolby Pro-Logic IIx as I have a 7.1 setup. What I found noteworthy was that, despite Dolby's post-processing, I was still getting a 5.1 mix using the surround back speakers only, rather than the surround sides. Has anyone experienced this with 'Kwai' or any other titles?
If you own the two-disc DVD edition (2000) of 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', then you will recognize most of the special features included on this new Blu-ray Collector's Edition. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The set remains a pretty in-depth package of documentaries and archival footage. The only thing to note is that you are now missing the Isolated Film Score as well as the DVD-Rom materials from Disc 1 of the 2000 DVD release. In terms of new features, most of them are HD (see below), but there is one new standard definition special feature:
And, here's what's been ported over from the 2000 DVD:
'The Bridge on the River Kwai' is an epic masterpiece with fantastic characters; it is one of the best films I've ever seen on the big screen. Though unable to rival the clarity of modern film stocks, this high definition video presentation is colorful, clear, and highly detailed. Sony's restoration is so good, the Blu-ray looks better than any of 35mm prints I've seen and, in every visual way possible, destroys the 2000 DVD. For 'Kwai' fans, this is a must own. For collectors, you might not want to sell your DVD; gone are the isolated film score and DVD-Rom components, but the new materials (some HD, some SD) are a treat. For those new to the film, I will admit it's a long one (nearly three hours), but this is a "must-see at least once" film, so give it a rent. Also, anyone interested in writing creatively or filmmaking needs to see 'Kwai' over and over. Highly Recommended.