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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 12/6/01

The Bridge on the River Kwai
Limited Edition - 1957 (2000) - Columbia TriStar

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Bridge on the River Kwai: Limited Edition

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/A

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
162 min, PG, letterboxed widescreen (2.55:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:21:16, in chapter 18), custom dual-disc keep case packaging, 10-page reproduction of original 1957 souvenir booklet, isolated music score (DD 2.0), DVD-ROM features (including Trivia Sabotage game, Military Strategy maps & historical background, screensavers and weblinks), animated film-themed menu screens with music & sound, scene access (40 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & DD 2.0), French, Spanish and Portuguese (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean & Thai, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Special Features
The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai documentary (13 chapters, approx. 53 mins), The Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant featurette (approx. 6 mins), USC Short Film introduced by William Holden (approx 15 mins), An Appreciation by John Milius, photo montage, talent files for director David Lean and stars William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins & Sessue Hayakawa, theatrical trailers (for The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone, Fail-Safe and Lawrence of Arabia), animated film-themed menu screens with music & sound

Modern action movies are usually noisy, superficial affairs, with flashy pyrotechnics, rapid-fire editing and easy-to-understand characters. Of course, most modern action movies don't win Academy Awards, either. Maybe the people behind these flicks could learn a thing or two from David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, one of the best action movies of all time and winner of seven Oscars including Best Picture. The secret to Lean's success is a mixture of stunning cinematography (by Jack Hildyard), a perfect balance of expertly staged action and suspense, and most importantly, a collection of extraordinarily vivid characters. Kwai is one of those rare movies in which every single character is as interesting and well thought-out as the next. You could make a pretty good movie about any one of these guys. Bring them together and you've got something akin to greatness.

The plot of Kwai is surprisingly simple. A group of British soldiers under the command of Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness in a brilliant, Oscar-winning performance) is brought to a Japanese prison camp run by Colonel Saito (silent film star Sessue Hayakawa). Saito commands the POWs to build a bridge linking a railway that will run through Burma. Thus begins one of the movies' greatest battles of will, as Nicholson insists on building "a proper bridge" and doing it strictly by the wartime rules of conduct. Meanwhile, an American Navy man (William Holden), who miraculously escaped from Saito's camp, is recruited by British Special Forces' Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) to return to Kwai and destroy the bridge.

Without the burden of having to explain and justify numerous plot twists, Lean and his cast are freed to explore these characters and situations to a degree unseen in most action pictures. Certainly, one of the primary reasons to watch Kwai is Alec Guinness. His performance no doubt came as quite a shock to audiences in 1957, who were used to seeing him in comedies like The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob. As Nicholson, Guinness displays a strength and sense of purpose bordering on mania. It is one of the defining performances of Guinness' long and distinguished career. Equally good are William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa and the eternally underrated Jack Hawkins (who, like Guinness, would go on to appear in Lean's Lawrence of Arabia). Lean stages the film with an ever-mounting sense of tension that makes Kwai feel considerably shorter than its two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time. By the time we reach the climactic action sequence, the activity conveys an urgency that has been earned and sustained by what's led up to it. This is not mere gunplay and subterfuge for its own sake. Lean has made us understand exactly what is at stake for all involved.

The first few minutes of this disc frankly made me very nervous. The opening credits display a great deal of grain, dirt and scratches that would have made this transfer wholly unacceptable if it had continued. Fortunately, the picture improves almost immediately. Jack Hildyard's Cinemascope photography is presented in an excellent anamorphic transfer, with only the most minor and intermittent flaws. I detected a little bit of image instability in one or two shots, but otherwise nothing major enough to distract. This is easily the best presentation of this film I've ever seen. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack remix is slightly underwhelming, and occasionally is one of the few elements of the package that reveal the film's age. But in the end, it does the job. You won't really be missing too much if you stick to the 2.0 track.

Columbia TriStar has released two separate versions of Kwai, a single movie-only disc and a limited edition two-disc set with a wealth of extras. The highlight of the 2-disc set is a 53-minute Making of documentary, that does an excellent job of tracing Kwai's journey from Pierre Boulle's novel to becoming an Oscar-winning classic. This documentary is hampered only by the fact that virtually all of Kwai's major players are no longer with us. Still, DVD producer Laurent Bouzereau does well with the surviving members of the team, though the documentary does not deal with the restoration of Kwai (as promised on the back cover). Other bonuses include a vintage "making of" featurette, called Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant, and a short film produced by the University of Southern California (introduced by Holden) that looks like the kind of thing shown to Introduction to Film classes during their first week of school. We also get an animated photo gallery of posters (both domestic and international) and lobby cards accompanied by Malcolm Arnold's score, the expected talent files and trailers, and a short "appreciation" by filmmaker John Milius. Anyone who's seen the Apocalypse Now documentary Hearts of Darkness knows that Milius is a terrific interview subject, and he conveys a genuine love and enthusiasm for Kwai in this segment. As with the similar interview with Steven Spielberg on the Lawrence of Arabia package however, I don't understand why the Milius interview couldn't have been incorporated into the main documentary. Whenever these things are featured as stand-alone segments, they end up repeating many of the same clips from the film that were used in the documentary.

Disc One also features an isolated music score track, which is always a nice feature to have, but in this case results in a lot of dead air. Malcolm Arnold's score did win an Oscar, but it's a lot more conventional than Maurice Jarre's score for Lawrence. The most memorable piece of music from Kwai wasn't even written for the movie - it's the World War I tune Colonel Bogey's March. I encourage isolated music scores on DVDs in general, but I don't think I'm going to be playing this one all that often. Rounding out the package are a couple of nifty DVD-ROM features (including a trivia game and a collection of maps and historical background) and a reproduction of the 1957 souvenir book (which amusingly gives producer Sam Spiegel the lion's share of the credit for bringing Kwai together).

The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the best films of the 1950s, a decade that I happen to think produced some of the greatest films ever made. With this and Lawrence of Arabia, Columbia TriStar has produced DVD editions worthy of David Lean's greatest achievements (it's also worth noting that Criterion has released some of Lean's earlier works, including the Charles Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist). Columbia TriStar deserves praise and thanks for lavishing such care on these classic titles. Add to these discs Warner's new release of Doctor Zhivago, and Lean fans have a great deal to be happy about.

Adam Jahnke
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