David Lean's Magnificent Kwai

A new video of the famous 1957 film reveals the epic ambition, visual intelligence, and human depth of the director of Great Expectations, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Passage to India

by Michael Sragow

WHEN lecturing about the joys of Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov proclaimed, “Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”Dickens’s best movie interpreter. David Lean, realized early on that films should be spine-tingling. When he started out, as Noel Coward’s collaborator on In Which We Serve (1942), and won international recognition for transforming Coward’s Still Life into Brief Encounter (1945), he used highly charged staging and editing and a lucid, fluid realism to depict the contrast between ongoing life and life at its extremes. Lean came into his own with tumultuous versions of Dickens’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), bringing to perfection a visceral, affecting style of visual storytelling—fabulous both in the sense of “fablelike” and in the sense of “ter rifle.” With the spectacular adventures of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) he emerged as the resounding craftsman of the oversize screen. Just as CinemaScope and Panavision developed anamorphic lenses that “squeezed images onto 35mm film and magnified them when they were projected onto the wide screen, Lean fashioned anamorphic epics that ran as long as three and three-quarter hours but expanded even further when they imprinted themselves on the viewer’s brain.

Seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai again in today’s movie context (it has just been reissued by Columbia TriStar Home Video) is both thrilling and sobering. It’s thrilling because Lean wove a suspenseful tale while taking a complex attitude toward a significant subject—the military mentality. It’s sobering because it depicts a Japanese warrior, a British officer, an American cynic, and a humanistic English medical man questioning one another’s connection to reality, but the movie is itself far more “real” than any equivalent nineties blockbuster except Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. In praise of the summer superhit The Fugitive, Roger Ebert declared that its director. Andrew Davis, “deserves comparison with Hitchcock and also with David Lean and Carol Reed.”Actually, one would be hard pressed to lind any of Hitchcock’s wit, originality, and eros, Reed’s empathy and lyricism, or Lean’s dynamic film instinct and literary intelligence in The Fugitive. It’s the kind of souped-up, formulaic action film, about a guy stalking a guy, that wrings cheers from a train wreck. (When a train is wrecked in Kwai. the reaction is stunned silence.) But it’s startling that anyone should feel the need to invoke the movies of Hitchcock, Reed, and Lean as standards of excellence. After all, Britain’s three Old Masters (along with a fourth: Michael Powell) elevated their art by devising expressive techniques, by tackling daunting subject matter, by expanding the scope and sensual power of the movies. These days the advances that matter in mainstream moviemaking are in special effects.

The video release of The Bridge on the River Kwai is sorely disappointing. Even the “letterbox" edition (with black bars at the top and bottom of the tape, to imitate the shape of a movie screen) only approximates the wide-screen composition of the movie’s CinemaScope images. About 10 percent of the visual information available on the negative has been lopped off; you don’t need technical expertise to notice how the cropping slices off the sides of the frame and skews the pictorial balance. (For a dazzling example of ultra-widescreen CinemaScope reduced to regular wide-screen CinemaScope and correctly transferred to video, see Disney’s laser disc of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.) Those expecting visual rejuvenation like that of Lean’s reconstructed Lawrence of Arabia (released in 1989) will be let down by the streaks and yellowy patches of this reissue. (The sound is rejuvenated—perhaps too much; a couple of spots are aurally hyperactive.) After previewing the reconditioned film at the video company’s headquarters in Burbank, I asked why it wasn’t up to Lawrence standards—and became part of a year-old debate sparked by the “new” Kwai’s premiere at UCLA. Spokespeople for Columbia and its restoration team insist that they did the best they could with the available material: critics contend that an outside expert like Robert A. Harris, who worked closely with Lean on reviving Lawrence, would have done a more creative and meticulous job. In any case, Columbia and its parent, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and other studios jumping on the “restored classic” bandwagon, should take the controversy as a signal to improve preservation and restoration standards and techniques.

Still, the letterbox Kwai allows viewers to appreciate the lilm’s panoramic qualities and its nuances far more fully than they could in the standard “pan and scan" version, which reduces the original to TV’s squarish proportions. Watching the movie again in its new video form, one realizes how Lean’s Second World War tale of a British ramrod who holds his men together in a Japanese prison camp looks back to Jean Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion (one of Lean’s ten favorite films) and looks ahead to John Sturges’s wonderful 1963 POW adventure. The Great Escape. The movie gains not just in breadth but also in subtlety, airiness, and humor. Take a brief, telling vignette:

The Japanese commandant stares at the I camp parade grounds from a window dur, ing a rainstorm, while a native on his doorstep pulls a punkah in the manner of the courtroom fan-handler in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (which Lean turned into his last brilliant adaptation, in 1984): “Pulling the rope towards him, relaxing it rhythmically, sending swirls of air over others, receiving none himself, he seemed apart from human destinies, a male fate, a winnower of souls.” That much remains even in standard TV prints. But in the letterbox edition a Japanese soldier crouches at the lower left of the screen, shrinking away from the downpour; when the officer barks at him, he takes his usual post and leaps to attention, under a rainspout that sends water gushing onto his head. It’s a quick satiric joke about Japanese discipline and an illustration of the officer’s imperious character— and it’s missing from the 1985 pan-andscan copy, which fails to indicate why the commandant is barking. (The 1993 panand-scan copy cuts to the soldier after the commandant yells at him. smudging Lean’s directorial wit.) Watching the letterbox him will remind older audiences and instruct younger ones that the wide screen can be used not just for jolts but for swift, forceful punctuation.

IN 1957 Kwai was a theatrical smash— it grossed ten times its $3 million cost—and in 1966 its television debut reached some 60 million viewers. Yet the \ movie breaks every rule of * today’s Hollywood.

The story can’t he summarized in one sentence.

Those who try get it wrong.

It’s often said to be about the snapping of a stiff-upper-lip Brit, Colonel Nicholf son (Alec Guinness), in a Japanese POW camp on the Bangkok-Rangoon railway during the Second World War.

Nicholson succeeds in facing down the brutal commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa)—surviving days in a sunbaked box nicknamed “the oven”—only to become obsessive about having his men construct a bridge for the Japanese army.

The movie is scary and unsettling because of Nicholson’s consistency, not his supposed craziness. His heroism always borders on officiousness. When he refuses to let Saito use British officers for manual labor, some of those who applaud his stand on principle nevertheless question whether he should risk his officers’ lives to protect their status. When he’s put back in charge of the prisoners, he views the erection of the bridge as a means of restoring discipline, a morale-boosting task, and a monument to Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship. And Lean lays out evidence that Nicholson may be right. The men do act like soldiers instead of rabble when Nicholson and his staff take over. Even the token voice of reason. Major Clipton (James Donald)—the medical officer who grasps that Nicholson contradicts himself when he later compels officers to do manual labor and leads the sick and injured out of the infirmary for “light duties”—at one point applauds the culmination of the colonel’s efforts.

The movie’s screenplay has a mottled history. The blacklisted writer-producer Carl Foreman optioned Pierre Boulle’s original novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai and wrote a script that he sold to the producer Sam Spiegel. Next Calder Willingham took a whack at it. Finally another blacklisted writer, Michael Wilson, put it into shape with Lean’s collaboration. At the time, Boulle, of ali people, got script credit and an Oscar; the Motion Picture Academy honored Foreman and Wilson posthumously in 1985, and they receive credit on the new print. (Lean thought the award should have gone to Wilson and himself.) The script that emerged from this awkward gestation is sinewy and clear. When Nicholson adheres to legal principles and speaks of establishing a civilization in the middle of a jungle, he’s like Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons defending the legal system as protection from the devil. (Robert Bolt, the author of Seasons, became Lean’s screenwriter on Lawrence, Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter.) From the start the colonel has an answer for every doubting Thomas.

He tries to prevent his men from attempting to escape— after all, the British high command ordered them to surrender, so escape might be considered treason. But this movie is tougher on its protagonist than A Manfor All Seasons, Nicholson’s decisions have perilous repercussions for the Allies. The catastrophic climax reveals the inadequacy of his blinkered officer’s mentality.

Most anti-war movies ask whether the end justifies the means. This anti-war movie asks whether the means justify the end. Command itself, divorced from civilian ethics and politics, exhilarates Nicholson. And lie’s so delighted to observe tangible results of his leadership—the cohesion of his men, the creation of the bridge—that he loses sight of the goal: defeating the Japanese.

• There are no schematically defined heroes and villains. Lean won’t swerve from his objective attitude toward Nicholson; Saito: Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), the head of the British commando team in charge of blowing up the bridge, a man who subjugates everything and everyone (himself included) to his mission; and an instinctive, opportunistic American named Shears (William Holden), who breaks out of the camp and is later coerced into volunteering for Warden’s commandos.

Lean stages, shoots, and cuts the action to provide credible accounts of four perspectives, while insinuating a fifth one: an immutable nature that dwarfs human actions, represented by the sun that beats down on the compound, the rain that soaks it, the bats whose shadows speckle a terrifying killing scene, the eagle that soars above the jungle in the opening and closing shots. Lean is both sympathetic toward and critical of each of the leading men—which means that today he’d be accused of Japanese-bashing, Brit-bashing, and Yankbashing. Saito’s samurai code is more understandable, or at least more penetrable, than Nicholson s rule book. Underneath Saito’s ruthlessness lie childlike fear, pathos, and insecurity. Lean cuts from the men celebrating Nicholson’s release from the oven to Saito grinding his fists into his face and crying. Donald Richie once wrote that “native innocence" is what “accounts for the almost absurd atrocity of the Japanese at war, the Japanese at business.”Saito eloquently embodies that paradoxical quality.

In the book Shears is the head of the commando team, and he’s British. Critics have taken the Americanization of Shears in the movie as proof that Lean sometimes softened or vulgarized his material. It’s true that the change enabled the filmmakers to cast a major Hollywood star, and Holden was then (as Lean said) “the top star in pictures.”But it turned into an artistic improvement, because Lean and his collaborators thoroughly and imaginatively worked it out to buttress and enrich the narrative. As in Boulle’s novel, the department of sabotage. Force 316, is a direct parallel to Nicholson’s operation: another hyper-rational British group that emphasizes preparation over spontaneous inspiration and in the process misses the big picture. In the movie Shears, who wants nothing more than to bail out of the war, provides a constant, ironic counterpoint both to Nicholson and to the commandos. Sturges’s The Great Escape can be seen as a positive restatement of the acial and moral dynamics of The Bridge the River Kwai, down to the inclusion an American loner, played by Steve McQueen, who does his own thing but is filling to help the group. In Sturges’s movie the British officers are just as ainstaking as Nicholson—but they use their organizational expertise to escape.

Lean’s reworking of Shears strengthens the plot’s suspense and continuity: the director cuts between the American’s escape through the rain forest and Nicholson’s struggle with Saito, and then between the commandos’ race to the bridge and Nicholson’s crusade to meet Saito’s construction schedule. Of course. Shears is an extension of the POW that Holden played in Billy Wilder’s Stalcig 17—the wise-guy pariah who hides his fellow feeling. We’re drawn to Shears’s savvy and intuition, but he isn’t as heroicized as Holden’s character in Wilder’s movie. His own survival tactics put him on the spot: because Shears, an enlisted man. stole his dead commander’s uniform (assuming that as an officer he’d win better treatment in a Japanese prison camp), the British are able to persuade the U.S. Navy to lend him to Force 316.

The people don’t change for the better, and there is no happy ending. Lean’s characters are complicated from the beginning. Right up to the bitter linale his scenes are designed to draw them out through conflict, not to improve their morality. John Simon repeated a common criticism when he wrote, “Typically, Lean changed the movie’s ending to something more upbeat than Pierre Boulle, hardly a profound novelist, had provided.”Although Lean did alter the climax, it’s scarcely more “upbeat.” If Nicholson sees the error of his ways, he can’t save himself or two of the commandos. And Lean adds a chilling touch that’s not in the book: Warden’s Siamese helpers (beautiful women here, not male partisans, as in Boulle) draw back in fear and disgust at the role Warden plays in his comrades’ death. The marked difference between book and movie is that Lean destroys the bridge—a sight that’s dramatically satisfying, but still horrifying when virtually all the leading characters lie dead.

SIMON spoke for others, too, when he said, “David Lean is altogether a strange case: a man afflicted with gigantism. who wants to make bigger and bigger movies, even though his smalland medium-sized ones are often very good, and his big ones tend to be disappointing.” The director had the misfortune to take the stance of an omniscient creator at a time when the most passionate and gifted critics advocated more directly “personal” moviemaking. In 1965 Andrew Sams wrote,

Dr. Zhivago is actually the third time around for the Kwai formula, or the best cinema that time and money can buy. Imperceptibly, David Lean has evolved into the middle-brow’s answer to the late Cecil B. DeMille. . . . Kwai was strictly a man’s picture, vague, allegorical, and ironic all at the same time. All the characters meant something, but the ending was unresolved because it was never established how Guinness managed to fall onto the dynamite, that is. intentionally or inadvertently. It didn’t really matter, because all the characters were seen from the outside, and the main thing was displaying all the money that was being spent on the bridge.

But it’s obvious that Nicholson does realize his mistake—he even asks himself. “What have I done?" before he moves toward the plunger that will detonate the explosives on the bridge. The tendency to portray blemishes in Lean’s lilms as crucial flaws or to dismiss him as a moviemaker on the basis of one or two artistic failures increased from the mid-sixties on. In 1970 Pauline Kael declared,

David Lean makes pictures—like Doctor Zhivago and the new Ryan’s Daughter—that consume years and involve enormous physical effort as well as enormous expense. As a director, he is a supertechnician. . . . Humorlessly meticulous, his epics have no driving emotional energy, no passionate vision to conceal the heavy labor. . . .

No driving emotional energy? No passionate vision? Even filmmakers known primarily for those qualities, such as Sam Peckinpah and Luchino Visconti, loved Lean’s movies. Indeed, after seeing Doctor Zhivago, Visconti, according to his most recent biographer, murmured to a playwright friend, “Let’s go upstairs and see it all over again, hiding, otherwise they |the intellectuals) will lynch me.”Hollis Alpert was accurate when he wrote, in his review of Rvan’s Daughter, that Lean was

one of the world’s most highly regarded directors, and one of its least. Millions have fond memories of such films as Blithe Spirit. Brief Encounter. Great Expectations. Hobson’s Choice. Summertime, The Bridge on the River Kwai . . . , and Lawrence of Arabia. Academy Awards have been showered on his lilms and yet. in all the current flood of film books there is almost no mention of Lean. When he is commented upon, it is invariably adversely.

Lean’s “gigantism” deserves praise without apology. During his days as a film editor he earned a reputation for cutting such renowned sound films as Pygmalion and 49th Parallel as if they were silents, providing musical rhythms and dramatic contrasts that were rare in British movies. When he began to direct spectacles, he made the same kind of leap: he composed in CinemaScope, Panavision, and Super Panavision as freely as he would have in regular 35mm, using every area of the huge frame expressively. The results in Kwai are often. well, spine-tingling. For instance, as Lean introduces the audience to Shears, who’s burying an English soldier in the cemetery, Nicholson’s troops progress toward the camp in a long, ragged ribbon across the top of the screen. They’re like a squadron of wraiths —more fodder for Shears’s shovel—and this impression increases the audience’s and Holden’s incredulity when they come marching onto the grounds in strict formation, whistling “The Colonel Bogey March.”

Throughout, Lean staged and shot the action for depth as well as width, often focusing divergent points of view within each frame, as when Nicholson and Saito glare at each other while Shears looks on from the sick bay. The movie never becomes static—partly because Lean was a master of both smooth and shocking camera moves, and partly because he knew when to cut in close to his marvelous actors.

No other epic stylist got better performances than Lean did in Kwai. Guinness is impressively adept at capturing Nicholson’s combination of self-consciousness and self-delusion: though he’s authoritarian, his eyes register his awareness of Saito’s presence and his heartbreak over the self-sacrificing heroism of his men. Since everything Nicholson does even on normal days is a product of the will, his attempt to maintain a proper gait when he’s summoned from his torture chamber is a devastating sight—one of the most robust and magical bits of acting Guinness has ever done. Holden is Guinness’s equal, bringing an apposite. intense physicality to his scenes; if he didn’t receive commensurate acclaim, it’s probably because Shears was a variation on other Holden characters. And Hayakawa is a fascinating camera subject, conveying the seams in an evasive yet emphatic personality.

Although Lean regained much of his critical stature with the release of A Passage to India in 1984 and the re-release of Lawrence five years later, it is filmmakers of all types and generations who have preserved his reputation—the fellow storyteller of the old school Fred Zinnemann (Front Here to Eternity), the grand eccentric John Boorman (Hope and Glory), and the provocateur Brian De Palma, whose profound, maligned Vietnam movie. Casualties of War, paid tribute to Kwai. There was a fringe of condescension to the critical reception of A Passage to India, as there usually is when filmmakers aim both high and wide—when they try to bring the pleasures of literary art and entertainment to the largest possible audience.

In the wake of his deserved accolades for Schindler’s List, Spielberg said. “If my mojo’s working I can put one tenth of a David Lean image on the screen.”In the nineties the posl-Schindler Spielberg could become Lean’s heir: “the middlebrow’s answer to the late Cecil B. DeMille.” Otherwise, those who enjoy the engulfing sweep that Lean once delivered must settle for a no-brow extravaganza like The Fugitive.