There are few films more beautiful than Bridge on the River Kwai, and most of those are held in just as high regard. The location shooting makes all the difference in the world, the Sri Lanka backdrop a marvelous place for any cinematographer to show off their skills with a lens. The lavish, mountainous views are as opposing as the bridge itself once completed, a wonderment of effort, dedication, and Hollywood scale.
Without the characters on the ground though, the net worth of those striking sights is nill. Colonel Nicholson is beloved as an icon of cinema, the noteworthy performance of Alec Guinness ahead of its time, escaping the flat, stiff performances given by many actors of the period. He blends heart, love for his country, and a slight sense of unpredictability that elevate his screen presence above the supporting cast.
It’s a conflicting character, one who in his desperation to stand for something and make his homeland proud, unwittingly commits treason. He is an odd man out, leading his initially willing men to work for the enemy instead of against. His level-headed nature makes it seem as if he has a clear frame of mind, even as he stands in front of his own men, almost gleefully expressing his interest in seeing the finished product only to move onto the next.
His opposition is Colonel Saito, a man of tradition and honor whose beliefs are everything. Inside, there is a good man, conflicted by his own own views and what he must accomplish at any cost. It gets in the way of seeing the full scale of the project, and even an understanding of proper construction. He is ruthless, but with a purpose, fearing for his own life.
Kwai is the furthest thing from a surface level film, the depth of those characters only the beginning. The oft-discussed ending, Guinness famously standing up after taking a blow to his head, casually wiping off his hat, only to stumble forward and hit the detonator takes on life of its own. Was it purposeful? Was he looking for means of forgiveness for his short-sightedness? Was it just a fluke, a grandly choreographed piece of Hollywood fiction so ridiculous it actually fits?
It’s the type of question that still stirs discussion, leading into full-blown analysis of prior events, dissecting individual actions to come to a firm conclusion. That doesn’t happen to a lesser film, something noteworthy, existing for more than to be tossed onto a shelf and be forgotten. Kwai is not that film, nor could it ever be with the level of skill on display from all involved.
All of the beauty this film holds may initially seem a bit weary in HD, the opening footage not done on 35mm stock, but what appears to be a much cheaper, heavier-grained 16mm format. The same goes for the opening credits, with their harshly blown out contrast and rather disconcerting color palette. It’s in great shape, just poorly matching what it about to appear.
Once into the majesty of this 35mm, Technicolor masterpiece, Sony’s AVC encode finally can breathe. Handing out lavish praise will begin to seem redundant when discussing this disc, but it’s only fair considering what a marvelous piece of home video this is. Statements like, “this is the best the film has ever looked” are meaningless because they are unable to properly portray how much better this is. At the heart of it all is a competently resolved grain structure, the occasional scene revealing the nature of putting a 161-minute film onto a compressed format. These shots are few, imperceptible to most who will be awed by the power of the visuals elsewhere.
Technicolor carried that hi-def pop everyone seems to seek out long before the idea of HD even entered anyone’s mind. The intensity of these hues, from the sun-scorched flesh tones to the rich, dense greens of the jungles are staggering in their power. Scenes in the Botanical Gardens where Shears (William Holden) learns of his new assignment are overloaded with brilliantly vibrant flowers in a variety of colors. Even inside the prison camp, the vivid blue sky and earthy sand carry their own eye-popping qualities.
At night, the black levels reveal their depth, holding firm in comparison to the daylight sequences. There are no scenes where they falter, dip, or lose their overall capacity to generate an image with dimensionality. There are no instances of abnormal crush, the deepest portions of the image blending perfectly with the bright, natural contrast.
Most apparent though is the detail. Jungles are overloaded with immense layers of vegetation, the definition startling as the camera pans back, or keeps an eye in close on the actors chopping through foliage. Subtle things, from the straw roofs of the camp to the sand under it all are meticulous regardless of the distance involved. Facial detail is wonderful, the constant stream of sweat visible in the mid-range without fault, the camera rarely pushing in for close-ups. Uniform patterns are fantastic, the hat of Alec Guinness fully textured, and again, distance is irrelevant to this transfer.
The source material is pristine. This is certainly a new master, any damage or dirt left on the frame completely oblivious to the viewer when watching due to its limited nature. Fades are accompanied by a harsh dip in technical acuity, the nature of film process of the day and hardly detrimental to the experience, more so when you’re used to the issue from prior viewing of other classics. This is a disc that can join a number of releases in the classical category to show off the format’s ability to breathe new life into these icons.
Sony’s DTS-HD 5.1 mix is mostly unnecessary but capable, probably sourced from the 6-track 70mm print. Benefiting from the lack of compression is that Malcolm Arnold score, carrying not only pristine fidelity but a presence about it that it was never afforded before. It sticks in the front channels where it should, surround use limited to only negligible sound effects, such as the bats around 1:52:44 or an addition to the famously whistled Colonel Bogey March.
Gunfire during the finale sits firmly in the stereo and center channels, where a natural split is evident. From the opening credits, the train passes through right to left naturally. They are also used for various ambient effects, the sounds of insects chirping and such, with great effectiveness.
Dialogue is another stunner, clear and as precise as one could ever hope it to be. The difference between the clarity here and some modern efforts will be imperceptible to the casual viewer the majority of the time. There is some evidence of ADR, or some other recording method. Saito’s dialogue suddenly shifts to a flat, faded quality around 36:40 in direct contrast to the natural aural stability seconds before. As Saito gives his speech at 48:29, there is another shift, seemingly speaking through an unseen megaphone, the closest comparison that can be given.
There is no evidence of technical errors, hiss and popping eliminated from this track with no discernible drop in audible fidelity.
Crossing the Bridge is the first bonus feature listed, a pop-up displaying various trivia about the film and POW camps in general. It’s well designed, with the ability to skip right to the next talking point, which is great for a movie of this length. A 55-minute making-of is probably a better choice for film buffs, although the roughly Laserdisc-level quality does put a small damper on it. Better to have it then not however.
Clips from The Steve Allen Show in 1957 has Alec Guinness and William Holden promoting the film from the set. Some stills from the film’s premiere are narrated by Holden. Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant is a vintage making-of focused on the bridge. A fairly unique short film from USC is loaded with set footage while Holden discusses film criticism and what to look for. An Appreciation by Filmmaker John Milius runs eight-minutes as he discusses his favorite aspects. A photo gallery, trailers, and BD-Live access remain. Missing from the DVD are some DVD-ROM features that are barely a loss.