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Viewer Guide: The Bridge on The River Kwai and The Homesman

November 13, 2020 | Richard Peña


The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957)

Welcome to Reel 13. I’m Richard Peña, Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University. Tonight’s classic is the 1957 wartime adventure drama The Bridge on The River Kwai starring Alec Guinness and William Holden, directed by David Lean.

Like quite a few other directors, David Lean received his early training as a film editor, when he was plucked out of the cutting room by no less than playwright/actor/song writer Noel Coward to be his co-director on the wartime drama In Which We Serve. This happy collaboration would result over the next few years in a number of classic films directed by Lean from Coward plays, especially the wonderful Brief Encounter. Alongside Michael Powell, Lean was already considered the UK’s finest director when he ascended to truly international acclaim with The Bridge on The River Kwai, the first in a series of mid-career films that would eventually make his name synonymous with big budget, sweeping epics, a list that includes Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Based on the best-selling novel by Pierre Boulle, this thrilling masterwork offers a fictionalized account of the construction of the notorious Burma Railway—the “Death Railway” built by tens of thousands of Japanese Prisoners of War and other forced laborers during World War II. Alec Guinness stars as the British Colonel Nicholson, a career army man trying to maintain leadership of his troops upon their arrival at a Japanese POW Camp. Ordered officially by command headquarters to surrender, Nicolson is placed in the impossible position of maintaining that from his point of view any talk of escape an “infraction of military law.” Consequently, Colonel Nicholson must collaborate with the Japanese camp commandant on the construction of a new railroad bridge over the River Kwai—just so long as everything is done by the rules of the Geneva Conventions, a document he just happens to carry around with him whenever there’s a need to check. But this constant appeal to the “civilized” rules of military engagement doesn’t exactly go over well with the Japanese Colonel Saito, played by legendary silent film star Sessue Hayakawa, and soon a brutal war of wills begins.

Observing it all is US Navy Commander Shears, played with trademark cynicism by William Holden. Shears has miraculously survived his long stay at the camp by functioning as a grave digger, bribing his way into sick leave whenever he can with whatever valuable personal effects he can pocket off the corpses. The polar opposite of Nicholson’s obsessive military code of honor, Shears is biding his time to make a break for it—but eventually realizes that escaping is going to force him to work with the other inmates.

It’s truly hard to believe watching The Bridge on The River Kwai today that Alec Guinness was not David Lean’s first choice for the role of Colonel Nicholson. Lean had originally wanted Charles Laughton for the part, but Laughton balked when faced with the realities of the rugged location shooting in Ceylon, now modern-day Sri Lanka. Likewise, William Holden was cast as Shears after discussions about Cary Grant for the role fell through. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, the two screenwriters who worked on adapting Pierre Boulle’s novel, had both been blacklisted, so at the time of the film’s release only Boulle—who did not speak English—received credit. When the script won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, Boulle accepted the award with perhaps the shortest speech in Oscar history: “Merci.” It wasn’t until 1984 that the Academy officially recognized Foreman and Wilson, alas posthumously for both. Winning a total of seven Academy Awards, other Oscar winners were producer Sam Spiegel for Best Picture, David Lean for Best Director, Alec Guinness for Best Actor and Malcolm Arnold for Best Score, a track that famously incorporated the whistled interpretation of the “Colonel Bogey March,” a surprise Top-20 hit for Mitch Miller in 1958.


The Homesman (2014)

Tonight’s indie is The Homesman, a 2014 western drama adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout and directed by Tommy Lee Jones.

Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a 31 year-old New York transplant somehow managing as a single woman on her own farm in the stark Nebraska Territory of 1854. Keenly aware of her advancing age, Mary Bee can hear the loud ticking of her biological clock, and has dropped all pretense of coy femininity when presented with the rare opportunity to attract a prospective husband. However, Mary Bee also doesn’t have to look far to see that marriage is no picnic, especially when three women in the tiny community become psychologically unglued as the harsh winter season recedes. To address this strange epidemic, Reverend Dowd, played by John Lithgow, convenes an emergency meeting, asking for a “Homesman” to transport the three damaged wives back east to a church in Hebron, Iowa, that cares for the mentally ill. Yet when none of the men step forward, Mary Bee takes on the risky assignment, acquiring a makeshift paddy wagon for the purpose. Prepared to make the journey alone, the practically-minded Mary happens upon unexpected assistance in the form of George Briggs, a curmudgeonly claim jumper played by Tommy Lee Jones. At the end of his rope—literally—George has no choice but to reluctantly join the expedition, with the duo embarking on a reverse eastward trajectory toward an uncertain salvation.

Also featured are Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer as Mary and George’s troubled human cargo, with cameo appearances by James Spader as an oily hotel manager, Tim Blake Nelson as an ornery drifter, Hailee Steinfeld as a wary tavern maid, and Meryl Streep as a compassionate minister’s wife.

The Homesman shines a rare cinematic spotlight on the stories of women’s lives in the very male-dominated world of the movie western. Director and star Tommy Lee Jones drew on the period images of prairie photographer Solomon Butcher, whose record of frontier life provided invaluable research for many aspects of the production. Premiering at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the film marked the second movie collaboration of Meryl Streep and her daughter Grace Gummer, who in 1993 had portrayed her mother’s character as a young girl in The House of the Spirits.

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