The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957.
Directed by David Lean.
Starring William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, and James Donald.
David Lean’s classic The Bridge on the River Kwai has been reissued on 4K by Sony in honor of the film’s 65th anniversary. This is largely the same 4K edition released in 2017, except for the inclusion of Dolby Vision HDR and an audio upgrade to Dolby Atmos. Like the 2017 release, you also get a Blu-ray with the movie and its bonus features, along with a code for a digital copy.
In honor of The Bridge on the River Kwai’s 65th anniversary, Sony has re-released their 2017 4K Ultra HD edition (albeit with a few small changes; more on that later) in a new Steelbook. Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle (writer of The Planet of the Apes too), Kwai was directed by the great David Lean and went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Alec Guinness).
Set in World War II’s Pacific theater in 1943, Kwai tells the story of a large group of British POWs led by Colonel Nicholson (Guinness), who butts heads with the camp commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Nicholson is a strict by-the-book kind of guy, which not only puts him at odds with Saito’s sadistic tendencies but also draws the ire of American POW Commander Shears (William Holden), who has been in the camp for a while and has learned not to attract Saito’s ire by bribing the commander’s top lieutenant.
Saito’s main beef with Nicholson concerns the need to put all of the POWs, including the officers, to work on an important bridge that will cross the River Kwai and accomplish a key strategic goal for the Japanese military. Nicholson counters that putting officers to work is in violation of the Geneva Convention, and for his insolence, he’s put in a metal box called “the oven” while his officers are locked up elsewhere.
Saito and Nicholson finally reach a begrudging respect for each other, and Nicholson oversees the construction of the bridge. Whereas the work that had been done so far was haphazard and meant to sabotage the Japanese, Nicholson insists that his men do their best work and build a bridge to be proud of. Meanwhile, Shears has escaped and made his way back to the Allies, who send him with a team to wire the bridge for demolition and destroy it just as a train carrying important cargo is scheduled to cross it. The second half of the film alternates between those two storylines, bringing them to a head in a climax that showcases the folly of war.
Like many great films, Kwai simply presents characters with opposing viewpoints and lets the viewer draw their own conclusions as the events unfold. Each character has their reasons for doing what they do, making it a story that’s less about “good guys versus bad guys” and more about the moral shades of gray that present themselves during every war.
Unfortunately, Lean ran into some technical problems while shooting the film, which means that no amount of restoration can ever make Kwai look as good as you might want it to on 4K. Still, the presentation here is as good as it can get, with a moderate amount of grain throughout the image and plenty of subtle detail in the close-ups. You might notice some softness here and there, particularly during the opening credits, but there’s not much that can be done about that, given the source material.
This new Steelbook, which displays artwork inspired by the film, features Dolby Vision HDR and HDR10 on the 4K disc — Sony’s 2017 release only had HDR10. The studio also upgraded the English audio to Dolby Atmos while other languages are presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital. The number of languages available for subtitles was also increased.
Aside from that, however, this is the same edition released for the film’s 60th anniversary, with the same Blu-ray included, along with a code for a digital copy. The bonus features were all ported over from the 2011 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, which in turn brought over everything from the 2000 DVD while throwing in one new extra. Here’s what you’ll find:
• Crossing the Bridge: Picture-in-Picture Graphics Track: Rather than a traditional commentary, Sony created a text-based track that imparts information about the film while it plays in a window on the screen. A background image changes as you use the forward arrow button to progress through the factoids, which also include information about the real Burma-Thailand railway that Allied soldiers toiled on during World War II.
• William Holden and Alec Guinness on The Steve Allen Show (7 minutes): This interview was filmed during the production of the film and pretty much amounts to a puff publicity piece. Still, it’s a nice thing to have for the historical record around the movie. It showed up for the first time on the 2011 Blu-ray.
• The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai (53 minutes): Created by the legendary Laurent Bouzereau, this is one of those great in-depth making-of documentaries that I wish we saw more of these days.
• The Bridge on the River Kwai Premiere narrated by William Holden (2 minutes): This one is pretty self-explanatory.
• Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant (6.25 minutes): This is a short making-of featurette that was created in 1958, after Kwai won a bundle of Oscars.
• USC Short Film Introduced by William Holden (16 minutes): This is an intriguing extra that was also created in the late 1950s; I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it on a home video release. Holden introduces a short film made during the production of Kwai while also discussing film and literature analysis and laying out the three main challenges found while making a movie.
• An Appreciation by Filmmaker John Milius (8 minutes): Milius is a screenwriter and director who has always cut against the grain in Hollywood, despite his long-time friendships with guys like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola. He’s fun to watch in interviews because of his bombastic style, and here he puts his unique persona to use explaining why he thinks this is such a great film.
A photo gallery and two trailers, one from the film’s initial release and one from a post-Oscars rerelease, round out this edition. Highly recommended.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★