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Bridge on the River Kwai, The (Blu-ray Review)

8 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
War Drama
$34.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG’ for mild violence.
Stars William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins.

For an adaptation of a Pierre Boulle novel in which the bridge isn’t even blown up at the end, director David Lean — launching the “epic” stage of his career — got a climactic screen explosion for the ages in a deserving best picture Oscar winner that also made so much money that it set up top-billed William Holden for life. Nothing like having a percentage of the profit atop a huge salary.

And even though it was Lean — and not that that other master of the gargantuan, Cecil B. DeMille — in charge, Kwai’s finale may be the all-time “ready when you are, C.B.” movie scene. One gets chills thinking about what would have happened had the make-or-break take been blown, and if you watch the making-of documentary here (carried over from a previous DVD), you’ll learn that it almost was.

Kwai isn’t a movie for which I can articulate print quality from screenings half-a-century ago, but when I say that Sony’s new restoration makes it look better than any time in my memory, I’m referencing all but the first two theatrical presentations seen by me in early 1958, the 1964 re-issue, a viewing in the mid-1970s at some kind of Columbia Pictures anniversary presentation, a couple times at the American Film Institute and a couple times in the home forum. It’s been restored before but without going back (as here) to the camera negatives with 4K digital technology.

Ironically, the rockiest shot to me in the entire picture has always been the grainy and somewhat washed-out opening, which is proportionately improved here but still somewhat of a jolter. But aside from a few brief passages where construction dirt and sunburned complexions of p.o.w’s blend to create a reddish image that looks something akin to faded print, the movie is pretty close to being a visual marvel for its age — not up to the Blu-ray of The Searchers, say, but certainly impressive. The subtleties of Ceylon foliage (plentiful) are especially well rendered, and the improved DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack (center-heavy) picks up far-away insect chirps even when the sound level is low.

Kwai was a big one at the time for my childhood buddies and me, a status I suspect transferred to the budding “guy” demographic everywhere (though how it was received in Japan, I’d like to know). Because my kid cronies and I spent half of every school year in detention, it was a natural leap to compare our plights to Oscar winner Alec Guinness’s long dehydrating tenure in fellow colonel Sessue Hayakawa’s “box” — a punishment due to Brit Guinness’s refusal to allow his officers to perform grunt labors on a bridge that the former’s Japanese superiors have ordered be constructed on a tight deadline adjacent to the prison camp. Former silent star Hayakawa so captured youthful imaginations that the following year, Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin allowed him to spoof his Kwai role in The Geisha Boy, a high-end Lewis vehicle that Paramount has never released on DVD.

So what else do I remember from one of the biggest successes Columbia Pictures ever had?

• Well, there was a review at the time (probably not in isolation) criticizing both the film’s inclusion of an American not in the book (Holden’s character) and a lengthy mid-film passage involving a hospital respite (and blonde romance) after his lucky escape from the camp. Actually, Holden is wonderful in this softer variation on the goldbricker he previously played in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17, and the soothing narrative break is one of the things that enables Kwai to so easily sustain its running time (2 hours, 40 minutes and change). This time-out has the same soothing effect of the much briefer Dean Martin-Ricky Nelson musical interlude in Rio Bravo.

• The movie’s famous “Colonel Bogey” theme was based on a ribald old army song that had to be whistled because its lyrics were too ornery for 1957 screens — though the reasoning was that every member of the British army would know them and thus get the in-joke. That left the rest of the globe, and there was resistance by some production personnel to its usage. Wiser heads prevailed, and the tune reached No. 20 (I would have guessed higher because radio stations seemed to be playing it all the time) via a recording by that well master of the ribald: Mitch Miller. It was a concurrent charter with Elvis’s “Don’t” and Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” — but in “Bogey’s” case it did not have a good beat and you couldn’t dance to it. I wonder if Dick Clark ever dared to play it on “American Bandstand.”

• Despite a heavy Japanese accent that affects the power of his English-language performance not a whit, how on earth did Hayakawa miss the supporting actor Oscar (the only one of Kwai’s eight nominations that it didn’t win)? And to Red Buttons in Sayonara at that?  Someone call the paramedics — for me and the Academy.

• The Oscar-winning screenplay was originally credited to Boulle (who later wrote the source novel for Planet of the Apes), even though he had nothing to do with the movie. The names of Blacklisted Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were later properly affixed, but the Blacklist was something we kids wouldn’t have known about at the time in the Beaver Cleaver-like Midwest. In addition to the more appalling career and personal fallout they perpetrated, the political hacks who stoked the Blacklist certainly messed up film history for students who’ve spent years trying to get a handle.

Most of the Kwai Blu-ray extras are carried over from a previous DVD release, but this time there are also miniaturized lobby card replicas; a picture/graphics/trivia feature that’s a matter of taste (not particularly mine); a relatively hard-covered packaging booklet that’s somewhat in the fashion of Warner’s own whoop-de-doo archival Blu-rays; and a second disc, in the DVD format, that also includes the restored version (better, natch, than its DVD predecessor — but also, of course, hardly up to the Blu-ray).

A surprise inclusion is six or seven promotional minutes from NBC’s Sunday night “Steve Allen Show” in which an on-location Holden and Guinness (obviously fed their questions in advance) respond on previously shot film to what Allen is asking them on live TV. Holden is as ingratiating as ever (he was probably the most personable actor of his era on talk shows), but the fairly soon-to-be knighted Sir Alec gets on and off in a jiffy, as if he can’t wait to get back to shooting. Even if, one almost surmises, it’s in the box.

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