Over 50 years later, David Lean’s THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI still stands as one of the all-time great antiwar films. Alec Guinness stars as Colonel Nicholson, the commander of a group of British soldiers held in a Japanese POW camp in Burma in 1943. Forced to build a bridge on the Bangkok-Rangoon railway, a battle of wills ensues between Nicholson and the camp commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Seeing the bridge as a morale-boosting project for his troops, Nicholson becomes obsessed with completing it to perfection, losing all sight of the bridge’s actual purpose of transporting Japanese munitions.
The film won a well-deserved seven Oscar, including Best Picture, Guinness, and the screenplay, adapted from Pierre Boulle’s short novel. Boulle took home the Oscar, though the actual screenwriters were Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who were blacklisted at the time and unable to be listed on the credits. In 1984, the Academy remedied the situation and now records show Foreman and Wilson as the actual winners.
Everything in this film is first-rate, including the “lean” direction, cinematography, and editing. But the film belongs to Guinness, tops among the many excellent performances. Another asset to the film is Malcolm Arnold‘s evocative score, which was written in just ten days, but is as well-constructed as the composer’s many concert works.
Arnold’s score focuses more on the atmosphere, abandoning the long melodic themes that were common for the period. Much of the score is given over to flights of woodwinds and violins which convey the wild jungle locale. One memorable motif has a muted brass fanfare over the trilling woodwinds, conveying Nicholson’s character who is “crazy with courage.”
Softer moments in the jungle occur as Commander Shear (William Holden) successfully escapes, and at sunset as Saito and Nicholson look out on the finished bridge. Throughout the score, piccolo, gong, and xylophones give subtle hints of Burmese flavor.
Because of the militaristic bent of the story, brass fanfares and marches were necessary. The fanfares are usually played in the muted brass. But it is the marches that arguably won Arnold the Oscar. And even though Arnold wrote a very fine march for Nicholson’s victory in the battle of wills, the most famous melody from the score was not written by him.
Kenneth Alford’s World War I tune, “Colonel Bogey March,” is memorably whistled by the soldiers as the arrive and leave the camp. Copyright issues prevented the two marches from being played together except on the film’s soundtrack album. Popular bandleader Mitch Miller had a hit record that combined Alford’s “Colonel Bogey” with Arnold’s “River Kwai March” as counterpoint.
Though Arnold would be an Oscar finalist for two of his other scores (1954’s HOBSON’S CHOICE and THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS in 1958), THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI would be his only official nomination. But it’s a well-deserved Oscar that is crucial to the success of the film.