This was a film that I bought even though I had never seen it. I was much more keen on blind-buying movies when I first started buying DVDs (probably because I wasn't paying a mortgage and was making more money than I do now). I wouldn't just buy whatever came out; usually it had to be some classic or needed a good buzz about it. More often than not, this paid off, and it certainly did with this one.
When I sat down to watch it, I was with fellow blogger Scott (originator of Movie-a-Day month). I definitely remember that I was really impressed with it, and I'm pretty sure that he was too. (Enough for it to get an entry on his blog? We'll just have to wait on that one.) I have since watched it several times since then, it's definitely one that I'm sure that I'll want to see every so often. It's also one where I'm willing to upgrade to Blu-Ray. I also once made the mistake of showing it to a class of sophomores. Quite a few kids really liked it, but I also found out from a teenage girl that "it's the most boring movie ever". These kids know what they're talking about, so you might want to take the rest of this review with a grain of salt.
The story involves a group of British soldiers who are forced to build a bridge across the River Kwai for the Japanese. The Japanese Colonel is known for his cruelty, and he informs the British that their officers will also engage in manual labor, despite the fact that it breaks the rules of the Geneva Convention. The British Colonel Nicholson, who's strictly by-the-book, refuses to do so. The first part of the movie then becomes a contest of the wills between Saito and Nicholson, as Saito tortures Nicholson and puts him in a metal box out in the hot sun. Eventually, Saito has to give in, as his problem is that the bridge's progress isn't progressing as it should, and if it doesn't get built in time, Saito will be dishonored and have to kill himself. He figures that by acquiescing to Nicholson's demands, he can at least have the British officers supervising and progress would finally get underway.
Honestly, the movie could end at the part where Nicholson is finally let out of solitary confinement and you'd have a pretty good flick. What's great about the film is that it really gets you on Nicholson's side. He wins a moral victory over the Japanese, and his honor is intact. You get to like him so much that afterward you accept his rationale that the British soldiers shouldn't attempt to escape. (They're in the middle of the jungle! To where would they escape?) He even makes sense when he decides that his men should build a "proper" bridge. (It would give the soldiers something to do and be proud of instead of dwelling on the fact that they're prisoners.) By that point in the movie, I was pretty much in awe of him. Not only was he a prisoner who got what he wanted, but he winds up pretty much owning and controlling his captors, convincing Saito to make the Japanese soldiers work on the bridge as well.
The fact of the matter is that Nicholson is nuts. One guy, Commander Shears (who's an American! USA! USA! USA!) realizes this, and manages to escape anyway. Unfortunately for Shears, he then gets roped into a mission to destroy the bridge, which once again puts him in direct conflict with Nicholson at the film's climax.
There's so much to like about this movie. The first thing that stood out in my mind was the performance of Alec "Original Obi Wan" Guinness as Nicholson. With further viewings, I really appreciate how the film gets you to go along with a madman for so long. Taxi Driver does that to some degree, but Travis Bickle kind of loses you once he takes Betsy to the porn theater, and that's pretty early on in that film. This one gets you to like the crazy guy pretty close to the end, and you really don't realize how far gone he is until the climax. (The big question is - does Nicholson himself realize how loco he is when he says "What have I done?" I'm not so sure.)
Another thought that I've had is that this film shows the flip side to Lord of the Flies if you look at it from the Freudian perspective. In "Flies", it's the id (Jack) that takes over the control of the ego (Ralph) and completely destroys the superego (Piggy). In this film, the guy who's the most in touch with his id, Commander Shears, is the one you should be rooting for all along. Nicholson is all superego - completely obsessed with following the rules, and you find out what happens when that sort of thinking consumes your thoughts.
All we're left with is the ego, Major Clipton, to tell us what war brings out in humanity: "Madness! Madness!"
Commander Shears: You mean, you intend to uphold the letter of the law, no matter what it costs?
Colonel Nicholson: Without law, Commander, there is no civilization.
Commander Shears: That's just my point; here, there is no civilization.
Colonel Nicholson: Then we have the opportunity to introduce it.