THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957)

In 1958, the 30th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1957 and December 31, 1957 the awards were held on March 26. The Academy made the decision to scrap the additional New York ceremony, and solely base the awards in Los Angeles. From now on, if an east-coast based nominee/winner could not attend, they would simply miss out.

Once again, the Academy overhauled its voting rules. Prior to 1958, the nominations had been decided by 12,000 individuals, representing members of the Academy, industry guilds, and trade unions, with final voting for the awards themselves restricted to Academy members. But, beginning this year, both nominations and final voting would be handled by the 2,000 Academy members only.

The Academy also streamlined the number of categories from 30 to 24. With the era of black-and-white films slowly coming to an end, the categories for Cinematography, Costume Design and Art Direction, which separately honoured one colour film and one black-and-white film, were combined into one single category. Likewise with Best Musical Score and Best Dramatic or Comedy Score being combined into Original Score. The category of Best Story was also dropped completely.

Peyton Place tied the record for the most nominations without a single victory, with its nine nominations failing to produce a win. It also set the record for the most unsuccessful acting nominations, with five. For the first time since the Best Picture nominees were reduced to only five films, all five nominees matched with the five directors nominated for Best Director.

Once again, the Hollywood blacklist made an impact on the winners for Best Adapted Screenplay. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, the screenwriters of The Bridge on the River Kwai, were both blacklisted at the time, writing the screenplay from exile in England. The Oscar was awarded to Pierre Boulle, the writer of the novel the film was based on, despite the fact Boulle did not speak a word of English, and had no involvement in writing the film adaptation. In 1984, the Academy posthumously acknowledged both writers, and presented Oscar statuettes to their families.

The nominees:
12 Angry Men
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Peyton Place
Witness for the Prosecution

The winner:
The Bridge on the River Kwai

Based on the 1952 novel Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai by Pierre Boulle, The Bridge on the River Kwai is the epic war drama which highlights the struggles between doing your duty and doing what’s right. In 1943, a group of British and allied soldiers are captured and brought to a Japanese prisoner of war camp on an island in Burma. The men are tasked with constructing a bridge of the river Kwai, which will become crucial in connecting a railway from Malaysia to Burma. Presiding over the camp is the cruel Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who refuses to acknowledge the rules of the Geneva Convention which forbid prisoners of war from performing manual labour. When British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) attempts to reason with Saito, he’s thrown in a small metal shack, and left for dead.

But Saito soon realises he needs Nicholson’s leadership to complete the bridge by its looming finish date, and releases him from “the oven.” Seeing the bridge as a chance to showcase British workmanship, Nicholson takes charge of the bridge’s construction, and leads his fellow soldiers in getting the job done. Complicating Nicholson’s plans, an escaped American prisoner, Major Shears (William Holden), is tasked with leading a commando group back to the internment camp, in order to destroy the bridge and thwart the enemy’s progress on their railway.

Why did it win?
After their silly and embarrassing decision to award a flashy but shallow spectacle the year prior, the Academy were clearly looking to for something with a little more meat on its bones. David Lean’s epic and powerful war masterpiece was exactly what they needed. A film still dazzling and enthralling in its scope, but with a narrative and themes filled with deep emotional impact and gripping tension. The Bridge on the River Kwai represented a Best Picture option which offered some redemption for the Academy. With seven wins from eight nominations (its only loss was Best Supporting Actor), they clearly lapped it up.

Tapping in to the public’s still-keen interest in war-time cinema, The Bridge on the River Kwai highlighted an aspect of war few films has touched – the plight of prisoners of war. At this point, most films of this genre were concerned with the daring and heroic actions of men on the battlefield or the consequences of war on civilians left behind. The film portrayed the soldiers as stoic, strong men with the determination to survive their horrific treatment. It also highlighted the complications of military discipline and pride, in the face of unspeakable conflict. The film also stands as one of the few cinematic examples to avoid arguing either for or against war, and never attempts to justify who is right and who is wrong.

The film was a sensation at the box-office, taking in $18 million in the US to become the highest-grossing film of 1957. It would ultimately earn over $30 million worldwide, and become one of Columbia Pictures’ most successful films to date. It also received rave reviews from critics, with Variety hailing it a “gripping drama, expertly put together and handled with skill in all departments,” and The New York Times writing “brilliant is the word, and no other, to describe the quality of skills that have gone into the making of this picture.”

Standing as only the second British film to win Best Picture, and the first time a British filmmaker would take Best Director, The Bridge on the River Kwai was a triumph of cinema, and the obvious, and only, choice for Best Picture.

Did it deserve to win?
Although his best work was still to come, Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is a masterpiece of the war genre, and still an incredibly powerful and captivating piece of cinema in 2017. Even the most casual of cinema fans will know how this film ends, and what becomes of the bridge. Yet, with Lean’s masterful directing, the climax is still breathtakingly tense and wonderfully gripping, even when you know what’s coming.

With all the scale and scope of an epic blockbuster, the film looks and sounds phenomenal, especially after its gorgeous and immaculate Blu-ray restoration. Thanks to its Sri Lankan location shooting, the production holds such impeccable authenticity, particularly when the bridge begins to take shape. The destruction of the bridge is utterly spectacular, and Jack Hildyard’s cinematography of the sequence is a true triumph. It’s an iconic moment in cinema that still holds tremendous impact today, and one that demands to be seen again and again.

But what sets this film apart from simply being another showy spectacle is its emotional core, cemented by the sublime performance of Guinness. He portrays Nicholson with such stiff-upper-lip stoicism and fierce determination, even as he begins to lose his grip on reality and forget the consequences of building the bridge. His unrelenting obsession to craft something that he views as his legacy is the stuff of true insanity, but Guinness finds the compassion in the role, and delivers a stellar performance. It’s a complex and complicated role, and one that will elicit varying emotions from its viewer. But you cannot deny the power of an actor like Guinness, and, even with Star Wars to come, it stands as his career-defying performance.

Both an intimate character piece, and an epic blockbuster, The Bridge on the River Kwai manages to toe the line between both genres with deft precision. The result is a film as touching as it is enthralling, and a deserved winner of Best Picture. A true classic, an absolute must-see, and a landmark of 1950s cinema.


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