Set in Thailand during World War Two, back in the days when the British could still teach the Japanese anything about engineering, a platoon of British soldiers are taken prisoner and forced to build a bridge over, you guessed it, the River Kwai.
This is another hefty picture from the ironically named David Lean, which, as in Lawrence of Arabia, follows a British soldier in a foreign country, at risk of getting lost among the natives. Alec Guinness is excellent as Colonel Nicholson, the commander who refuses to allow his officers to be forced into manual labour, in contravention of the Geneva Convention. Morale and military order are his priorities, to the exclusion of all else.
As usual with Lean, the scale of the sets, number of extras and authenticity on show is remarkable – and of a standard that remains unmatched. The British commander in a foreign land is not the only element it shares with Lawrence – as in his later film you can almost feel the searing heat emanating from the screen.
The first half of the film is the story of how the soldiers gain the respect of their captors, Long Walk to Freedom style. Ultimately, like a dad down a hole at the beach, they can’t resist the allure of a major engineering project and agree to fully co-operate in the construction.
Meanwhile an escaped US prisoner, superbly played by William Holden, joins a crack team who venture into the jungle to bring about the bridge’s destruction, thus securing a major tactical victory for the Allies. At this point the bridge becomes an allegory for survival with one set of heroes building it as another sets destroy it, both for their own apparently sound reasons. It’s this contradiction that makes the film so interesting to watch, and leads to one of the most tense final acts of any movie.