For those that find in them a certain joy every time the orchestra of film kicks, when those studio logos lighten the dark of the screen and the familiar trumpet notes sound, you know what I mean when I say that the greatest films ever made are a must see for everyone. Those top 100 or 200, or 500 films that everyone should see before they die. Film is subjective though, and there are many lists. Fortunately for us, the American Film Institute compiled a list of the top 100 films of the 20th Century. From top to bottom, the list compiles the greatest American films released in the first 100 years of cinema.
Directed by David Lean, Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 World War II film with an early and effective take on the horrors of a war only 10 years past. It’s the number 13 film on AFI’s top 100 films list as well.
The film takes place in a Japanese prisoner camp in World War II in Burma where Japanese officials are forcing their prisoners to build a bridge over the Kwai River to connect the country. The film features the entrance of a British troupe, led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness), to the camp where showdowns occur between the British officers and their Japanese captors.
According to the Geneva conventions Nicholson and his officers are not required to participate in the work while the Japanese captors don’t care and punish the officers for their insolence. Navy Commander Shears, the essential protagonist of the film escapes the prisoner camp and makes his way Sri Lanka where he is greeted as a hero for his amazing escape. Eventually however, when the British announce their plans to take him on a mission to destroy the bridge, he reveals that he is not really Commander Shears but an enlisted man who took his clothing to get preferential treatment in the camp. They still take him however and when they arrive back to destroy the bridge find that Nicholson has been taken in by the Japanese and the power they give him over the other workers, killing the commando party. The bridge is eventually blown up and the film ends.
The film is based loosely on the actual building of a bridge in Burma by Japanese war prisoners in 1943. More than 12,000 POWs were killed in the operations along with a hundred thousand conscripted Asian laborers. The film however is mostly fictionalized and the bridge was never destroyed. It was bombed by allied planes a couple of years later, but repaired and still stands today.
The film was written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, blacklisted Hollywood writers who never received credit for their work because it was done in secret. The Oscar for screenwriting was thus awarded to the name they gave, Pierre Boulle who did not in fact write the film (nor did he speak English). Eventually they were awarded their Oscars though, in 1984.
Lean was chosen to direct after a slew of other directors were considered, because no one else was interested. At the time he wasn’t known outside of the US, but he would go on to win an Academy Award for his work and it would help catapult him to making Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago later in his career.
The film won seven academy awards in total, including best picture, best actor, and best director. The film is often mentioned in the list of best war films ever made.