AFI Top 100: The Bridge on the River Kwai

In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), #36 on the list.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a fascinating film about British officer Nicholson arriving at a Japanese prison camp for British POWs, tasked with building the titular bridge. The power struggle between Nicholson and Japanese Colonel Saito is gripping, and Alec Guinness’s performance as Nicholson is the film’s highlight. He arrives at this POW camp with his own strict moral code to which he adheres, and we admire his resolute refusal to bend to the will of Saito. These scenes are exciting and tense to watch, standing among the best prison(-adjacent) films of all time. Unfortunately, there’s an entire other narrative thread the film juggles alongside Nicholson’s: the story of Commander Shears’s escape from the camp and his begrudging participation in a mission to destroy the bridge. William Holden brings his magnetic charisma to the character, but Shears’s plight post-escape is nowhere near as interesting as Nicholson’s, and every time it cuts away from Guinness, a bit more tension is deflated, especially with the light and bubbly score accompanying many bits in Shears’s half. It doesn’t spoil the entire film, and it serves its narrative purpose to set up the pulse-pounding finale when their plots reunite, but one half of the film is markedly better than the other, and that inconsistency is tough to overcome.

Does It Belong on the List?

I’d argue it doesn’t belong on the list because it’s not an American film (AFI’s criteria allowed for British films financed by American companies, apparently), but even beyond that strange discrepancy, I don’t see any reason this needs to be on the list.

AFI Top 100

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