Best Picture #30:The Bridge on the River Kwai

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Though I think David Lean outdid himself a few years later with Lawrence of Arabia  (my favorite Best Picture winner by a considerable margin), The Bridge on the River Kwai is still a remarkable film. As he did and would later do with cityscapes, deserts, and tundra, here Lean has a magnificent talent for making the setting into a character, letting the beauty of the natural world surrounding his story seep through every frame even as its relentless power over man is on display. The sweeping vistas make it impossible to not be held captive by the film but its story is no less impactful. Though it is a war film, it focuses on the actions of individuals and characters on both sides come to be seen as both noble and despicable as they fight, inspire, and live for flawed ideals belonging to both their superiors and themselves. Though I agree with Kern’s assessment from his AFI column a few weeks ago that the storyline with Alec Guinness’s Col. Nicholson fighting for his men’s rights and building the titular bridge was more compelling than the parts with William Holden’s Major Shears escape and mission to destroy the bridge, despite the latter being more narratively dense, Holden’s segment is still exciting and he does a great job in the role (though Guinness is still the more compelling presence) and the two plotlines come together in a conclusion so brilliant that any moments of disparity in storylines beforehand can be forgiven entirely. As with some of Lean’s other work, The Bridge on the River Kwai features striking imagery and even more striking exploration of morality and the enemies that come from home that place it firmly alongside many of my favorite films.

The Real Best Picture:

Having one masterpiece in a year is somewhat uncommon and having one be nominated for Best Picture, much less win, is even more rare but that 1957 had two nominated and one win is downright extraordinary. 12 Angry Men and The Bridge on the River Kwai are both such exceptional films that I truly couldn’t say that one deserved to win over the other based on the merits of the films alone. Perhaps The Bridge on the River Kwai led in some way to Lawrence of Arabia, a film I think better than either of the aforementioned ones, being made, in which case I would have to say the correct choice was absolutely the one that was made. But then there are two years that went to Lean and none to the equally incredible Lumet so perhaps he should’ve had the win with 12 Angry Men which I do see as his best film. So I’ll just assume it would be an insular win that changed nothing later and say 12 Angry Men is the real Best Picture.

Best Picture Winners

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