Fully restored in 4K resolution and presented with High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Dolby Atmos audio, The Bridge on the River Kway won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (David Lean) and Best Actor (Alec Guinness).
In 1997, The Bridge on the River Kwai was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected for the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. The American Film Institute included it among the best American films ever and in 1999, the British Film Institute voted it the 11th greatest British film of the 20th Century.
When British POWs build a vital railway bridge in enemy-occupied Burma, Allied commandos are assigned to destroy it in David Lean's epic World War II adventure The Bridge on the River Kwai. Even its theme song, an old WWII whistling tune, the Colonel Bogey March, became a massive hit. The Bridge on the River Kwai continues today as one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of all time.
"There is no barbed wire, no stockade, no watch towers. They are not necessary. We are on an island in the jungle…
Escape is impossible."
The HDD Blog recently ran a great article about the worst Oscar snubs. It seems the true classics, or perhaps our personal favorites, are rarely the films and performances identified by the insular Hollywood community as The Best. However, in 1957 Academy voters got it very, very right, awarding 7 Oscars (out of 8 nominations) to David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay (interesting fact: two of the now-credited writers, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, were blacklisted at the time and received their awards posthumously in 1984). I've spoken before about the era of Cecile B. DeMille and David Lean. Two men who practically invented (the former) and perfected (the latter) epic filmmaking. Never again will we see giant films where someone builds a real ninety-foot tall bridge in the middle of a jungle, using Elephants to haul an entire train through said jungle in order to film it crossing and later...
Whoops, let's not spoil things or get too far ahead. First, we must talk plot, and for a 162-minute picture, there's a bunch to cover. The Bridge on the River Kwai is about World War II English POWs building a bridge in unbearable conditions cross cut against the team sent to blow it up. In addition to these two POVs, Kwai also has two separate, dramatic arcs. Or in another sense, this film's first act is an hour long, with acts two and three covering the rest.
The first 60 minutes is a battle of wits between English Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and the Japanese POW camp commander, Col. Saito. Saito initially demands that all English officers will work alongside enlisted men in the manual labor needed to construct the bridge. Nicholson rejects this notion, per the articles of war provided in Geneva Convention. As punishment, Saito locks Nicholson in The Oven, a suffocating tin box left out in the sun (all told, Nicholson will reject Saito's demands and threats for over a month). Imagine spending a month alone in something so small you can't stand or stretch your legs, with temperatures soaring and starvation levels of food.
Nicholson versus Saito is, in many ways, Principle versus Honor. Nicholson is unwavering in what he believes to be Right and is willing to die for it, but Saito's life is equally at stake. He is a man who has studied in England, but hates the English because he doesn't understand them. Without Nicholson or the other officers to lead the English soldiers, the Kwai Bridge will never finish on time, and if Saito fails, he will be forced, by honor and duty, to take his own life. It's a fascinating struggle, as riveting as a boxing match.
Also, let's not forget the second lead character, William Holden as Shears. He is an American POW who has survived this death camp by cheating and bribing guards. Shears is a thematic opposite to Nicholson; for him, there is no principle or right thing to do, other than to survive using any means necessary. With Nicholson sweating away in The Oven during the first act, Shears makes a daring escape into the formidable jungle. He nearly dies (many times) during the process, but eventually finds his way back to a British Army encampment.
Acts two and three, naturally, follow our two leads after they survive their traumatic ordeals. Nicholson, released, believes his men need discipline and something to achieve, so he takes over building Saito's bridge. But not just any bridge, a better bridge. A British Bridge. Something so grand that when the war is long over, people will look back and say, look here at what these brave soldiers accomplished. This is Nicholson's obsession, and layer-by-layer, we learn about this man who has been in the Army for 28 years. A man who doesn't feel as though he has left his mark on the world. The bridge will be his greatest achievement.
Shears, meanwhile, is living the luxurious life of a playboy at a British army base, and he's about to quit this war and go home. Only there's a catch. British Special Forces unit 316 has been ordered to blow up the Kwai Bridge, and Shears is the only man who has actually survived these jungles. The slacker just got re-upped for another tour of duty, and this one will most certainly be his toughest.
As the climax approaches, the film bounces between its two leads: Nicholson and his men and his bridge (his soldiers can't understand why they seem to be helping the enemy), and Shears, the anti-hero who, along with the team of British Commandos, trudges back into the unforgiving jungles with plastic explosives.
The question, dear readers, is how will it all come to a head?
Simply put, The Bridge on the River Kwai is an epic masterpiece. Part thriller and action movie; part character drama. Guinness and Holden are polar opposites as actors as well as thematic characters. Their strife and heroics and failures and redemptions are as riveting today as they were some 54 years ago when Kwai first hit screens. So nuanced, deep, and interesting. How many times do we see a scenario where the film's protagonist in the first hour, slowly descends into becoming an antagonist by the thrilling conclusion? There are others, of course, but it's certainly rare. And for readers who have not seen this film, guess what? There's a significant chance that you already know more about it than you think. Hell, the Theme itself --
-- is so iconic, I knew it as a boy, having no connection with this film until I wandered into the American Cinematheque to see Kwai on the big screen for the first time. In fact, I learned the song, Colonel Bogey March, had many variations on its lyrics (people simply added their own). For WWII British Troops, theirs involved poking fun at Hitler's balls. No joke. Apparently, David Lean knew this and selected this song on purpose because he could sneak it, sans lyrics, past the censors.
Then, there's the filmmaking itself. Watching Kwai for the first time may bring up a touch of deja vu because its visual language is so familiar. Why? Because Spielberg borrowed heavily from Lean -- in terms of tracking shots and the famous Bats filling the daytime sky -- while shooting the jungle sequences on Temple of Doom, among others.
So, how well does a movie with such iconic stature stand up? Fantastically. Having seen Kwai numerous times on the big screen, the 2000 DVD, the 2011 Blu-ray, and now the 2017 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and it never gets old. I'll admit that perhaps it could be slow to modern audiences, but for me, the mini-series length is too short. Lean knows how to combine grand filmmaking and drama with sight gags and light-hearted jokes to keep every moment feeling fresh.
Lastly, we've already chatted a little bit about scale, but I can't emphasize enough how thrilling full-sized spectacle truly is. How engaging and energizing. How I wish modern movies could still have as many real stunts as they do computer graphics -- sadly, cost, time, and safety, have left modern Hollywood infatuated with the computer (hell, CGI is limitless). But the reality of what's happening in Kwai is unparalleled in today's films.
The only real flaws for Kwai, as I can see them, are the technological limitations of the time. The set-pieces are fantastic in their grounded nature, but that reality only highlights the un-reality of scenes shot Day For Night. Also, as Sony noted during the Classics panel at Blu-Con 2010, Lean shot this film in CinemaScope and there were some focus and other problems associated with one camera. And we'd be remiss not to mention the tinny sound of the original audio recordings.
Still, The Bridge on the River Kwai is an outstanding movie, which is why it's insane to think that Lean managed to top himself -- even in terms of scale -- a few years later with Lawrence of Arabia, which was shot in 70mm. And friends, that film blows Kwai out of the water on the big screen.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Sony brings The Bridge on the River Kwai to 4K Blu-ray as a part of a 2-disc 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray + Blu-ray + Digital HD copy combo pack. While 4K Blu-rays lack region coding, the included BD50 is labeled with Regions A, B, and C. There are no pre-menu trailers on the 4K disc and the main menu is formatted similarly to other Sony 4K titles.
The Digital HD with Ultraviolet redemption code expires on 12/31/19 and does NOT work for iTunes. To redeem, please visit sonypictures.com/uvredeem where the title will be added to your Ultraviolet Library.
The Bridge on the River Kwai debuts on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray featuring an HEVC encode framed in the film's original 2.55:1 aspect ratio. While the movie was restored in 4K for the 2011 Blu-ray, and the press materials for this 2017 release also mention a 4K restoration as well as a new HDR10 grading that includes a wider color space, it's unclear to me whether or not they're the same 4K restoration. If I were to guess, I'd I believe it is the same master with a new HDR grading, but I could be wrong.
As I mentioned in my 4K Blu-ray review of Bram Stoker's Dracula, I've watched three 4K Sony catalog titles in the last week -- Kwai, Dracula, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- and I must say I'm absolutely fascinated by the results thus far. All three look better than ever, and Sony appears to have taken great care in achieving these results, but 4K Blu-ray and 4K HDR displays are much less forgiving with source material flaws than the old HD/SDR days. In short, due to various limitations in how older movies were photographed and produced (and stored), they don't really stand up next to, say, modern CGI animated or action films, even those that are upscaled from 2K DIs.
As I did in the Dracula review, I mention this to set expectations. Kwai is, unfortunately, a film that experienced technical difficulties during production (a bad lens) and suffers from certain elements, notably the opening credits and any optical dissolves used for scene transitions, that don't hold up as well as the rest of the picture. As such, there are times where Kwai looks extra awful in 4K/HDR because, not only do you lose resolution during the flawed moments, but you also lose color. It's a bit like watching the extended cut of a movie where the theatrical elements were preserved and extended cut bits were lifted from a source that wasn't as clean as the original negative. There's no way around this, really.
On those terms, the numerical score above attempts to reflect how Kwai compares to other 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Because if you take anything away from this video review, it's this:
Kwai has never looked better.
The overall presentation is marvelous and filmmic and trounces the 2011 Blu-ray in every single way. Film grain is more apparent but natural. Fine image detail, both in closeups and wider angled shots, is noticeably sharper; look at the wood siding of various huts, the soldiers' ragged uniforms, individual pores on the actors' faces. And the colors? That might be the most noticeable upgrade. In A to B comparisons, the Blu-ray looks washed out and flat and drab where the 4K Blu-ray produces bold green jungles and lush blue skies and warm sunburnt skin tones and vibrant crimson blood when characters are injured. It's striking and gorgeous.
In terms of the HDR10 grading, I didn't see much in the way of new details in the specular highlights, nor anything new hiding in the shadows. That said, black levels are about the same; meaning, they vary depending on that particular scene, producing deep black levels when there is actual night or dark interiors, and something more akin to grey and blue with day-for-night shots. Like other HDR10 sources, if you don't have a brighter HDR-capable panel, you might get some crushed shadows when comparing this disc to the SDR Blu-ray. In other words, check your calibration and/or you might have to tweak your gamma and other settings.
At the end of the day, Kwai is a fantastic experiment with a format like 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. Flawed source materials have been dropped into an ecosystem that excels when the imagery is at its sharpest and highlights softness and other flaws.
Still, even with a few problems, this 4K Blu is THE BEST Kwai has ever looked. So forget the Blu-ray. Throw the DVD in the trash. Heck, I'm not sure if I've even seen a 35mm print this clean, detailed, or colorful (most were faded and scratched to hell). And, unlike Dracula and Close Encounters, you don't necessarily need the biggest display to see this version as an upgrade. Yes, it's always preferable to watch 4K on a 65" or larger display, but in this case, the sharpness and color will be visible at slightly smaller sizes. Either way, film purists and fans of this movie are gonna love it.
The Bridge on the River Kwai brings the madness to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a brand new Dolby Atmos mix (7.1 TrueHD compatible) that doesn't have the sonics or dynamic range of a modern Atmos mix, yet, none the less, produces a more immersive experience that shows the production's music and sound effects as well as they can be heard. In other words, much like the video upgrade, Kwai has never sounded better.
I totally understand if the purists hate this choice and don't want Atmos on a movie produced in the late 1950s, but as someone who's open to these types of changes, this Dolby Atmos mix works really well.
Much like this production's flawed visual elements, Kwai suffers from dynamic range limitations in the original recordings (or possibly the way these recordings were mixed), which makes voices, particularly Saito's speeches, sound compressed and tinny. Sound effects like thunder and gunshots and train whistles aren't that much better, lacking the full oomph of modern recordings. Even the bridge's destruction, while packing some nice LFE into the proceedings, doesn't quite stand up.
Still, despite these limitations, the Kwai Atmos Mix does a nice job of balancing levels -- dialog is always clean -- while allowing Malcom Arnold's score elements to envelope the space. The sound effects work also does a nice job of building the world of the jungle with background insects and other environmental elements (many modern movies forget to do this, by the way). And while there's little panning -- sounds moving from speaker to speaker -- from front to back or ear level to overhead, there is a nice sense of movement across the front of the soundstage, with actions moving from side to side.
In comparing this Atmos mix to the 5.1 DTS-HD MA version from 2011, they sound the same sonically (and that 2011 track does up-mix quite nicely), but the Dolby Atmos height elements bring the mix to life with added immersion and scope. Moments where there is rain or insects or jungle moments really come alive, while the score also lifts slightly skyward too. Overall, the best thing about this Atmos mix is that it hides where you've placed your speakers, where the 5.1 mix calls out the location of your gear. To me, that's a pretty big compliment.
Not all movies of this, or any, era need Dolby Atmos, but I'm very impressed with these results.
The Bridge of the River Kwai escapes onto 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with the same special features as the 2011 Collector's Edition Blu-ray. Therefore, officers will work with enlisted men and I have re-listed the bonus materials in this section and the HD Exclusives:
If you own the two-disc DVD edition (2000) of The Bridge on the River Kwai, then you will recognize most of the special features included on this new Blu-ray Collector's Edition. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The set remains a pretty in-depth package of documentaries and archival footage. The only thing to note is that you are now missing the Isolated Film Score as well as the DVD-Rom materials from Disc 1 of the 2000 DVD release. In terms of new features, most of them are HD (see below), but there is one new standard definition special feature:
And, here's what's been ported over from the 2000 DVD:
The Bridge on the River Kwai is an epic masterpiece with fantastic characters and one of the best films I've ever seen on the big screen.
Though unable to rival the clarity of modern productions, Sony's 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray is colorful, vibrant, and highly detailed, easily besting the previous Blu-ray and most of the 35mm prints I've had the fortune to see (and if you have it, throw that old DVD out in the trash unless you need the isolated film score and DVD-Rom components). Even the Dolby Atmos track is a treat, adding another layer of immersion to an already engrossing movie.
If you own a 4K display or projector with HDR capability, please know that this movie won't look as amazing as even some 4K upconverts, much of this due to the available source materials, but the results speak for themselves -- this is the best looking transfer of Kwai you've ever seen and heard. Enjoy it on the biggest, brightest screen you own.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.