Madness returns!

Before Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan, there was The Bridge On The River Kwai.

The 1957 film, directed by David Lean and hailed as the best war film ever made according to a few polls, will return to the big screen at Scala on Sunday at noon, as part of the monthly Classic World Cinema programme, organised by the Thai Film Archive.

As Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is still in cinemas, it's timely that Lean's The Bridge On The River Kwai finds its way back to the big screen. The two war films, standing 60 years apart, map cinema's ongoing effort to investigate the themes associated with war (especially World War II): honour, principle, horror, humanity, madness and the place of men in the grand sweep of history.

The Bridge On The River Kwai (which was shot in Sri Lanka and not in Thailand or Myanmar, where the story takes place) takes place mostly in the POW camp deep in the jungle of Myanmar where British soldiers are forced to build a bridge for a railroad that will connect Bangkok to then Rangoon.

"It is a pleasant work, requiring skill," said Colonel Saito of the Imperial Japanese Army (Sessue Hayakawa), a sick joke, given that the first scene of the film shows a row of burial crosses right next to a forest railway.

The moral centre of the story, the man who believes that even in war there needs to be a law, is Col Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness in his Oscar-winning role. Nicholson first refuses to let his men perform manual labour since it is against the Geneva Convention, to which Col Saito proceeds to slap him in the face with a copy of the said convention. Later, Nicholson proves that he's indispensable for the Japanese plan to complete the bridge on time, and he wants to show the enemy that they can't break his men's body and spirit -- it's also a revenge of sort when the Brits humiliate the Japanese by building a better, stronger bridge than their captors.

The other storyline concerns Com Shears (William Holden), an American soldier who escapes from the camp, only to be sent back into the fray along with a sabotage unit charged with dynamiting the railroad bridge. Determined to go home on a sick discharge, Shears is dragged back into the midst of war, and his sabotage mission brings him back to Nicholson and Sato in messy carnage at the bridge, one that prompts the movie's most famous last line: "Madness… Madness!"

Most war films, especially after the Iraq War, are synonymous with the action-thriller genre. Meanwhile Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and its visceral D-Day landing set the bar that war films would be judged by their ability to stage photogenic savagery that repels, as well as thrills, in equal measures. The Bridge On The River Kwai, however, is more a psychological drama: it has a setting of epic proportion -- the muddy hell of railroad construction -- but it doesn't involve physical fighting between armies or units. The film, perhaps more than most war films, isn't about the Allied at odds with the Japanese; it's about men who're at odds with the situation they've found themselves in, and their fight to get out of that situation with their dignity and sanity unscathed.

The Bridge On The River Kwai was shot on 35mm film and originally projected in CinemaScope (Dunkirk, meanwhile, was shot on 70mm film and, for the best experience, should be seen on Imax, a modern-day large format). The screening at Scala on Sunday will be on the restore 4K digital version, crisp and clear. This isn't the first time the film was shown on the big screen in Thailand; it was released in Bangkok twice, in the 60s and 70s. The screening starts at noon, with tickets at 100 baht.


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