Worst Best Picture: Is The Bridge on the River Kwai Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1957 winner The Bridge on the River Kwai. Is it better than Crash?

There’s a reason it’s Ron Swanson’s favorite movie: It’s about building a bridge.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is every dad’s favorite Best Picture winner. It’s about brutality and masculinity in unexpected ways. From the opening shot of two men digging graves to the closing raid on the bridge itself, there couldn’t be more masculinity built into this movie unless it actually crossed the three-hour mark it comes close to crossing.

Every story is about conflict. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a war movie, but the fact that the British soldiers are in a prison camp only matters as an establishing detail. Alec Guinness leads his men through their stint as prisoners of war with the standard British resilience, and it definitely starts out as a movie about brutal conditions and harsh realities of war. The strict head of the camp Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) tries to force the British troops to build a militarily important bridge, the British troops refuse and do a terrible job on purpose, and the officers steel themselves for organized resistance.

When it becomes clear that they will build the bridge or die resisting it, Guinness decides that they may as well build it well if they must build it at all. There’s a very Catch-22 element to this thought process that’s both darkly funny and very sad. The tone’s lighter than you might expect at times for a movie about dying in prison camp, but as the movie stops being about one thing and becomes the story of how a project galvanizes people it really walks a fine line without seeming too absurd.

The Best Part: Saito could be portrayed in some really awful ways and isn’t. Wondering about the portrayal of the Japanese head of a prison camp in a movie made in 1957 really, really makes you wince when you start the film, but he presents an interesting perspective. Saito has to finish his bridge and the British have to survive and endure. There’s a lot more going on, but at a basic level it’s a movie about how people apply the skills they’ve learned in normal life when life becomes anything but. Two halves of a whole, and all that.

The Worst Part: It’s tough to talk about this without spoiling it too much, but the less subtle B-plot of the movie is a lot. William Holden’s character Shears is forced into many different roles over three hours, and not all of them are very interesting. People have debated if the film portrays British people well, but it’s Holden’s American character that really has some extreme moments.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashIt’s nearly 50 years older and it is more racially sensitive. There’s definitely some complicated emotions tied up in the portrayal of what “Britishness” means, but it is a movie less concerned with painting good and evil than with showing a side of war that most people don’t consider. In one scene Alec Guinness walks around the hospital tent and sends the “best off” of the men to finish the bridge. It’s a truly dark scene; these men are going to die as they finish a military asset for their enemies. Guinness plays it calmly and that elevates the performance. It’s a serious and compelling tradeoff: He believes it is more important to keep the men feeling useful than it is to not finish the bridge. The premise is ridiculous, but it’s rational and it’s quiet. There aren’t two words that describe Crash less.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org

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