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The Bridge on the River Kwai
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that students assigned to read the Pierre Boulle novel in school might try to watch The Bridge on the River Kwai instead. (Come on, it's a short book, no cheating!) That aside, there's ample wartime violence in this movie, with characters stabbed or shot to death, and the body count of the main characters is tragically high in the end. The now-taboo, once-common term "Japs" is used to refer to Japanese. Unrated on its original release, the restored version carries a PG.
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What's the story?
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI takes place in Japan-occupied Siam (later Thailand) in 1943, after the Imperial Japanese Empire has conquered vast territories of Asia. Over a muddy jungle river called Kwai, a Japanese colonel, Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), must complete a railroad bridge vital to Japan's war effort. Into Saito's prison camp come captured British troops and their stalwart leader, Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness). To Saito's confusion, Nicholson upholds British military traditions with his men, not at all taking defeat as a humiliation. Nicholson refuses to bow to Saito, and uses the bridge project to prove the superiority of the British and keep up the captives' morale. Meanwhile, escaped American soldier Shears (William Holden) is forced back to the Kwai compound to help advise a commando team assigned to destroy the bridge.
Is it any good?
Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, this might be one of the finest war films of all time. Though based on a real-life WWII incident, the devastating story is really about what constitutes military duty and "honor" -- and how they can be twisted into disloyalty and dastardly treachery. While not explicitly bloody, there's a downbeat ending and a final one-word line of dialogue that sums up the whole thing: "Madness!"
There is an abundance of excitement in The Bridge on the River Kwai (the last 20 minutes are excruciatingly tense), but well-acted minefields of issues and thoughtfulness are what make this a formidable arsenal. This is a war movie about ideas, not just blowing things up -- but in the end, both those attributes turn into the same thing, in an example of the usually noble concepts of battlefield chivalry and obedience taken to extremes.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the irony of The Bridge on the River Kwai, with upright military commanders working for the enemy to pull off a stupendous feat because of principles of "honor." What should have been done differently? Could it happen today?
Which characters are the most (or least) admirable? Are there any real villains in the story?
Would you say this is a pro-military movie or an anti-war one?
Kids might want to research more historical facts, the real-life story of the Kwai bridge, and the Allied (and British) experience in the WWII jungles of the Far East.
- In theaters: December 18, 1957
- On DVD or streaming: November 21, 2000
- Cast: Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden
- Director: David Lean
- Studio: Columbia Tristar
- Genre: Classic
- Topics: History
- Character Strengths: Courage, Integrity
- Run time: 161 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: mild war violence
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