The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Bridge on the River Kwai

How a legendary actor and a forest landscape inspired an entire galaxy.

David Lean’s 1957 World War II epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was an incredibly popular film, topping the box office for the year it was released and winning seven Academy Awards. It tells the story of a group of British prisoners held in a Japanese work camp in 1943. The leader of the British soldiers, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness), refuses to allow the Japanese to contravene the Geneva Conventions and construct a bridge under British manual labor. Tensions are high and a battle of wills ensues between Nicholson and the Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Eventually, a peace is brokered and construction of the bridge moves forward before the imminent deadline, but a soldier from the US Navy who miraculously escaped from the camp (William Holden) returns leading a team to blow up the bridge.

The most obvious connection between this film and Star Wars of course is Alec Guinness, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy. Since The Bridge on the River Kwai was what made him a star, it’s fair to assume that it put him on George Lucas’ radar for casting the venerable Jedi Knight. This was also the first of three epic films directed by David Lean that would have a profound impact on Star Wars (Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago).

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film that truly encapsulates the opening lines of Revenge of the Sith’s crawl: “There are heroes on both sides, evil is everywhere.” Guinness’s character, Nicholson, is in a situation where his stubbornness wins him the day but causes him no shortage of torture. When the Japanese eventually acquiesce to his demands, he insists that the British soldiers will make the best bridge they possibly can, even though it might be aiding the enemy by connecting their vital railway. Is he a hero for standing by his principles and winning the battle? Or is he a villain for collaborating with the enemy? That much is left for us to decide.

A New Hope - Han Solo

Another direct connection to Star Wars is a parallel that can be found in William Holden’s Shears character and Han Solo in A New Hope. Shears is a lovable, selfish rogue who has no interest in participating in the war and is compelled to destroy the place he’s just come back from. Han Solo spends his time through the middle of A New Hope working to escape the Death Star, and when asked if he’d like to go back to attack it, he balks. This is a classic motif in mythology: the hero with a heart of gold who doesn’t realize it, and Shears and Han Solo both exemplify that perfectly.

Return of the Jedi - Han overlooking bunker

Visually, The Bridge on the River Kwai can easily be compared to Return of the Jedi. Indeed, it’s been said that no one has influenced George Lucas’ use of landscape more than David Lean, and the photography of the jungles of Southeast Asia can be seen echoed on the forest moon of Endor. The story resonates in that setting as well. Shears and the rest of his team find their original route impossible to take and go to native guides who are able to show them an alternative route to engage the enemy from behind. It’s the same service the Ewoks provide in Return of the Jedi, bringing General Solo’s strike team to the back entrance of the shield generator bunker. In fact, both Return of the Jedi and The Bridge on the River Kwai have plots that culminate in the bombing and destruction of vital pieces of infrastructure to allow the larger conflict to proceed.

Clone army leaving Coruscant

The epic nature of David Lean’s films was something that stuck with Lucas. Speaking to USA Today in 2012, he cited the director as the inspiration for his continued innovation. “The reason I’ve invested so much time and money (creating Industrial Light & Magic, a premier special-effects house) is because art is technology. In the ’60s you were at the end of the David Lean era, where you’d have 10,000 extras in a scene. That was getting too expensive. The norm became, ‘Oh, I have a movie, it’s set five years ago, has seven actors in it and we’ll shoot on the streets.’ So I could tell even then that if we pushed the technology we’d have so many more stories we could tell.”

Lean’s films may have been on Lucas’ mind as he created the massive armies and battles of the prequels, which are on a scale of spectacle not often seen in movies these days.

Return of the Jedi - spirits of Anakin Obi-Wan, and Yoda

It’s been said that Alec Guinness was always disappointed that Star Wars eclipsed the rest of the important movies of his career, and he hoped people would seek out his other films. This is what inspired me to watch The Bridge on the River Kwai  (my first non-Star Wars Alec Guinness movie), a perfect film for American Audiences to become more familiar with this phenomenal actor.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was rated PG by the MPAA for mild war violence. It’s tame on visual representations of violence but high on ideas and concepts. I watched it with my son and found it riveting all the way through its 161-minute runtime. If you’re a fan of David Lean and Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Obi-wan Kenobi, this is a film you need to see.

Availability: The Bridge on the River Kwai is readily available on DVD and Blu-ray and can be streamed on most online video services.

Bryan Young is an authorfilmmakerjournalist, and the editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith. You can also follow him on Twitter @swankmotron.

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