THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and ZULU: A DUO OF SUPERB EPIC WAR FILMS REVIEWED BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. (1957) BASED ON THE 1952 BOOK BY PIERRE BOULLE. DIRECTED BY DAVID LEAN. STARRING ALEC GUINNESS, JACK HAWKINS, WILLIAM HOLDEN, JAMES DONALD, GEOFFREY HORNE AND SESSUE HAYAKAWA.
ZULU. (1964) DIRECTED, CO-PRODUCED AND CO-WRITTEN BY CY ENDFIELD. STARRING STANLEY BAKER, MICHAEL CAINE, JACK HAWKINS, ULLA JACOBSSON, NIGEL GREEN, PATRICK MAGEE, JAMES BOOTH AND CHIEF BUTHELEZI. NARRATION BY RICHARD BURTON.
These are undoubtedly two of the best war films that have ever been made. I’ve loved ’em both since I first clapped eyes on them and I’m thrilled to be reviewing them together like this.
Starring some of the finest actors in cinema history, they’ve won a ton of awards between them and are always featuring on lists detailing the best films of all time. There are quite a few similarities between them as well, as it happens. Let’s take a closer look at both movies, shall we, and see what we make of ’em…
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI tells the story (fictional, but based on some fact) of a large group of British soldiers who are taken prisoner by the Japanese during WW2. They are sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Burma and forced to build the titular bridge which will connect Bangkok and Rangoon when it is completed.
ZULU is a dramatisation of an actual battle, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, that took place between British soldiers and the massive Zulu army in early 1879 in Natal. It was during the Anglo-Zulu War that it happened. In the film, the same Zulus have just massacred large numbers of the British force at the Battle of Isandlwana.
Now they’re coming for the one-hundred-and-fifty of Her Majesty’s soldiers, many of them injured and in the sick bay, who currently occupy the little missionary station at Rorke’s Drift. The odds against the British soldiers are impossible. They’re dead men walking now, surely…?
Both films portray the British soldiers as courageous hard workers who keep a stiff upper lip at all times and never abandon their principles. They’re true Englishmen, after all, from a civilised country where people drink a nice cup of tea and read the morning paper unhurriedly regardless of the situation. It’s a good way to be, eh what, chaps?
Alec Guinness’s stiff upper lip as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI nearly gets him killed. He clashes with Colonel Saito, the man in charge of the Japanese prison camp, over a rather piddling matter of principle for which he’s (Nicholson) clearly prepared to die.
It’s almost a huge relief when eventually the equally stubborn pair put aside their differences and decide, for their mutual benefit, to build the best damn bridge they’re capable of creating between them.
Michael Caine is superb in ZULU as the posh privileged army officer with the fancy toff’s name of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. He comes from a family of army royalty and initially looks down on Stanley Baker’s Lieutenant Chard.
Chard is an engineer who, incidentally, is busily- and sweatily!- engaged in building a bridge when Bromhead swans up on his horse, as cool as the proverbial cucumber. What is it with army men and their little bridges…? The two men quickly learn to work together, however, when those pesky Zulus start swarming over the horizon…
Although my favourite characters from THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI are those of Nicholson and Colonel Saito, William Holden is top-notch too as the American prisoner-of-war, Commander Shears. He daringly escapes from the impossible-to-escape-from prison camp and then is horrified when he’s asked to go back there by Jack Hawkins as the English Major Warden, who has orders to blow up the bridge that his fellow Englishman Nicholson has so lovingly created. Blow up the bridge? Jolly good show, chaps. Jolly good show…!
Actor Jack Hawkins is another feature that both films have in common. He also stars in ZULU as the rather naïve Swedish missionary Otto Witt, father to the beautiful Ulla Jacobsson’s Margareta and a man who’s partial to a bit of a tipple.
I love when that fine South African-born British character actor Nigel Green (COUNTESS DRACULA with Ingrid Pitt) as the exceptionally stiff-upper-lipped Colour Sergeant Bourne tells the drunken Otto Witt to ‘quiet down now sir, there’s a good gentleman, you’re scaring the lads…!’
Nigel Green gets another great line when a green and terrified young soldier says to him as they quietly wait to be overrun by Zulus: ‘Why us, Sarge?’ Not turning a hair, the splendidly-moustached Colour Sergeant Bourne replies: ‘Because we’re here, lad. Because we’re here…’
In a nice touch of authenticity, the real-life Chief Buthelezi plays his own great-grandfather, the Zulu King Cetshwayo, in the film. Also, a lot of singing talent is on show here as the Zulus take on the Welsh soldiers in the regiment in a sort of THE VOICE OF WALES X FACTOR MEETS ZULU’S GOT TALENT type of thing so be sure and buy the soundtrack…!
There are lots of terrific actors in minor roles in both films too, such as James Donald as the infinitely civilised and reasonable but also pragmatic Major Clipton in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and another James, this time James Booth, from ZULU. He plays the malingerer Private Henry Hook, the guy with the bad attitude who rather surprisingly ends up winning an award for bravery along with no small number of his colleagues.
These are two cracking war films that’ll make great viewing if you were to watch ’em back-to-back some lazy Saturday afternoon, like I’ve just done myself. Don’t forget to maintain that stiff upper lip throughout, though, and keep a tight rein on any tears that might threaten to fall during your viewing of this truly smashing and emotional double-feature.
It’s just not the done thing to sob and sniffle like hysterical women in front of the ranks, you know. As to what exactly constitutes the done thing, well, you know what, old boy? In the words of a certain Colonel Nicholson: ‘I haven’t the foggiest…!’
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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