Whilst perhaps not my very favourite of David Lean’s output (that would be a tough call between Great Expectations, 1946 and Oliver Twist, 1948), The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) is perhaps the greatest achievement from his final quintet of historical epics, of which it is the first (followed of course by Lawrence Of Arabia, 1962; Doctor Zhivago, 1965; Ryan’s Daughter, 1970 and his last picture A Passage To India, 1984). A perennial Christmas television favourite, it’s a film which needs little introduction, winning seven of the eight Oscars for which it was nominated including Best Picture and Best Director and provided Alec Guiness with his sole Best Actor Oscar of the five for which he was nominated. Only the superb Sessue Hayakawa, a superstar of silent cinema in Hollywood (including Cecil B.DeMille’s sexploitation picture The Cheat, 1915) until the prevalence of the talkies revealed his heavy accent, lost out as Best Supporting Actor to Red Buttons in Joshua Logan’s Marlon Brando vehicle Sayonara.
Originally shot in Cinemascope’s second ratio of 2.55:1 (changed from 2.66:1 to allow room on the film itself for four magnetic strip sound channels, negating the need to record audio separately and post-sync), by the time Bridge On The River Kwai finished production, the Cinemascope ratio had been reduced again after many theatres had complained about their inability to play the stereophonic soundtrack, meaning a new ratio (still used today) of 2.35:1, with the center point of the image shifted due to the added optical soundtrack, became the new standard. This meant that though shot in 2.55:1, the film had to be printed in the exhibition friendly ratio of 2.35:1, losing part of Lean’s frame and preventing it from ever been screened as it was originally shot. Until now, that is.
"This is war, not a game of cricket!"
"This is war, not a game of cricket!"
Under the supervision of Sony Pictures’ preservationist Grover Crisp, the result of the restoration process is quite simply breathtaking. Due to the inherent problems with the original negative (which contained a permanent scratch throughout the picture to aid the printing process after the change in ratio), the entire film had to be digitised. These weren’t simply the usual issues of wear and tear through distribution but often the result of technical problems from production, a faulty camera, issues with the ‘Scope lens and frames torn by the camera. A 4K scan of the original negative was made, the highest resolution attainable from 35mm film (and 430% higher than Full HD or 1920x1080), and each of the hundreds of thousands of frames were individually cleaned and restored. It’s a clearly a labour of love, all the grain from the film is intact and whilst apparently the first fully digital projection of an Archive screening at the London Film Festival, it’s not cleaned in a way as to overtly modernize the image (i.e. it by no means looks digitally sharpened or modified) just eye-poppingly pristine, like it’s just come out of the lab.
The sound and image are not the only things to benefit from the restoration process however. The opening credits have now been changed to include the names of screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Foreman, writer of High Noon (1952) and Wilson, who worked as a screenwriter on It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and won an Oscar for writing A Place In The Sun (1951), had been blacklisted after being found ‘unfriendly witnesses’ and former members of the Communist Party by the House Un-American Activities Committee under Senator Joseph McCarthy, and their names were consequently removed from all associated pictures. It was left to Pierre Boulle, on whose novel the picture was based, to collect the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar alone when it was awarded in 1957. It wasn’t until 1984 that they were both posthumously recognised by the Academy, and not until now that their names finally appear on screen.
The restoration is a stunning achievement, exposing detail even the flashiest high definition home cinema set-up would fail to capture. It’s just great to see a film that after more than fifty years can still inspire wonder, back in its rightful home.
The Bridge On The River Kwai – 1957 – United Kingdom – 161 mins – Dir : David Lean
Screening as part of the Treasures From The Archive strand at the London Film Festival on Sunday 17th October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff