David Lean's much-lauded epic begins in deafening silence, as a hawk soars majestically over a lush jungle landscape. Then another striking image: graves---no names---by the side of an under-construction railway. From sky to ground in two shots, and it already feels like we've traversed a great distance, with two and a half hours of skillful, suspenseful WWII adventure to go. The film shuffles elegantly among three perspectives: that of Japanese commandant Saito (Hayakawa), the merciless overseer of a POW camp; British Col. Nicholson (Guinness), Saito's prisoner and stalwart rival; and U.S. Navy man Shears (Holden), a cynical con artist who miraculously escapes from Saito's camp, only to be conscripted to return and destroy the bridge the inmates are building.
There is no clear distinction between heroism and villainy; Lean uses the massive CinemaScope canvas to keep us at an emotional remove from the characters so they seem like checkerboard pieces moving toward a fixed, destructive point. (The assault on the bridge itself is a peerless piece of action filmmaking, visually and metaphorically stimulating.) If there's a misstep here, it would be in the character of camp medic Maj. Clipton (James Donald). His overwrought dialogue---especially some Heston-like cries of "Madness!" during the finale---is too much of an on-the-nose contrast to the story's necessarily clinical existentialism. It slightly dilutes the film's piercing grandeur, but the nit is easily enough picked.