By Scott Ross
David Lean’s first “big” film is a beautifully observed epic that is, essentially, a chamber play with tragic overtones. The movie works on several levels: as a straight adventure saga, a stirring prison-break drama, a battle of wills, and a moving meditation on the folly of pride. Alec Guinness’ performance as the by-the-book British prisoner of war won deserved praise, and he’s nicely counterbalanced by William Holden’s disgusted cynicism. The movie’s popularity made the old World War I rouser “Col. Bogey March” a fixture on the American Hit Parade (in the then-inevitable Mitch Miller version).
The Academy Award-winning screenplay (credited, in those frightened times, to the novelist Pierre Boulez, who didn’t speak English!) was written by two blacklistees, Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman; they finally got their credits restored, posthumously, in the 1980s. With Sessue Hayakawa as Guinness’ tormented Japanese counterpart, Jack Hawkins as the adventurer who forces Holden’s trek back to the camp, and the always-likable James Donald, splendid as the movie’s moral compass.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross