The Bridge on the River Kwai has never been a great-looking film. I mean, at least not in my lifetime. Whether via VHS, widescreen VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, or even high-definition Blu-ray, it has long been plagued by an overly contrasty, crushed, murky look that didn’t quash its emotional impact but nonetheless seemed like a missed opportunity, especially given the film’s lush setting.
Since the biggest problem marring the look of the film has been blacks that are too black and highlights that are too bright, an HDR release may seem somewhat pointless—or even perhaps detrimental. But if anything, The Bridge on the River Kwai’s 4K HDR release via Kaleidescape does a wonderful job of conveying the difference between “contrast” and “dynamic range.” Yes, the new HDR grade darkens the darks a little, and brightens the highlights spectacularly. But the most important thing it does is to introduce more steps between those two extremes, breathing subtlety and richness into the shadows and bringing the image to life in ways I never would have imagined possible. In short, it delivers the nuances inherent to the original film that have never survived before now in the transition to home video.
That’s not to say that the film now looks perfect, mind you. Kwai was shot with cobbled-together CinemaScope cameras, without the benefit of zoom lenses. As such, the very first scene we see, of a soaring and circling hawk, was quite obviously blown up extensively, resulting in an overly grainy, noisy mess.
Thankfully, such scenes are rare. A more common occurrence, though, is the optical fade transition between scenes. These have always looked rough, but here they look even rougher, if only by comparison to the gorgeous presentation of the rest of the film. To my eyes, it appears that these fade transitions weren’t sourced from the original negative that served as the basis
for the bulk of the restoration. They look at least a generation removed, and my guess is that in restoring the film, they had to pull the fades from a print. So, as one scene transitions into the next, you’ll go from a vibrant, gorgeously textured scene into an overly contrasty, noisier fade, then right into another lovely scene.
Until you get used to this, scene transitions can be a little more jarring in the 4K HDR presentation than they are in the Blu-ray-quality download also included with this release. So, you’re left with a choice: Do you watch the film in truly lovely quality with the occasional, fleeting downgrade to a second-generation source, or do you opt for a sort of bleh-but-acceptable presentation that’s more consistent from beginning to end?
Personally, I’ll opt for the former any day, secure in the knowledge that this is absolutely the best The Bridge on the River Kwai will ever look. I’m guessing that the original negatives for those fade transitions were damaged beyond repair in post-production, and as such there’s no good source for additional restoration. But once you accept the fact that a second or two here and there will look a little less than stunning, the HDR download of the film—released here in its proper 2.55:1 aspect ratio, not 2.40:1 as the tech specs would indicate—is an absolute revelation.
The Kaleidescape download is also supported by a 5.1 surround soundtrack that seems to be identical to the 2010 Blu-ray release (which itself was based on the restored and enhanced audio track I believe I first remember hearing on the 1994 LaserDisc release). There are some additional ambient sound effects I don’t remember hearing on the VHS releases, which I
no longer have the ability to play. The good news is, this isn’t one of those ham-fisted surround remixes that attempt to make the film sound more modern. Everything in the mix evokes the original (which I think was a four-track magnetic soundtrack).
I almost completely skipped the Atmos soundtrack included with this release, since I’m not fond of that format for movies to begin with, much less 60-year-old classics. But I’m glad I gave it a listen on a whim. It sounds like the Atmos mix was mostly based on the 2010 remix, which itself was based on the 1993 reconstruction of the original audio elements, but there are a few key differences. Dialogue that was obviously overdubbed sounds less obviously overdubbed, and the height channels open up the sound field and expand the film’s ambience in a truly subtle but effective way. If you’re looking for a soundtrack that pushes your ceiling speakers to their extremes, keep on looking. But if you’re looking for an audio experience that’s true to the original, just with some extra breathing room, give this one a listen. Even if
you generally like Atmos less than I do.
As for extras, you’ll have to download the Blu-ray-quality version of the film from Kaleidescape to check them out, but it’s worth the extra effort. In addition to a trio of period promotional materials and a short documentary about film criticism made for USC film students, there’s a really fantastic retrospective documentary by Laurent Bouzereau made for the two-disc collector’s edition DVD release from 2000. While somewhat glossing over the film’s historical inaccuracies, the doc is a bit more forthright than most retrospectives, and is certainly worth a look.
Even if you don’t care about supplemental material, though, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film that belongs in any good film collection. This isn’t one you want to wait for TCM to air, since it rewards repeated viewings. Consider, for example, how its complex themes evolve as you shift attention from William Holden, Alec Guinness, and even Sessue Hayakawa, and focus on one above the others as the story’s main driving force. It isn’t really until you watch it again, placing all three on equal footing, that you can get to the heart of what the film is about: The consequences of ideology crashing into principles, when neither completely comports with reality.
And unless you’re still buying discs, Kaleidescape is just about the only way to own this 4K HDR presentation, since for whatever reason Vudu, Amazon, and many other digital providers are limited to the HD release.
Again, due to the way it was shot and edited, and the ravages of time, The Bridge on the River Kwai isn’t a technically perfect film. But Kaleidescape’s presentation so far exceeded my expectations that all of the above nitpicking feels like pedantry. For the first time, the film lives in a form that’s worthy of the best display in your home. And if for whatever reason you’ve never seen it, I must admit, I’m a little jealous that this is how you’ll get to experience for the first time.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.