Movies & TV / Columns

Nether Regions 11.30.10: Return from the River Kwai

November 30, 2010 | Posted by Chad Webb

Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.



Starring: Edward Fox, Christopher Penn, and Denholm Elliot
Directed By: Andrew V. McLaglen
Written By: Sargon Tamimi and Paul Mayersberg (based on the book by Joan Blair and Clay Blair Jr.)
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: April 7, 1989 (UK only)
Missing Since: never released in US
Existing Formats: Region 2 DVD
Netflix Status: Few know this exists, including Netflix
Availability: One of the rarest films I’ve done to date

Although the title would make you believe otherwise, Return from the River Kwai has no connection to the David Lean masterpiece The Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet, on IMDB, or any site that includes a review, the writer will instantly dismiss this film as inferior to “the original” and move on. These films contain two different versions of one particular event. The destruction of the bridge at the end of the Lean picture is also depicted in the beginning of Return from the River Kwai, but in the historically accurate way. Yes, The Bridge on the River Kwai, an undeniable classic, is largely fictional.

Major Benford
salutes Mr. Sulu, er
Lt. Tanaka.

When it was released in the United Kingdom in 1989, Return from the River Kwai carried a disclaimer that read “it was in no way related to or a sequel to the film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).” Still, that is exactly how it has gone down in history. I discovered it while perusing trivia facts in a book covering the first AFI Top 100 Films of All-Time list. In that book, I observed that sequels to quite a few classics were floating around that I had never heard of. How about Lawrence After Arabia, Scarlett (mini-series after Gone with the Wind), and The Last Days of Patton? All are legitimate sequels. Unfortunately for Return from the River Kwai, it cannot shake that label. It has not been released in the US because of obvious legal reasons.

Tracking down a copy of this on DVD was not easy. The region 2 DVD can be found without excessive hassle, but the trick was unearthing a region 1 bootleg from that version. Normally I would have settled for a VHS, but as I said above, it has never been released in the US. And the harder a movie is to find, the more time I spend looking for it high and low. Eventually I stumbled upon one, and it wasn’t ridiculously expensive. Return from the River Kwai is basically a B-war movie. It fits with those smaller scale war stories like The Great Raid (2005), in terms of scope and quality. It’s fairly straightforward and mediocre, but far from the epic disaster many paint it as.

The book cover
by Joan Blair and Clay Blair Jr.

The events commence with the bombing of the Burma-Thailand Death Railway by the Allies in the midst of WWII. A group of Australian POW’s looks on and cheers even though they spent so many grueling hours building that very bridge. Commander Tanaka (George Takei) decides that an example must be made of three prisoners, and they are tied to a tree and blindfolded, but just before the shots are fired to execute them, Major Harada (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives and informs Tanaka that the healthiest men must be transported to Japan by train and boat. The journey proves to be a difficult one since they are always threatened by Tanaka and the possibility that the Allies could bomb their location without knowing that POW’s are being moved. They are also regularly thinking of escape, though Major Benford (Edward Fox) is strongly against the idea. Meanwhile, an American bomber named Leyland Crawford (Christopher Penn) has crash-landed and is rescued by the Meo, an indigenous people who have assembled a resistance against the Japanese.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen is most commonly known for all the John Wayne vehicles he stood at the helm for: McClintock!, Hellfighters, Chisum, The Undefeated, and Cahill U.S. Marshall are among them. The sad fact is that by using “River Kwai”, a trigger will go off in one’s brain comparing McLaglen to David Lean. The latter was a painstaking visual mastermind, and McLaglen prefers the standard, simple, get it done swiftly style of filmmaking. That’s not to say Return from the River Kwai is absent of vision, but there is certainly nothing fancy to see. Still, for a picture made in the late 80’s, Return does evoke an old-fashioned atmosphere, as if it could have been a sequel to Bridge on the River Kwai. The grainy video quality and low budget environment supports that idea.

Problems arise when the basic direction is combined with the generic script. The dialogue given to some truly gifted actors is at times quite pedestrian and weak, preventing the stalwart cast from really sinking their teeth into the roles. This is one of two credits for co-screenwriter Sargon Tamimi, and Paul Mayersberg has actually written some quality material such as Bowie gems The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but mix them together and the result is a story that settles for scratching the surface of the heroics, sacrifice, and death that occurred all those years ago. Return from the River Kwai was McLaglen’s final outing as a director, and it was definitely more of a whimper than a bang as the serviceable acting carries it through to the end. The feeble script hurt most of the skills he aimed to exhibit, and the occasional silliness of the story progression points to a film that could have been improved with a little patience.

The region 2
DVD cover.

The insertion of Christopher Penn is bizarre when one glances at the rest of the names, but this is easily one of the best turns the late Penn gave. In many respects he depicts Lieutenant Crawford in a reserved manner, but it suits the character’s fish-out-of-water temperament and meshes well with the other members of the cast. Penn is not Oscar worthy here by any stretch of the imagination, but he succeeds in not exaggerating, nor underplaying Crawford. As competent as he is though, the Crawford sub-plot represents the weakest positions of this film. The trajectory of Crawford as the prisoners do their thing is hard to swallow. In one sequence, Crawford escapes from a guarded ship and steals a plane in a Japanese airport with such ease that it would make Andy Dufresne cry.

Nick Tate and Edward Fox engage in some marvelous conversations as Lt. Commander Hunt and Major Benford. Both are convincing and adeptly seasoned considering the lines they must utter. Both thespians have enjoyed long and fruitful careers dating back to the 60’s and continuing to this day. Their chemistry almost saves this underwhelming flick. The highlight is George Takei, obviously recognized for his long history on Star Trek, but seeing him do nicely as the menacingly cold commander of the prison camp is terrific. I expected to have trouble imagining him as anything but Sulu, but he slides into this evil persona effortlessly. Tatsuya Nakadai and Denholm Elliot are also intelligently used as Major Harada and Colonel Grayson. Elliot’s presence on screen was too brief.

This little boy
was told English speaking
soldiers would eat him.

There is a thrilling battle between the Meo people and the Japanese troops guarding the train, which is heading to Japan. The Meo, accompanied by Denholm Elliot’s Colonel Grayson and Lt. Crawford, blow up the tracks in an effort to halt the transport of the troops. This was tautly staged and absorbing, yet the ship mutiny towards the end of the story is handicapped due to poor lighting and general confusing chaos. Return from the River Kwai actually tries to juggle numerous intriguing story threads, but at 97 minutes, some are dropped, and that includes the tension between Harada and Tanaka. It all wraps up rather tidily, and it would have been a superb conclusion if not for the sporadically nonsensical flow of events.

Despite some excellent scenes and cogent performances, the shoddy script and its honest embracing of war movie clichés becomes harder to ignore. Lalo Schifrin’s overly conservative score doesn’t help the case either. The workmanlike production would have been more comfortable as made-for-TV fare. The potential was there, but instead of tackling some of the hefty moral dilemmas and exploring the characters further, the pace maintained a steady run and the terrain kept changing as a way to make sure the audience stayed alert. If Return from the Rivers Kwai was as abysmal as some have claimed, everyone would have heard of it. No, the biggest mistake McLaglen and company made was in releasing a film that is forgettable.

Final Rating: 6.0/10.0

Out of Print
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV)
The Stepfather 3
Salem’s Lot
Latin Lovers
State Fair (1933)
Sleuth (1972)
Johnny Guitar
Children of the Corn 2: The Final Harvest
High Noon Part II: The Return of Will Kane
The Prehysteria! Trilogy
Only Yesterday
Ocean Waves
The Little Norse Prince
Breaking the Waves
Cruel Story of Youth
The Magnificent Ambersons
Two Rode Together
The Portrait of a Lady
The Unholy Three
King Solomon’s Mines (1937)
Love with the Proper Stranger
The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover
Willard (1971)
The Wizard of Speed and Time

Available on Netflix, Instant Watch (But Not to Purchase)
The Heartbreak Kid
Richard Burton’s Hamlet
Orson Welles’ Othello
The Keep
The Swimmer

Now Available on DVD
The African Queen
A Return to Salem’s Lot – Available Through Warner Archives
Phantasm II
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – All Versions Available
The Stepfather
The Stepfather 2
America, AmericaAvailable in the Elia Kazan box set

Random Thoughts

– I picked up the new Kid Rock album Born Free, which is pretty good. It’s more country geared than he usually does, but we all knew he was a fan of that genre, so it’s ok. I also listened to the new Kanye West CD, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and as much as I hate to admit it, the album is excellent.

– I am really into The Big Bang Theory right now and Black Friday allowed me to purchase the seasons for cheap. That show has gotten me into more comics and sci-fi shows as well. Odd how that works.

– I have seen a couple movies in the theater this week: The Next Three Days and The King’s Speech, both of which I hope to review soon. While in the lobby before The King’s Speech, I ran into Stacy f’n’ Keach (a.k.a Mike Hammer and the warden from Prison Break) and quickly explained how big a fan I was. He said “Thank you” and we are now best friends. I’m just waiting for him to friend me on Facebook.

– The Nicolas Cage YouTube video featuring clips of him going crazy in many of his films was hilarious. That is now the second news post this year involving Cage that absolutely made my day. The other of course was the one where he confessed to doing mushrooms with his cat.

– I hope all my readers out there had a great Thanksgiving. It is now officially cold all the time where I live and that means I turn into a Grinch. It also means I need to warm up my car every morning. Oh joy.

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“The plural of Chad is Chad?”
–From the movie Recount


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