the only thing that can make one of the vaunted films of all time
even better is if it's also a scathing anti-war film. Stanley Kubrick's
Strangelove comes immediately to mind, of course, but David
Lean's epic anti-war adventure The
Bridge on the River Kwai merits equal consideration. In
fact, it is arguably the best film of the 1950s.
It is certainly
the finest film of 1957, and in a refreshing upset, the Academy
agreed, bestowing seven Oscars and eight nominations. Only Sessue
Hayakawa as Colonel Saito failed to pick up the statuette. The nonpareil
Alec Guinness won Best Actor, but was not Lean's first choice. He
originally tabbed Charles Laughton, who couldn't stand the elements
of the Sri Lanka location.
Set in 1943,
the film opens with timeless images, simple yet stark. A lone hawk
soars through the azure sky, representing the joy of unfettered
freedom, followed by a shot of a makeshift graveyard, filled with
hundreds of crude crosses, implying the ultimate price paid in war.
Then Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) and his battalion of British soldiers
march into a prison camp in the Burmese jungle whistling "Colonel
Boogie March" in unison. As they approach, two of the incumbent
prisoners dig graves in the sweltering sun. William Holden plays
American Navy Commander Shears as a war-weary cynic, resigned to
his daily hell but still hopeful of escaping the horrors of slavery.
"Those new prisoners see us diggin' graves, they might all
run away," Shears tells his Australian mate Weaver.
finished burying yet another dead soldier, Shears offers a cynical
but brutally honest eulogy:
Corporal Herbert Thompson, serial number 01234567, valiant member
of the King’s own, and Queen’s own, or something, who died of
beriberi in the year of our Lord 1943. For the greater glory
of … what did he die for?… May he rest in peace. He found
little enough of it while he was alive.
the Japanese captain with a cigarette lighter pilfered from a corpse,
Shears and Weaver head to the sick bay for some rest.
meeting of Nicholson and the Japanese Colonel Saito (Hayakawa) reveals
the key conflict of the first act, a test of wills between the two
leaders. Saito announces to the British prisoners that they will
build a bridge on the River Kwai in an effort to complete the crucial
railroad to Rangoon. Nicholson invokes the Geneva Convention to
object to Saito's order that the officers must work alongside their
men, but the laconic colonel simply walks away.
Shears attempts to convince Nicholson to approve an escape plan
despite long odds:
say the odds against a successful escape are about 100
to one, but the odds against survival in this camp are even
worse. You've seen the graveyard. There you realize. You give
up hope of escape. To even stop thinking about it is like accepting
a death sentence.
Nicholson avers that he would be violating military law by escaping
because he was ordered to surrender, Shears is flabbergasted:
I'm sorry sir. I didn't quite follow you. You mean you intend
to uphold the letter of the law, no matter what it costs?
Without law, Commander, there is no civilization.
That's just my point. Here, there is no civilization.
Then we have the opportunity to introduce it. I suggest that
we drop the subject of escape.
allusion to nation building underscores the nationalism that leads
politicians to start wars and their subjects to support them. Despite
being held as a prisoner of war, the colonel arrogantly believes
that he is somehow superior to his enemy in breeding, intelligence
and morality. It's a theme that Lean returns to throughout the film.
bolster the morale of his men, Nicholson tells the other officers,
"Our men must feel they are still commanded by us and not by
the Japanese. So long as they have that idea to cling to, they'll
be soldiers and not slaves." The pessimistic Shears retorts,
"I hope they can remain soldiers, Colonel. As for me, I'm just
a slave, a living slave."
Shears merely wants to survive until he seizes an opportunity to
escape, Nicholson insists on maintaining his position and command
of his men despite his prisoner status. The next morning, he continues
to defy Saito's order that officers will perform manual labor, this
time brandishing his copy of the Geneva Convention. Saito, incensed
at his counterpart's insolence, smacks him in the face with the
booklet before throwing it contemptuously on the ground. Nicholson's
men refuse to march off to work he gives them the direct order.
The officers however, continue their defiant stand. Saito threatens
to kill Nicholson and his officers, but relents when Army POW Doctor
Major Clipton (James Donald) points out that there are too many
the hospital, Weaver notes that the old man has guts. Shears sees
it a different way:
guts. The kind they had in 1914 when your
men went over the top with nothing but swagger sticks …
the kind of guts that can get us all killed.
soldiers return at dusk to find that the officers have remained
standing at attention all day! After a meeting with Nicholson, Saito
orders the officers to the "punishment hut" and sends
the Colonel to "the oven," a metal sweatbox, figuring
some time in the relentless sun will persuade him to acquiesce.
As the British
prisoners roar into a spontaneous rendition of "For He's a
Jolly Good Fellow," Shears takes advantage of the commotion
to attempt a daring escape. He is shot, plunges into the river,
but miraculously survives.
Saito is the
first to blink in his test of wills with Nicholson. While his men
cheer his release from the oven, Saito privately cries in shame
at his loss of honor.
All great anti-war
films expose the madness of war. Lean explores this theme through
the character of Nicholson. Once he wins his battle with Saito,
he turns his attention to building the bridge, exhibiting an eerie
single-minded focus, as if he is building the bridge for the Allies.
After consulting with his engineers, who tell him that the Japanese
have selected the worst possible site and that the work completed
to date has been worthless, Nicholson convenes a meeting with Saito
to "set him straight" about building the bridge properly.
Puffed up with bravado following his victory, he takes over the
meeting, rendering Saito subservient in his own prison camp. He
also relishes adding insult to the injury of Saito's wounded honor:
Can you finish the bridge in time?
Frankly, the consensus of opinion is that it’s impossible. But
we’ll certainly give it a go. After all, we mustn’t forget that
we’ve wasted over a month through an unfortunate disagreement
for which I was not to blame.
that the bridge, now almost completely a British endeavor, will
last six hundred years. He declares "we can teach these barbarians
a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to
shame. We'll show them what the British soldier is capable of doing."
Amazingly, he doesn't seem to realize that he is helping "the
barbarians" achieve a key war objective. Clipton points it
out to him to no avail:
The fact is, what we’re doing could be construed as, forgive
me sir, collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable
Are you all right, Clipton? We're prisoners of war. We haven't
the right to refuse work.
I understand that, sir, but must we work so well? Must we build
them a better bridge than they could have built for themselves?
If you had to operate on Saito, would you do your best, or would
you let him die?
Shears, near death, makes his way to a village where he is nursed
back to health. He sets off in a canoe that drifts into the ocean,
where he is rescued by the British. After recuperating, he enjoys
a tryst on the beach with a beautiful blonde nurse and meets Major
Warden (Jack Hawkins), a British officer in charge of a group of
guerilla commandos. Though Shears has already told British intelligence
everything he knows, he agrees to meet Warden the next morning in
the Botanical Gardens, where special forces train for demolition
the Japanese plan to open the Bangkok-Rangoon railway by mid-May
and devises a raid to blow up the Kwai bridge. He tries to recruit
Shears because of his special knowledge of the area. Thinking he
is just days from a return to civilian life in the States, Shears
admits that he is not really an officer (he had taken the clothes
from the corpse of a dead officer before being captured, figuring
that he would receive better treatment by his captors). Warden already
knows this, but the US does not, and he blackmails Shears into accepting
the assignment. He also offers him the "L-pill: L for lethal,
in the event of capture."
commando team needs one more member, and they interview a young
Canadian, Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne):
(Holding up a knife) Think about this. Are you quite sure you'll
be able to use it in cold blood?
I know how to use it, sir.
That's not what I meant. Could you use it in cold blood? Could
you kill without hesitation?
That's a good question. I've often asked myself, sir. It's worried
me quite a bit.
What was the answer?
I don't honestly know, sir. I've tried to imagine myself – I
suppose I find it hard to kid myself that killing isn't a crime.
Joyce is dismissed, Warden asks Shears for his opinion: "Well,
sir, he's Canadian, and that's keeping with the international composition
of this outfit. If he wants to go that bad, he can even take my
The team parachutes
into the jungle, but one of the men dies in the trees. They recruit
a local man to guide them through the thick jungle ("he hates
the Japanese"). Warden talks to the guide, named Yai, and learns
that the conventional path to the prison camp is now too heavily
patrolled by the Japanese and they will have to take a circuitous
route to the north. This information dumbfounds Shears:
I was just
thinking: you speak Yai's language, I don't. He's going to lead
you back to the River Kwai himself, by a route I never
took. Will someone please tell me why I'm so indispensable to
One of the
strengths of Kwai is Lean's pacing. The running time of 162
minutes allows plenty of time for character development as Lean
masterfully cuts between action and dialogue. A perfect example
is the scenes of the commando group hacking through the foreboding
jungle, where you get a real sense of the arduous and daunting task.
They stop for rest and Warden burns leeches off his skin with a
lit cigarette. Joyce can't figure out why the radio won't work.
As usual, Shears provides the answer: "I'll tell you what's
wrong with it. It's wet, mildewed, corroded, rotten, like everything
else in this rotten jungle."
angrily kicks the radio, and amazingly it begins to receive transmissions.
The group learns that a VIP train will pass over the new bridge
on the morning of the 13th of May. They are ordered to
synchronize the demolition with the passage of the train.
Such is the
unambiguous reality of war: killing is the prime objective. It's
not enough that they plan to blow up the bridge; they must end as
many lives as possible in the process.
that if they push on at a faster pace, they can reach the bridge
by the evening of the 12th. "It's worth having a
go for the train, don't you think?"
response, which mocks the warmongering attitude of the British officer,
is priceless: "Oh, by all means. Good night. Good show. Jolly
good fun. Jolly, jolly good."
falls behind the rest of the team as a result of a badly bleeding
foot. He orders Shears and the others to leave him behind to die,
arguing that completing the objective is paramount. Shears, the
lone voice of sanity, refuses:
I won't obey
that order. You make me sick with your heroics. There's a stench
of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague.
Explosives and L-pills, they go well together, don't they? And
with you, it's just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or
destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war. You and that
Colonel Nicholson, you're two of a kind: crazy with courage. For
what? How to die like a gentleman, how to die by the rules when
the only important thing is how to live like a human being. I’m
not going to leave you here to die, Warden, because I don’t care
about your bridge and I don’t care about your rules. If we go
on, we go on together.
Back at the
Bridge on the River Kwai, Nicholson fears that the project will
not be complete by the deadline. He discards the previously sacrosanct
Geneva Convention and implores his officers to join the rest of
the men. So charismatic a leader is he that he even convinces those
in the sick bay to help out, much to the chagrin of Clipton. When
the bridge is completed, Nicholson erects a sign boasting that the
bridge was designed and constructed by the British Army.
and the others reach the bridge in time to set up the thrilling
climax, which I shall not spoil for those who haven't seen the film.
For those who have seen it, especially those who have only seen
it on television, it is well worth watching again. The film was
meticulously restored and is now such a feast for the eyes and ears
that a friend with whom I watched the video, who had seen the film
"at least a dozen times," considered it a different movie.
Regular readers of this series know that I abhor "pan and scan"
videos that are the norm for the dumbed-down American viewing audience.
Kwai was shot in stunning
a spectacular 2.55:1 Original Aspect Ratio. When you rent the video,
insist upon the Columbia Tri-Star Studio Heritage Collection version.
who went on to direct Lawrence
of Arabia and Dr.
Zhivago, earned a much-deserved Oscar filming Pierre Boulle's
script, which was based upon his novel of the same name. Boulle
collaborated with Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, but they were
blacklisted at the time and hence intentionally unbilled. Cinematographer
Jack Hildyard provides many dazzling shots of the Ceylon jungle
are uniformly brilliant, especially Holden, Guinness and Hayakawa,
who was the first Asian star in Hollywood, having gained fame as
a star of the silent era. Also notable is Malcolm Arnold's score
performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The film does
a splendid job exposing the insanity of war by juxtaposing the madness
of Nicholson and Saito with the war-weary cynicism of Shears, and
setting up a final confrontation between those who built the bridge
and those who would destroy it. Entertaining as it is thought provoking,
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a timeless epic that exposes
the futility and pointless death and destruction of war.
Great Anti-War Films:
Quiet on the Western Front
Thin Red Line
Americanization of Emily
King of Hearts
Act of Conscience
Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column “On Liberty” for The