About 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 Dr. 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.
Having finished burying yet another dead soldier, Shears offers a cynical but brutally honest eulogy:
Here lies 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.
After bribing the Japanese captain with a cigarette lighter pilfered from a corpse, Shears and Weaver head to the sick bay for some rest.
The 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.
That night, Shears attempts to convince Nicholson to approve an escape plan despite long odds:
Oh, I'd 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.
When Nicholson avers that he would be violating military law by escaping because he was ordered to surrender, Shears is flabbergasted:
Shears: 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?
Nicholson: Without law, Commander, there is no civilization.
Shears: That's just my point. Here, there is no civilization.
Nicholson: Then we have the opportunity to introduce it. I suggest that we drop the subject of escape.
Nicholson's 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.
Wanting to 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."
While 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 witnesses.
Watching from the hospital, Weaver notes that the old man has guts. Shears sees it a different way:
That kinda 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.
The 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:
Saito: Can you finish the bridge in time?
Nicholson: 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.
Nicholson imagines 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:
Clipton: The fact is, what we’re doing could be construed as, forgive me sir, collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable activity.
Nicholson: Are you all right, Clipton? We're prisoners of war. We haven't the right to refuse work.
Clipton: I understand that, sir, but must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built for themselves?
Nicholson: If you had to operate on Saito, would you do your best, or would you let him die?
Meanwhile, 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 duty.
Warden knows 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."
The commando team needs one more member, and they interview a young Canadian, Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne):
Warden: (Holding up a knife) Think about this. Are you quite sure you'll be able to use it in cold blood?
Joyce: I know how to use it, sir.
Warden: That's not what I meant. Could you use it in cold blood? Could you kill without hesitation?
Joyce: That's a good question. I've often asked myself, sir. It's worried me quite a bit.
Warden: What was the answer?
Joyce: 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.
After 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 place."
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 this outfit?
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."
He 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.
Warden projects 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?"
Shears' sarcastic 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."
Later, Warden 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.
Shears 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
Cinemascope, a spectacular 2.55:1 Original Aspect Ratio. When you rent the video, insist upon the Columbia Tri-Star Studio Heritage Collection version.
Lean, 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 location.
The actors 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.
The Great Anti-War Films:
- All Quiet on the Western Front
- Paths of Glory
- Grand Illusion
- The Thin Red Line
- The Americanization of Emily
- The King of Hearts
- A Midnight Clear
- An Act of Conscience
February 23, 2002