Genre: War Running Time: 2 hrs. 41 min.
Release Date: December 14th, 1957 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: David Lean Actors: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne
arcastic, insincere American prisoner Navy Commander Shears (William Holden) digs graves outside the main Japanese-run POW camp in Thailand as a new, large platoon of captive British soldiers march onto the premises (to the famous whistled tune of “Colonel Bogey”). They are chosen by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the leader of Camp 16, to aid in the construction of a bridge across the Kwai River. Against the strict code of the Geneva Convention, Saito demands that officers be used for manual labor, which infuriates the by-the-books British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who genuinely can’t understand the lack of adherence to civilized guidelines. When his fellow officers are given the ultimatum to either join the lower ranks at work or to be mowed down by a machinegun, Nicholson refuses to budge, saved at the last minute by medical officer Major Clipton’s (James Donald) appeal to Saito’s warrior’s honor.
In Singapore, Nicholson’s squadron was ordered to surrender, so he immediately quashes any formation of an escape committee (in contrast to 1963’s “The Great Escape”). But that doesn’t stop Shears, who is determined to bolt at the first opportune time – taking two other rebels with him, only to be shot and plummeted into the river. Nicholson continues to reject the order to work, forcing Saito to toss the steadfast leader into the “hot box” (a small metal shack situated in the blazing sun), with the rest of the officers stashed in an equivalent punishment barrack. When the construction of the bridge undergoes sabotage and delays due to British prisoners naturally combating the notion of quality work for the enemy, Saito reveals to Nicholson that ritual suicide looms in the horizon if he can’t get the men to speed up progress. Giving Nicholson a slight advantage by betraying weakness, Saito eventually gives in, releasing all of the officers and allowing them to serve in administrative positions only.
“That man’s the worst commanding officer I’ve ever come across,” states Nicholson, speaking as if a man of reason governs his containment. It’s all a matter of principle for the nearly mad colonel, who comments on the insanity of escape due to the inevitable loss of life, yet stubbornly holds his ground on the improper laboring of officers, uncaringly sacrificing the wellbeing of his own men to prove a point. When his conduct results in a favorable outcome, his irrational dedication to proper military behavior is only strengthened. Partially delusional, he plots to reinstitute order and discipline among the men by constructing the best bridge possible – to reinforce the idea that even in captivity, British soldiers can accomplish great feats.
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” exhibits a peculiarly cooperative aspect of World War II, fictionally depicting a cornered leader’s resolve and the stressed psychological transformation of his captor (or the bending of his will). It’s a battle of dispositional discipline outlined with humorous dialogue, an entertaining distancing from reality, and an action-packed adventure in breathtaking Cinemascope. “Do not speak to me of rules! This is war!” screams Saito, challenging the flawed ideology that governs Nicholson’s motives. Although the severity of injury or death occasionally looms, the British Colonel’s narrow vision sees only the chance for demonstrative accomplishment.
The dueling wits are at the center of the story, augmented by Shears’ vengeful return to the bridge as part of the British Force 316’s elite operation and the reiteration of attitudes by its director, Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), who, similar to Nicholson, preoccupies himself with how to die like a gentleman or die by the rules instead of concerning himself with how to just survive. This leads to an epic conclusion, full of bitter irony, foreshadowed by Warden’s observation of a mistreated British officer on his knees, straining to nail a metal sheet while Japanese guards appear amused – which is actually Nicholson’s decree to erect a plaque permanently declaring the bridge’s proud builders. In the climactic final moments, true clarity of the situation and the military relationships is finally ineluctable – and tragically too late.
– Mike Massie