Title: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Release Date: 14 December, 1957
Oscar Ceremony: 26 March, 1958
Director: David Lean
Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins
Nominees: 12 Angry Men, Peyton Place, Sayonara, Witness for the Prosecution
“Madness… Madness!” – Major Clipton
If you know me, you know I don’t get very excited about slow, long war movies. After recently having watched The Thin Red Line (1998), I was dreading this one. I took the necessary precautions to ensure the least painful viewing experience possible; I had good snacks, watched it during the day with hours ahead of me, got ahold of the Blu-ray copy for the most optimal quality possible, and watched it with Julian so I’d have someone to comment with during the entire thing. It turns out, it wasn’t too bad after all. The Bridge on the River Kwai does more than portray the usual anti-war sentiment paired with heavy battle scenes, and I’m here to tell you all about it.
Pictured above is none other than Obi Wan Kenobi, actor Alec Guinness. In this movie, he plays Colonel Nicholson, a senior officer in charge of the newly arrived British prisoners of war at a Japanese camp during WW2. The camp’s commandant, Colonel Saito, informs them that all men (regardless of rank) will be expected to work on the construction of a bridge over the River Kwai that will connect Bangkok and Rangoon.
Colonel Nicholson stirs trouble with Saito when he firmly argues that officers are to be exempt from manual labour, as stated by the Geneva Conventions. Naturally, Saito couldn’t care less about that. He yells: “Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!” Still, Nicholson doesn’t back down and orders his officers to stay behind while the other prisoners head off to work. Saito finally punishes them by locking them in tiny iron boxes out in the excruciating heat. We patiently wait as both parties refuse to back down while trying to reach an agreement. Eventually, Saito has no choice but to give in since all the workers are pretty much sabotaging the entire process out of protest; he releases the officers, exempts them from manual labour, and gives all the other men a day off before construction begins again. As a result, Colonel Nicholson gets overly excited and dedicates his full energy to making sure his soldiers build the best bridge in the history of bridges.
Meanwhile, there’s an American prisoner at the camp named Major Shears, who manages to escape against all odds. After a few mishaps, he ends up at British intelligence headquarters, where he hopes to be granted a medical discharge. Back at the camp, he was always trying to get out of work, and things are no different now. However, to his dismay, an officer informs him that the U.S. Navy has agreed to turn him over to the British for a special operation aimed at demolishing the bridge over the river Kwai. The plot thickens.
On the surface, this is a movie about war and duty, but deep down, it’s about pride. Why is it that Colonel Nicholson insists on arguing that officers should be exempt of manual labour? Pride. Why is it that Colonel Saito refuses to give in, even when he knows that it would ultimately help him? Pride. It’s kind of like when you argue with someone and you eventually realize they’re right, but you refuse to admit it because that would prove you wrong. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a reminder that sometimes we need to step back and think about the bigger picture. Is it really better to argue forever than to just admit you’re wrong? Is it better to die burning in the sun than to let your officers work? Is it better to tell your superiors that you weren’t able to accomplish your mission than to exempt officers from manual labour? At some point, someone needs to wave the white flag for everyone’s benefit.
There’s also a lot of moral ambiguity in the film, since it’s never really clear who we’re supposed to sympathize with. Every character is inherently flawed, yet they all possess certain qualities that we can relate to. It really goes to show that things aren’t always black and white. I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of the movie, but its morals and philosophy definitely still ring true today.
One weakness that stood out to me was the fact that certain scenes tend to downplay the conditions of PoWs. All of the British and American men in the Japanese camp do not seem to suffer that much. Even better, they often get to swim in the river and rest with their comrades. It also doesn’t help that most of the sceneries portrayed are really gorgeous to look at. I wonder if actual PoWs might have been offended by it all.
Overall, The Bridge on the River Kwai brings some new material to the table. It tells a side of the story that we haven’t really heard about yet, and it does so using action, drama AND comedy, all wrapped up in an inspiring score. I particularly liked the fact that it wasn’t filled with overly long battle scenes and instead focused more on the psychology of war. If that’s not enough, it’s at least worth sticking around for the suspense you get to experience in the last 30 minutes. Trust me, I didn’t really care that much about the story, but near the end I got hooked nonetheless. Now if THAT’s not enough, maybe you’ll bother watching it because it’s shot in CinemaScope, which was a pretty big deal at the time.
Then again, you could also just not watch it. It’s not like it’s really going to change much in your life.