The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
David Lean, Director
Drama, I’ve long told my students, is a shy bird in literary history. It has its brief seasons of breathtaking glory, as in ancient Athens during the age of the great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and as in Europe, especially England, during the late Renaissance, when you have a fellow named Shakespeare, so brilliant that we tend to underrate such titans as Ben Jonson in England and Calderon in Spain and Racine in France. Then the drama plays hide-and-seek for a few hundred years, suddenly taking the world by storm when the motion picture was invented. I don’t just mean that the entertainment was popular. I mean that at its finest, film could stand the comparison with the greatest that has ever been done — always keeping Shakespeare as the genius who ruins all the odds. Film could show the full range of what it means to be human, even in a single character, but especially in characters set off against one another, perhaps tragically, with great virtues but also terrible forms of blindness and weakness, and the pride that always goes before a fall.
Well, who’d have thought, when I was a boy and our Film of the Week, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was shown on television once a year, that we were watching a Greek tragedy? But that’s how I think of it now. The situation seems simple enough. We have a company of British soldiers, marched off to a prison camp in the jungles of Burma, British in their general good humor, their unflappability, and their commitment to regulations, especially manifest in their rational, upright, determined, and somewhat priggish commander, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). They are there to provide most of the labor for building a bridge for railroad trains to cross the River Kwai. That work is strategic for the war — strategic, that is, for the Japanese. The camp is headed by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, who won and deserved an Oscar for his agonizingly sensitive performance, as did Guinness). Saito, whose favorite line to feed the prisoners is, “Be happy in your work,” can speak English, as he was once a student at the London School of Economics. But he admires, envies, and hates his opponents. He cannot get the bridge finished, partly because his Japanese engineer is incompetent, and partly because he has lacked the manpower for it. When Nicholson and his company arrive, he tries to seize the opportunity by commanding that all the British prisoners must do manual labor, including the officers. Democratic of him, yes? But according to the Geneva Convention — and of course Nicholson has a copy of it in his pocket — officers are exempt from manual labor, even in prison camps. Thus is set a battle of wills, with Saito attempting to break the British spirit by sending Nicholson to the “oven,” a tiny metal shed where you might die of heat prostration long before you died of thirst or hunger, and Nicholson holding his own.
Yet there’s more. An American (William Holden) is in the camp too, with a hard-nosed American cynicism about ideals and gentlemanly codes of honor. His name is Shears, and we learn later on that he’s passed himself off as an officer, and that infraction of the rules will prove his undoing in the end. Meanwhile, he thinks that both Saito and Nicholson inhabit a sort of dream world; the reason that he, Shears, obeys is to pursue his own benefit, not by being miserable to others, to be sure, but by a sharp eye for the main chance. He sees the folly of the Japanese would-be tyrant, and the British would-be schoolmaster of the world, who intends, as he says, to introduce civilization where there isn’t any; but he also does not see as far and as deeply as they do.
Shall I add a fourth to the mix? While Nicholson and his men, showing British ingenuity and discipline, are actually building the bridge, and doing a better job of it than the Japanese soldiers and officers can do, and taking real pride and satisfaction in it, the British at headquarters far away are sending a college don (Jack Hawkins), whose specialty is explosives, into the interior to blow the bridge to smithereens, preferably while a train is crossing it. They coerce Shears to accompany him. For the don, Major Warden, it’s great fun, a challenge, a game, and that too is something that Shears sees, and it appalls him. Add an innocent soldier in the bloom of youth, and a British doctor who is in the army but who cannot understand what motivates his own commander, and consider that each “side,” British against British, does not know what the other is doing, and you are set up for high tragedy, for what may be the greatest war movie of all time, and the greatest anti-war movie likewise, a film in which the heroic is inextricable from the foolish and the mad. “My God,” says Nicholson, “what have I done?”
The director, David Lean, was to my mind unexcelled in English or American films when it came to epic sweep, exotic locations, and the setting of titanic principles against one another, without an easy solution, or perhaps without any solution at all. This is one movie which is far superior to the rather spare and expository novel by the same name. It swept the Oscars that year, and I haven’t even mentioned the brilliant and enthralling cinematography, or the music that, if it enters your heart when you are young, as it entered mine, will never leave you.
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I wish more people I know had seen this film so we could discuss it. While watching the film I found myself siding more with Nicholson than with Shears. And so the ending had me questioning myself along with Nicholson. Although I think he was wrong I still prefer the Nicholson to the Shears character.
One of the most important movies to explain our time! My entire book is based on this lens, that the pediatricians drugging kids to stop fidgeting in school today are reenacting Guinness’ honorable but misguided role. Please forgive the lengthy excerpt but you got me all excited with this choice!
“ It is wartime. You are an officer, a leader of men. Your mission, on the shortest of timelines, is to build a bridge strong enough for trains full of troops and supplies to cross a river of grave strategic importance. A man of great honor, intelligence, and courage, you sacrifice your own well-being to care for the men in your charge, and make skillful use of every resource within reach to ensure the job gets done. The going is anything but good; one man especially, a man of openly disreputable character – a cynic, a layabout, and a fraud – almost daily endangers the success of the operation. Nonetheless, at great personal cost, with unquestioned bravery and almost inhuman dedication, you accomplish the mission, you do your duty.
Portrait of a hero? Undoubtedly so. Only, the hero at hand is not the honorable officer, it’s the rebellious cynic. The officer, for all his skill and courage, is a misguided fool at best, a traitor at worst. For one key fact was elided in the aforesaid description, and it changes everything: the officer and his men were prisoners of war in a forced labor camp. The construction of the bridge was indeed of grave strategic importance – for the enemy.
I do not believe Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, as portrayed by Alec Guinness in David Lean’s 1957 masterpiece The Bridge on the River Kwai, is a bad man. Nor do I view the caustic thorn in his side, William Holden’s Commander Shears, as entirely a good one. Nicholson is arguably the superior man, in almost every way save one. His tragic misfortune happens to be that this one defect is the only one that matters: his inability to understand what he is fighting for. Nicholson, as we say, misses the forest for the trees – quite literally, as it happens, for he is so fixated on the details of the secondary task of harvesting timber for the bridge that he never pauses to ask himself the primary question of why he is building a bridge in the first place. Lean’s film is a meditation on the circumstances in which leadership becomes betrayal. In quest of a crooked aim, teamwork becomes sinister collaboration, while effort, discipline, and ingenuity become nothing but synonyms for treason.
In this book, I by no means intend to impugn the virtues of the 19th century physicians, or of their contemporary counterparts. I suggest instead that they, like Nicholson, are victims of a manner of moral blindness, a Kwai Dilemma: their admirable qualities are harnessed, unwittingly, to sinister aims. “