The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Director: David Lean

★★★★★

David Lean has made a lot of great movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India, Great Expectations, and others. However The Bridge on the River Kwai stands alone as a uniquely slow-paced exploration into the nature of courage, honor, and duty. It won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (David Lean), and Best Actor (Alec Guinness).

Set against the backdrop of World War II in 1943, the story is based on the French novel “The Bridge over the River Kwai” by Peter Boulle. It was developed by two Hollywood blacklisted writers exiled in England at the time (Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson). It was the era of extreme communist paranoia in Washington and Hollywood was purged of all potential “threats.” Thus neither writer appears in the credits for the film, and instead official credit was given to the novelist, Peter Boulle, a man who spoke almost no English. The Academy later corrected the record in the 1980s and retroactively acknowledged the work of Foreman and Wilson.

The powerful Japanese Empire is seeking to extend its railway from Bangkok, Thailand to Rangoon, Burma. A crucial part of the expansion necessitates a bridge be constructed over the Kwai River in Burma. In reality the Kwai River is an unimpressive town in Western Thailand, but the deep jungle setting of the film gives the feeling of remoteness from civilization (it was actually shot mostly in Sri Lanka, formerly called “Ceylon”). At any rate, a group of British P.O.W.s led by Colonel Nicholson (played by Alex Guinness) arrives at a Japanese prison camp in Burma. They march while whistling the famous tune of “The Colonel Bogey March” -a popular British soldier’s tune in World War II (apparently the director wished to include the common lyrics of the song in the film but studio censors objected to their vulgarity: “Hitler has only got one ball, Göring has two but very small, Himmler is rather sim’lar, But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all”).

The P.O.W.s are ordered by the camp’s leader, Colonel Saito (played by Sessue Hayakawa, an important Asian actor in Hollywood who first starred in Cecil B. deMille’s The Cheat in 1915) to begin construction on a bridge over the Kwai River. However, Col. Nicholson objects under rights proffered in the Geneva Conventions wherein officers are exempt from manual labor. After an extensive stand-off between Col. Saito and Col. Nicholson (which sees Nicholson tortured and relegated to the “Oven” -an iron enclosure that sits in the hot sun) Col. Saito relents. If the bridge is not constructed he faces the threat of dishonor and ritual suicide, so he allows the British men to proceed according to the Geneva Conventions.

The film beautifully portrays the locus of four differing perspectives: one man, Lieutenant Shears, escapes through the jungle, and half-dead, he arrives at a village where is nursed back to health. He eventually makes his way to Ceylon where the U.S. military discovers his secret -Shears has been impersonating an officer to gain the favor of the Japanese. He is compelled to lead a commando mission through the jungle back to his Japanese prison to destroy the bridge being constructed. Meanwhile Nicholson and Saito have struck an agreement. Nicholson takes it as a point of pride for the Britain to construct a lasting and impressive bridge, despite the objections of some of the troops who believe he is colluding with the enemy. They work on a rigid timeline to complete the bridge on schedule but the commandos led by Shears parachute into Burma and make their way through the jungle. Upon reaching the bridge they plant explosives and trip wire on from a safe distance across the river, hoping to blow it up as the train crosses it for the first time. That morning the water drops revealing the wire and Col. Nicholson alerts Col. Saito to the problem. This leads to a skirmish and several deaths along the river as Col. Nicholson suddenly realizes what he has done. A mortar is fired near Col. Nicholson and he falls onto the lever which detonates the bridge. In his final moments, is Col. Nicholson remorseful for having built the bridge at the behest of the enemy?

“Madness! Madness… madness!” (final words in the film)

The Bridge on the River Kwai was beset by challenges: the cinematic equipment frequently malfunctioned and Director David Lean nearly drowned at one point after being swept away by the river. David Lean initially wanted Charles Laughton for the part of Colonel Nicholson, the role that won Alec Guinness Best Actor. While the film was hailed by critics and the Academy Awards, it was criticized by certain real P.O.W.s for romanticizing the experience of imprisonment and slave labor. It is known as a mostly historically inaccurate depiction. Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey of the British Army was the real senior Allied officer at the bridge in question. Toosey was very different from Nicholson and was certainly not a collaborator who felt obliged to work with the Japanese. Toosey in fact did as much as possible to delay the building of the bridge.

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