Sunday, September 16, 2012

#762. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - David Lean Film Festival

Directed By: David Lean

Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins

Tag line: "It spans a whole new world of entertainment!"

Trivia: At one point during filming, David Lean nearly drowned when he was swept away by a river current

David Lean’s WWII epic The Bridge on the River Kwai shies away from the traditional skirmishes you'd find in most war films to instead focus on a psychological battle waged by two men.

Deep within the jungles of Siam lies a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. The vindictive Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is in command. Col. Nicholson (Sir Alec Guinness), the ranking officer among the prisoners, initiates a battle of wills when Saito orders that every P.O.W. - regardless of rank - must work to complete the construction of a railroad bridge across the river Kwai. It's a project that's vital to the Japanese war effort, but Nicholson argues it is against the Geneva Convention to force officers to work alongside enlisted men, and refuses to obey. 

Days pass without either man backing down. Knowing the bridge must be finished on time, Saito eventually agrees to a compromise. With Nicholson now overseeing the project, the prisoners build the bridge, even putting in extra shifts to ensure it will be completed on schedule. 

Meanwhile, American POW Shears (William Holden), who managed to escape from the camp, makes his way back to headquarters, where he is ordered to take part in an allied operation that, if successful, will destroy the bridge built by the prisoners. 

Will Nicholson allow his "creation" to be demolished, or will pride win out over his duty as a British officer?

The differences between Col. Nicholson and his Japanese counterpart, Saito, are established early in the film. Nicholson is, at all times, confident he will win the stand-off, and the measures taken by Saito to break him, slapping Nicholson’s face and forcing he and his men to stand in formation for an entire day under the hot sun, are never enough to force the British Commander to yield. Nicholson knows his objections are supported by the Geneva Convention. Saito, on the other hand, feels honor is more important than rules and regulations, and since he is the "winner", and Nicholson the "loser" (the British, after all, are his prisoners), he believes his orders must be obeyed. 

Among other things, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a fascinating clash of cultures: the prim and proper British officer and the Japanese warrior, each clinging tightly to the values they hold dear. When the two men finally hammer out an agreement, there’s a subtle shift in power, with Nicholson assuming the role of the vanquisher and Saito that of the defeated. The bridge will be built, but for Saito, who had no choice but to capitulate, the wounds to his pride will never heal. As for Nicholson, he sees the bridge as a great accomplishment, a monument to British engineering, and is proud of it. The fact that it will ultimately be used by the enemy in its fight against his countrymen is of little consequence. 

As a contrast to both Nicholson and Saito, we have Shears (William Holden, in a typically excellent performance), whose actions are driven by the simple desire to survive. We the audience feel a strong connection to Shears, the only one of the three who sees the full picture, and is prepared to act accordingly, not for glory, but because it is his duty.

Large in scope and with an intensely exciting climactic scene, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a rare war film in that honor, as opposed to victory, is the ultimate prize. 


Save the Book said...

One of the greatest films ever made.

John said...

I've seen this film countless times and rate it not only the best war flick ever made, but one of the best movies of all time. Excellent from beginning to end - except one thing at the end that I've never understood. After Holden is shot as he's swimming to kill Guiness before he can ruin everything, Hawkins seems to apologize to the bearer girls watching the action with him, as if he's responsible for killing Holden with his mortar. But the scene, in my view, clearly shows Holden's death the result of gunfire from the Japaneses soldiers, rather than from Hawkins' mortar. If you can explain that to me, Dave, I'd appreciate it.

Alan said...


You are quite correct. I just watched the ending. The last mortar was fired after Holden had already been killed. It did cripple Guinness before he fell on the dynamite box lever. I would think he might feel responsible because he was hobbled with injury and could not perform any heroism but did not kill Holden. So the main explanation is someone made a mistake. Checking IMDb goofs which there are dozens I did not see this goof. You should take credit for it and post it and see where it goes. There are mistakes we never knew about. One being Japan never signed Geneva Convention to that until 1953. Thanks for bringing this to our attention