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 one would expect to find in a war film to instead tell the story of a psychological battle waged by two men.
Deep within the jungles of Siam is a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp run by the vindictive Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Col. Nicholson (Sir Alec Guinness), the ranking officer among the prisoners, initiates a battle of wills when Saito orders that every P.O.W. must work to complete the construction of a railroad bridge across the river Kwai, a project that's vital to the Japanese war effort. Nicholson argues it’s against the Geneva Convention to force officers to work alongside enlisted men, and refuses to obey. Days pass without either man backing down, but knowing the bridge must be finished on time, Saito agrees to compromise. With Nicholson overseeing the project, the British prisoners build the bridge, occasionally putting in extra shifts to ensure it's completed on schedule. Meanwhile, an American POW named Shears (William Holden), who managed to escape from the camp, makes his way back to headquarters and is ordered to take part in an allied operation to destroy the bridge. But will Nicholson allow his "creation" to be demolished, or will pride get in the way of his duty as a British soldier?
The differences between Col. Nicholson and his Japanese counterpart, Saito, are established early in the film. Nicholson is, at all times, confident he'll win out in the end, 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 make the British Commander yield, primarily because his stance is supported in full by the Geneva Convention. Saito, on the other hand, feels honor is more important than rules and regulations, and since he’s on the winning side, and Nicholson the losing (the British are, after all, his prisoners), his orders must be obeyed. It’s a fascinating clash of cultures: the proper British soldier and the Japanese warrior, each clinging tight 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 begins to view the bridge as a great accomplishment, a monument to British engineering, and is proud of it, despite the fact it will ultimately be used by the enemy in its fight against his countrymen. As a contrast to both Nicholson and Saito, we have Shears (William Holden, in a typically excellent performance), whose actions are driven not by glory or patriotism, but the simple desire to survive.
Large in scope, and with an intensely exciting climactic scene, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a rare war story in that honor, as opposed to victory, is seen as the ultimate prize.