United Kingdom, 1957
Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa
Directed by David Lean
Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) leads a column of captured British soldiers, whistling in unison, into a Japanese POW camp in Burma. The camp and its inmates are dedicated to the construction of a railway bridge across the river Kwai, a bridge that will be an important Axis supply link between Thailand and Burma. The camp's commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), is determined that the bridge will be complete in twelve weeks, and orders every prisoner to work; Nicholson refuses to let his officers participate, citing the Geneva Convention's prohibition on officers being forced to perform manual labor. After a pitched battle of wills, Saito relents, and Nicholson's officers take over the planning and management of the project. Humiliating Saito and his engineers, Nicholson immediately devotes himself and his men to improving the project in several significant ways; even though the railway will be a crucial component in Japan's fight against the Allies, Nicholson is determined that British officers and men will build the best bridge possible. As it nears completion, the ramifications of this contradiction become more and more immediate and relevant, yet Nicholson's devotion only increases...
Director David Lean is typically associated with the sprawling, "cast of thousands" Panavision epics of the 1960s, like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). The Bridge on the River Kwai was his first truly enduring picture, and helped make him one of film's most prominent directors of that era. Though sometimes considered an antiwar film, The Bridge on the River Kwai doesn't really take issue with the conflicts driving World War II per se; rather, it focuses more on the ways people choose to fight, the ways honorable men can find themselves hemmed in by forces of culture and duty, which lead them to take actions that ultimately lead to futility. The Nicholson/Saito dyad is at the core of the film, two men representing different sides who perhaps have more in common than not; if not for the accidents of birth that placed them on opposite sides of the conflict, one sees, they could have fought alongside one another as friends. Instead, differing loyalties and cultural strictures dictate that these two equals follow a course of events that will ultimately be judged by history as tragic, stupid, and pointless—"madness," as a supporting character notes in the final line spoken in the picture.
A central unstated theme of the film is the treasured British tradition of the stiff upper lip: the importance of maintaining an unemotional facade in the face of adversity. Alec Guinness, one of Britain's most important actors of the mid-20th century, plays Colonel Nicholson as a man determined not only to uphold the honor of his uniform, but to avoid giving any impression that he's put out by it in any way. Whether undergoing torture in the "oven" or supervising the construction of the enemy's bridge, Nicholson endures all with a quiet, almost diffident reserve. It is difficult to imagine the film being anything less than completely different with an American military officer as the key character; it is Nicholson's Englishness that defines his character, just as Guinness' own Englishness underlies every facet of his Oscar-winning performance.
The film is marred, as many films are, by the presence of William Holden, on hand to lend some unnecessary Hollywood star power to the film; though his performance is—in my opinion—less than satisfying, his character (an inmate who escapes early in the film and is ordered back by his commanders to sabotage the construction project) is an important catalyst for the events that occur near the end. Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa, a former silent film star, received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Saito, whose humanistic instincts are perpetually at war with the demands placed on him by duty and honor.
Points to ponder:
- The tune Colonel Nicholson's men whistle is the "Colonel Bogey March."
- The bridge over the Kwai is real, and stands to this day in the Kanchanaburi province of Thailand. More than 16,000 Allied POWs and between 49,000 and 100,000 Asian laborers died during the construction of the bridge and the "Death Railway" it carried over the river Kwai between Thailand and Burma. Bombed several times in 1945, the bridge was rebuilt after the war; the curved trusses in the picture are from the original construction.
- The Bridge on the River Kwai was based on a novel by the French writer Pierre Boulle, who also wrote the book on which Planet of the Apes was based.
- The film cleaned up at the 1958 Academy Awards, winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
- The screenplay was written by two blacklisted writers, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. The sole screenwriting credit, and therefore the Oscar, went to Pierre Boulle, who did not even speak English. The Academy awarded screenwriting Oscars retrospectively to Foreman and Wilson in 1984.