The Bridge on the River Kwai is a chronicle of what can happen to twist our logic into insanity through the fog of war. Whereas Apocalypse Now explores what happens when man is allowed to give in to insanity with none of the societal constructs we use to block (or in some cases support) it, this movie shows us a man whose values get so twisted through his wartime experience that he ends up collaborating with — and ultimately supplanting — his sworn enemy as a matter of pride.
That man is Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Guinness), an officer for the British army who was captured along with his platoon by the Japanese. The commandant of the prison camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), is under pressure from his superiors to build a bridge within a certain amount of time. It holds vast strategic value, enabling the Japanese army to get men and supplies to areas of Burma that would otherwise be impossible. This would give them a significant advantage in the Pacific theatre of World War II.
Saito demands that all prisoners work on the bridge — even the officers. Nicholson refuses that last bit, under the grounds that it’s forbidden by the Geneva Convention. The resulting stand-off unites the men behind Nicholson (who ends up being punished in a sweat box) and encourages them to sabotage the building of the bridge, at least until Saito is forced to blink first and release Nicholson. The victory of the prisoners, however, is short-lived when their commanding officer sees the state of the project.
Appalled at the shoddy workmanship on display, Nicholson steadily takes over construction. At first he wants to give the men something to do so that their discipline and morale is improved, but it soon becomes a chance for him to leave a legacy behind after the war. The bridge, to his mind, will stand as a testament to British engineering and workmanship. Its prompt completion will be a thumb in the eye of the Japanese, proving that the Royal Army can do what the Emperor’s Army can’t.
Nicholson proves to be a harder, more effective taskmaster than Saito. He demands more and more of his men, even pulling people out of the infirmary to work. Saito just fades into the background as Nicholson becomes the new commandant of the prison camp, subjecting his own company to grueling work and punishing conditions just to prove his worth. Never mind that he has taken over the enemy’s work for them, or that the bridge actively works against the interests of his side.
Meanwhile, the one officer who survived in an escape attempt from the prison camp is convinced to go back and sabotage the bridge. Shears (Holden) is an American grunt who leads an international commando group to blow it up, and a lot of the film is devoted to him slowly giving up his selfishness in favor of a higher ideal. It makes for a really nice parallel story as Nicholson twists his ideals to serve his selfishness without even realizing.
The movie can only end one way, and that’s with a confrontation between Nicholson’s group and Shear’s unit. It’s a great opportunity to show just how far Nicholson has gone off the map, and even though you know he’s out in a mental and military wilderness it’s shocking to see just how lost he is. The climax of the film plays out like something of a Shakespearean tragedy, and the survivors are bewildered at the wreckage that they’ve had a hand in creating.
What’s fascinating about this film is figuring out exactly where Nicholson went wrong. His intentions were…sound enough, I suppose, but there’s clearly a line that was crossed at some point without the officer even knowing it. None of the people supporting him asked him to check his bearings before moving forward, and at some point he became the very thing he had been fighting all this time. Is this where an unwavering commitment to ideals gets you? Or is it just that he had been applying them improperly all this time?
We have the benefit of distance with which to determine the answers to these questions, but none of the participants in this scenario really did. And maybe that’s the point — when you’re in a situation where it’s the norm for men to be cruel to other men, it’s impossible to even find your bearings, to know what’s an acceptable application of your ideals and what isn’t. That at best, men are likely to turn into Nicholson and at worst they become Kurtz.
The movie is based on the book of the same name, and Nicholson is an amalgam of various French officers that writer Pierre Boulle served under in the war. Despite his repeated claims that he wasn’t trying to take a dig at the British, a lot of people (even star Alec Guinness) thought it was an indictment of the British Army. I could certainly see that, though really only one man drives the problem that needs to be stopped. It could be considered an organizational failure that his course wasn’t corrected well before the climax of the film.
The performances are first-rate all around, and given its unique location considering it’s a WWII film it’s one of the sunniest war movies I’ve ever seen. The adventurous, almost breezy tone masks a surprisingly thorny tangle of ideas in this movie, and that’s what makes The Bridge on the River Kwai so great. It’s entertaining, and when you stop to think about it really sobering. It’s the kind of movie you see on Friday night and end up thinking about through Sunday afternoon.