BACK-STORY: “Bridge on the River Kwai” is the screen adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s Bridge Over the River Kwai (I do not know why they changed the title). Boulle channeled his experiences as a POW in Southeast Asia during WWII and based his main character on French officers who collaborated with their Japanese captors. Boulle was awarded the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar even though he did not write it. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were uncredited at the time because they were blacklisted due to the McCarthyism of the 50’s. Both were given posthumous trophies in 1984. It was directed by David Lean (who co-directed “In Which We Serve” and went on to do “Lawrence of Arabia”). The movie was filmed in Sri Lanka so the crew and actors had to deal with diseases and jungle critters. It was not an easy shoot, but considering what the real-life POWs went through, I hope no one complained. The movie was a huge financial and critical success. It cost $3 million to make and made $27 million. It was the #1 movie of 1958. It won seven Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Actor (Alec Guinness), Adapted Screenplay, Score, Editing, and Cinematography. Sessue Hyakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The movie is #36 on the most recent AFI Top 100 Films list.
OPENING: We see graves along a railway that is being constructed by emaciated British prisoners of war in the Burmese jungle in 1943. An American named Shears (William Holden) is digging a grave in the camp cemetery. He gives a guard a cigarette to bribe him into allowing him to go on sick leave. Holden is a cynical gold-brick who is only interested in survival. He is neither an officer nor a gentleman. Anti-heroes are not a recent development.
SUMMARY: New British soldiers arrive whistling the movie’s iconic theme. When they stop, their marching in place denotes the mindless discipline of the British army. The commandant Saito (Hayakawa) explains that they are there to build a bridge. They will work hard or be punished. There are no walls around the camp because escape into the jungle is suicidal. Most significantly, Saito proclaims that the British officers will work alongside the enlisted. The British C.O., Lt. Col. Nicholson (Guinness), reminds Saito that the Geneva Convention says officers do not have to work. Saito is not interested.
On the first day of work, Saito gives a speech where he makes it clear he hates the British and considers them dishonored because they surrendered. When Nicholson confronts him with a copy of the Geneva Convention, Saito beats him with it and threatens to shoot all the officers. The camp doctor, Clipton (James Donald), intervenes to talk Saito down. Nicholson and the other officers stand in the hot sun all day while the enlisted go off to work. Game on. Next, Saito puts Nicholson in the “oven”, but he refuses to back down. Weeks pass and the prisoners are doing their best to slack off and sabotage the construction so it is way behind schedule and increasingly shoddy. Meanwhile, Shears escapes and manages to make it back to Allied lines. Earlier, Nicholson had ordered his British soldiers not to escape because when the British high command surrendered at Singapore they committed the men to respectful imprisonment!
Saito is forced to back down because his career (and life) are on the line. He agrees the officers will not have to work. The loss of face on his face tells it all. Nicholson assumes the dominant role in their relationship and this allows him to start his pet project. He feels that it would be good for morale and discipline for the British to build the bridge. The construction of a high quality bridge will also serve as proof of the superiority of the West over the Orient. They will build a “proper bridge” that they can be proud of. Nicholson puts a stop to the slacking and the sabotage. In a telling moment, Nicholson scolds Saito that his recalcitrance means “we’ve wasted almost a month.”
|I have students who would rather|
die than work, too
Suddenly, construction picks up markedly in both quality and quantity. The prisoners work hard because of the charismatic leadership of Nicholson. Only Clipton questions the collaboration. At one point, he wonders to Nicholson if the Japanese “appreciate what we are doing for them.” Even mentioning the T word (treason) has no effect on the pompous colonel. In fact, Nicholson becomes so obsessed with completing the bridge on time that he puts the officers to work. Add irony to the list of concepts he is not familiar with.
|Nichol-san and Saito|
Meanwhile, Shears is enjoying his convalescence with a pretty nurse. (A subplot forced into the movie by the studio.) A British commando named Warden (Jack Hawkins) strong arms him into joining a mission to blow up the bridge. They will be joined by a rookie named Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) and aided by Siamese guerrillas. They parachute into the jungle (with no practice for Shears). There is a Tarzan-like sequence as they cut their way through the jungle and the ubiquitous encounter with leaches. Speaking of leaches, Tokyo Rose makes a brief appearance (“Take it easy, never volunteer for anything”). Warden gets wounded on the trek for plot purposes.
The bridge is completed on time much to the pride of Saito and Nicholson who tour it together. The British celebrate and Nicholson tells the men they should be proud and that they “have turned defeat into victory.” That same night, the commandoes rig the bridge for explosion. This unfortunately lacks suspense because you know there has to be a big explosion at the end.
CLOSING: So far, the plan is working perfectly which means some major shit is about to hit the fan. Sure enough, during the night the river has gone down a couple of feet exposing not only the exposives but the freaking wire leading to the plunger! Curse you, Mother Nature! Guess who discovers the explosives? Hint: the inferior Oriental soldiers would never have noticed them. Nicholson brings his lackey Saito to check out this threat to their bridge. Joyce knifes Saito, but Nicholson calls for help and Joyce gets shot. Shears tries swimming to Nicholson to kill him, but is not successful. Nicholson gets wounded and finally realizes that he is a shameful collaborator. “What have I done?” He falls on the plunger. Toot, toot! Boom, boom! Clipton: “Madness, madness.”
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The Thailand-Burma Railway was constructed by Allied prisoners in a fourteen month stretch from 1942-43. It was to connect Rangoon to Bangkok. The railway’s completion was deemed essential to supplying Japanese forces in Thailand. 60,000 prisoners toiled along with many more dragooned civilians. About 13,000 soldiers died.
The movie accurately depicts the attitude of the Japanese toward the prisoners. The Japanese code of bushido insisted that surrender was a disgrace so the British prisoners were not worthy of respect. There were other factors that explained the mistreatment. The Japanese were unprepared for the huge volume of prisoners when Singapore fell. This explained the poor housing, food, clothing, and medical care. The movie actually underplays the terrible condition the men were in. The actors in the film are much too fit. (They also are not wearing the loin clothes that would have been typical.) Another factor was the fact that the prison administration consisted of second-rate soldiers. A commandant like Saito would have been in a combat unit if he was competent. The prisoners were faced with incompetent and bitter guards. That was a very bad combination. Then throw in that soldiers who are used to being beat are naturally going to take it out on their charges. Usually using bamboo canes. Interestingly, the worst guards were actually the conscripted Koreans. They had a strong propensity to turn their resentment of the Japanese on the PWs.
The first 40 miles of the construction was easy and then the Japanese government upped the timetable by months. This resulted in the “Speedo Period” named after what the frantic engineers kept yelling: “speedo! speedo!” At around this time a new group of 7,000 prisoners (mostly Australians) arrived after a 150 mile march that lasted 17 days. It is doubtful they were whistling when they arrived. 47% of this “F Force” did not survive the war.
The building of the bridge was actually pretty easy. The Japanese engineers were competent and did not need any help. It was across the Mae Klong River, not the Kwai River (Boulle liked the sound of “Kwai”). Only a few died in the construction. It was after the bridge was finished that construction through the jungle got really rough. This was partly because of the monsoon season which the movie overlooks. There were two bridges in reality. One was a temporay wooden one to get supplies across the river and the one the movie was modeled after was made of stone and steel.
As far as the main characters, the movie is way off. The commanding officer in charge of the bridge crew was a Lt. Col. Philip Toosey. He was pretty much the opposite of Nicholson. He encouraged the men to work slower and to sabotage whenever they could. However, he did insist on adherrance to the Geneva Conventions and was subsequently beaten for it. He did not argue that officers should not work. In fact, junior officers routinely worked and senior officers supervised. There was a Major Saito, but he was second in command and had a reputation for being relatively benign. Toosey testified for him at his war crimes trial and they became friends after the war. The fictional Clipton commendatorially represents the real heroes in the railway construction – the medical officers. They had to deal with diseases like malaria and cholera as well as malnutrition.
It probably will not surprise you to learn that the ending is completely fictional. There was no attempt to blow up the bridge. The stone bridge was brought down by American B-24 bombers by June, 1945.
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes. It is not all testosterone like “The Dirty Dozen”. There is even a brief, lame romance thrown in to lure females into the theater. The film is more of a character study than a shoot’em up. In fact, the violence is restrained and not graphic. There is also no offensive language. The movie is an adult date movie for baby boomers.
CRITIQUE: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a classic epic war film. Not surprising since David Lean and “epic” go together. Here we get the density of the jungle instead of the sweep of the desert as in “Lawrence of Arabia”. And both his signature films feature a deeply flawed main character. Lean made a film that is not blatantly anti-war. He described it as about “the folly and waste of war”. Other themes include strong leaders butting heads, the importance of principles in warfare, and what is proper behavior for a POW.
In order to explore these themes, Lean and the screenwriters had to defy reality a bit. There certainly were Nicholsons in the British Army. However, the same strict adherrance to principles before capture would have made it highly unlikely that type of personality would have collaborated like Nicholson did. The military code of continuing to resist even after capture would have trumped any belief in acquiesing to your legal captor. If a commander had chosen to aid the enemy’s war effort, it would have been for much more crass and craven reasons than Lean gives Nicholson. It is also extremely unlikely that the other officers and men would have abandoned slacking and sabotage for working harder to help the enemy complete a vital railway. There certainly would have been more debate over the cooperation. As it is, Clipton sticks out as a lone voice in the wilderness. You do have Shears sneering at Nicholson, but his character is mainly there to contrast the British an"d American attitudes toward discipline, principles, and officers.
This is not to say that the Nicholson character is ridiculous or flawed. The plot could not exist without him. As played by Guinness (in possibly his best performance), he is fascinating. There are times when you admire his bravery and endurance in pursuit of maintaining the principles his life is based on. But more often you shake your head over his borderline treason. In this respect, the Clipton character mirrors the audience. Saito is also a strong character and more accurately reflects the Japanese officer class than Nicholson reflects the British. The arc of Saito from obstinate bully to Nicholson’s lap dog is heavy-handed, but necessary. Shears is another character that had to be forced into the plot (literally, because in the book he is a British commando who had not been in the camp). If it is a British movie and there is a minority major American character, they always behave like Shears. Brash, anti-authoritarian, and individualistic. Basically, Holden is playing Sefton from “Stalag 17”.
Speaking of acting, the movie is top notch. The cast is very good with the odd exception of Horne as Joyce. What is this B-List actor doing mixing with the heavyweights? I guess you could say the odd casting paid off for Lean because Horne rescued him when he almost drowned in the river. Jack Hawkins is his usual solid self as the stereotypical stiff upper-lipped Warden. The role is basically the one played by Anthony Quayle in “Guns of Navarone”. James Donald is crucial as the film’s conscience - Doctor Clipton. He would go on to play the same personality in “The Great Escape”.
The movie is technically magnificent. The cinematography was award-winning as to be expected from a Lean film. Jack Hildyard makes good use of the jungle locale. The scenery is beautiful. There is a variety of long-range shots, deep focus, and stationary camera. No slo-mo. The score probably did not deserve the Oscar, unless they were rewarding the film for being an epic without the usual pomposity of music. There are long stretches, like the rigging scene, where there is no music. It is likely that the “Colonel Bogey March” that book-ends the film is the primary reason for the award. The sets are great. The camp is squalid, although probably a bit more liveable than in reality. The bridge is outstanding. It took longer to build than the real one (8 months). Its demolition with the train passing over is one of the greatest scenes of that type. It is similar to the one in “The General”.
BOOK / MOVIE: The theme of the book is that both the Japanese and the British had the concept of “saving face”. Both Saito and Nicholson are more extreme characters in the book. Saito has a drinking problem which made him mean. His “I hate the British” speech was given while he was drunk. Nicholson is more insane in the book. He forbids the men to steal supplies from the Japanese and in fact orders inspections that were more thorough than the guards. It was his idea to increase the work quota. Clipton is the only Brit who questions this and is more of a conscience than in the film. When Clipton asks Nicholson if he will paint the bridge, Nicholson says no because then it would be easily spotted by planes! Clipton shakes his head a lot in the book and veers between admiring Nicholson’s obstinate defense of principles and his insane pushing of the men to help the enemy.
The commando mission is substantially changed. Shears is the head of the unit and Warden is his right hand man. Joyce is close to the movie character. They are in the jungle for weeks before launching the mission. The book also lacks suspense as the rigging of the bridge and the climactic last day are told in flashbacks. But it’s that climax that it is the big problem. Nicholson discovers the wire with Saito in tow. Joyce slashes Saito’s throat and tries to reason with Nicholson, but the Colonel yells for help and ends up strangling Joyce before he can set off the explosion. Shears swims across to intervene, but Japanese guards have arrived. He stabs two of them before he is rifle-butted. The Japanese cut the wire before the train arrives. Warden fires his mortar from a nearby hill and the first round kills Nicholson and Shears. Warden escapes to tell the story.
The movie reinforces my belief that a movie should be able to improve on the book it is based on. The screenwriters were able to soften Boulle’s racism toward the Japanese. This attitude was understandable for a person who had good reason to hate his former captors. A constant refrain of the book is that the Japanese are uncivilized in comparison to the West (exemplified by the British). The Japanese are absolutely incompetent when it comes to railway construction. They also softened the over the top personalities of Saito and Nicholson. The movie Saito is not an alcoholic and Nicholson is more two-dimensional.
But most importantly, the movie substantially improves the ending of the book. In the book, the bridge is not blown up!
CONCLUSION: It is understandable that “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is high on the list and many would argue it belongs in the Top 10. Part of this is due to reputation. Looking at it from a modern perspective, the film is a bit overrated. As an adventure story, it is slow moving and lacking in adrenalin and suspense. There is hardly any action. As a prisoner of war movie, it downplays the horrors the men went through. As a character study and clash of cultures, it is excellent. However, for a war movie fan, there are many more impactful films. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a war movie classic for the non-war movie lover. Everyone can enjoy it, but I can’t get excited over it. I would argue it is not as good as lower ranked (but similar) movies like “The Great Escape”.