THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)

  • Director: David Lean
  • Writers: Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle
  • Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Peter Williams, John Boxer, André Morrell, and Geoffrey Horne
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#36), 7 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – David Lean, Best Actor – Alec Guinness, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing), 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor – Sessue Hayakawa)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a drama of a very specific time and place, the time being right in the middle of World War II and the place being right in the middle of the Burmese jungle. Yet its value is not in being a war movie, but in being a conflict of very specific characters put into impossible circumstances. Nearly all parties involved in the war have interpreted the movie as being “against” their particular side over the years, which I think is because every character in the movie feels like a human. Nor is it, it must be said, an accurate depiction of history, for whatever that’s worth. But I do think it’s a great movie.

The movie opens as a large group of British soldiers arrives in a Japanese POW camp in Burma, where Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) has been charged with completing a bridge over the nearby river, using POW slave labor, as part of the Japanese effort to build a railroad between Bangkok and Rangoon. Their arrival is observed by an American prisoner named Shears (William Holden), who is the sole survivor of his unit and is deeply cynical about the whole war. The commanding officer of the British unit, Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), is a strict believer in rules and military discipline, to the point of, well, total insanity. After Saito orders Nicholson and his officers to work alongside their men, Nicholson curtly informs him that the Geneva Convention prohibits officers from being forced to do manual labor. To his apparent surprise, this causes a lot of problems, and results in him being kept for an extended period in a metal box known as “the Oven.”

Meanwhile, Shears is the sole survivor of a group that attempts escape, is helped by a nearby village, and ends up in Sri Lanka (then known as “Ceylon”). While enjoying his stay in a beach-side hospital there with beautiful nurses, he is recruited by a British commando, Warden (Jack Hawkins), to go back to Burma and blow up the bridge he was being forced to build. Back in Burma, Nicholson is released from the box and decides, over the objections over his junior officers, that rather than sabotaging the bridge, his men should do everything they can to finish the bridge as soon as possible in order “create discipline” and “show the Japanese what the British can do.” His medical officer, Clipton (James Donald), points out that this could be seen as collaboration with the enemy, but Nicholson won’t hear of it. He is the same guy who, when asked if they should try to escape, points out that they were originally ordered to surrender their post by their superiors, so technically escape could be seen as disobeying orders.

Just as the bridge has been completed in record time, and the first train approaches, the commandos arrive to blow it up. Under cover of darkness, the commandos wire the bridge with explosives, but the water-level then drops, exposing the wires. In the morning, in the famous climax, Nicholson notices the wires and brings them to Saito’s attention. A young Canadian commando (Geoffrey Horne) leaps out and stabs Saito, but a crazed Nicholson tries to stop him from detonating the explosives. Both the young commando and Shears are shot in the ensuing melee, but Nicholson recognizes Shears and mumbles, “What have I done?” He is then shot himself by Warden, but falls on top of the detonator and the bridge blows up just as the train crosses, dropping the train into the river. The last shot of the movie is of Clipton wandering along the riverbank, among the wreckage, muttering, “Madness!… Madness!”

Shot at great expense in Sri Lanka as a British-American co-production, Kwai turned out to be the biggest hit, by far, of 1957, cleaned up at the Oscars, made a major hit out of its famous whistled version of “The Colonel Bogey March” (which was decades old even at the time), and pushed David Lean into the top tier of world directors. The story is fairly faithfully adapted from a recently best-selling novel by the French author Pierre Boulle. Having been in Malaysia at the time of the fall of France to the Nazis, Boulle had been an operative for the Free French resistance before being captured by the Japanese, and forced to work on the railroad dramatized in this movie. While one might assume, based on the fact that they’re the villains of the piece, that the story is biased against the Japanese, in fact both Boulle’s novel and the film leave most of the worst atrocities just off-screen. The Bangkok-Rangoon Railroad has gone down in history as “The Death Railroad,” as up to 300,000 local forced laborers and Allied POWs are thought to have died in truly awful jungle conditions during its construction. The Japanese goal was to allow supplies to get to the front in Burma without having to be carried by sea through dangerous waters around the long, skinny Malay Peninsula. In reality they succeeded, at enormous human cost. For his part, Boulle is today by far best known in the English-speaking world for two novels, both of which are far better known due to the movies made of them. The other, which he wrote over a decade later, is a weird science fiction novel called Monkey Planet, made into a movie as The Planet of the Apes.

The movie’s most interesting achievement may be the relationship between Nicholson and Saito. Each of them is straight-jacketed by their own personal notions of honor, but those notions frequently come into conflict. When Nicholson insists that the letter of the law says his officers should not work, Saito responds that to not work is cowardice and a violation of Bushido. He tells Nicholson matter-of-factly that he will have to kill himself if the bridge is not completed on time. “What would you do in my place?” he asks. Nicholson immediately responds, “Well, I suppose I’d have to kill myself.” He would, too, but for much more British reasons.

Alec Guinness won an Oscar for his really fascinating portrayal of Nicholson. The legendary Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa also received a surprise, late career Oscar nomination for playing Saito. Hayakawa is actually a fascinating historical figure that I did not really know about until I started researching this movie. Born the son of a Japanese fisherman in 1886, he suffered a ruptured eardrum diving for shellfish and was rejected from the Japanese navy, resulting in him actually attempting to commit seppuku out of shame. His father stopped him and sent him to the US, where he played quarterback for the University of Chicago (according to Wikipedia, “in one game he received a penalty for tackling an opponent using jujitsu.”).

Through a series of fortuitous events, Hayakawa ended up starring in very early movies. In 1915 he played an “elegant and dangerously sexy Japanese ivory merchant” who forces himself on the female lead (who then falls for him) in The Cheat, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and became perhaps the first foreign sex symbol in the history of American movies. However, his career would be fairly brief. In 1922, he returned to Japan amid rising anti-Japanese sentiment and legislation in the US (Hayakawa believed there had been multiple attempts on his life, as white men did not like their women mooning over a foreigner). In Japan he studied for years and finally became an actual Zen Buddhist master. Then he somehow ended up trapped in France for the duration of World War II, where he purportedly supported himself by selling watercolor paintings. After the war, he was re-embraced by Hollywood, this time primarily as a Japanese villain in various war movies. Today, Kwai is by far his best known role in the West.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was also at the center of one of the more famous silly bits of the era of the Hollywood Blacklist. The script was apparently written, in multiple, separate passes, by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Unfortunately, both of them were blacklisted at the time, so the decision was made to give sole screenplay credit to Boulle. When the movie went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, Boulle appeared to accept the award and it immediately became apparent he didn’t actually speak a word of English. Years later, Foreman and Wilson would be awarded their own, posthumous Oscars.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a very well-made, well-acted drama that takes place almost entirely within shades of gray. It’s not the kind of movie I watch over and over, but it’s the kind of movie I wish there were far more of. I definitely would recommend it if you haven’t seen it.

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