#227 The Bridge On The River Kwai

(1957, David Lean)

“Do not speak to me of rules. This is war, not a game of cricket”

World War II movies continue to pour off the list, and while normally they like to focus on Hitler and the Holocaust, here’s one that’s different. The Bridge on The River Kwai is set during the Burma Campaign, where the British Commonwealth along with Chinese and American forces decided to give those Japanese fellows a right good thrashing.

Although it doesn’t really contain much thrashing. Instead, a troop of British soldiers led by Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) are captured and taken to a Japanese prison camp led by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), where the soldiers are all ordered to work on a new Bridge On The River Kwai. Nicholson stands his ground and demands that the officers are not put to work, because this would violate the Geneva Convention. Meanwhile, an American soldier, Commander Shears (William Holden) plans to escape the camp, and later is recruited to destroy the bridge that the British are being told to make. There’s a lot going on here.

So, last time we encountered a David Lean movie here on SvTM, it was a movie I initially planned to despise but ended up really liking due to its willingness to paint the British colonisation of India as a bad thing and enjoyed skewering the upper classes. Here’s another one. By default, I tend to dislike World War II movies (which we’ve discussed before), since they’re usually hang-wringing, mawkish efforts that like to highlight that WORLD WAR TWO WAS BAD AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD. But I actually liked this because it didn’t do that at all. David Lean was clearly some kind of mad genius.

The movie is a confusing mess at times, but it’s a confusing mess that works. The first half of the movie is about Nicholson’s defiance and strength, and he’s built up as an upstanding, stoic hero of the British and we should cheer for him. The focus shifts in the second half and all that starts unravelling through the eyes of Shears, when Nicholson begins to look like a traitor to those on the outside and the British army generally seem a little stuffy and silly, and maybe even in above their heads in this war.

Ultimately, the message of the movie is that no one is a hero, and no one is a villain, and all this war stuff’s a bit messy and pointless really. The last line of the movie pretty much sums this up with a simple cry of “MADNESS!” because that’s really what the movie is.

I will admit that when the focus shifted from Nicholson’s attempts to stand up to the Japanese and moved to the square-jawed Hollywood suave of Shears, I was initially disappointed. But then I got it. The multiple perspectives we get throughout the movie portray the war as pointless because all nations have their own way of doing things, and none of them are particularly effective at dealing with problems.

For the British, the war is a stubborn effort to assert the UK’s greatness. For the Japanese, it’s all about honour and avoiding the shame of surrender. For the Americans, the whole thing is theatre, an orchestrated effort to be heroic when actually you’re looking a little silly. National attitudes are respected and criticised in equal measure, and no country is safe from it. Sort of like in A Passage To India, funnily enough.

Performances were very strong across the board. Alec Guinness played his stoic colonel with a balance of sternness and smarm and ended up being really likeable, if a little confusing in his motives. Holden was great as the all-style, no-substance Shears, presenting a Hollywood image of being a fearless leader at first and then admitting he isn’t all that great after all.

The Bridge On The River Kwai is a very messy, but ultimately very good film that justifies its own messiness and rewards multiple viewings. I continue to be impressed by David Lean’s movies, and I look forward to whatever comes next on the list from him.

Starring William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins & Sessue Hayakawa
Written by Pierre Boulle (novel) and Carl Foreman & Michael Wilson
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography by Jack Hildyard
Edited by Peter Taylor

Favourite Scene: Pretty much any time Nicholson stands off against Saito. Alec Guinness is awesome.
Scene That Bugged Me: The sudden switch to Shears late in the movie was a little confusing at first

Watch it if: You want a war film that’s not Hitler-related
Avoid it if: You wish it was more about the actual bridge


Posted on October 22, 2013, in 1950s, Political, United Kingdom, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I used to watch it with my Nan every Christmas and always hated it, but when I watched it again last year I basically had the same experience as you. I guess I just didn’t get it as a kid…

    One thing though, in the third paragraph you make it sound like you’d never seen this movie prior to this watching, but I’m not sure if I’m reading it wrong… and to be honest I’d be kinda surprised a British person over 20 hasn’t seen it previously…

    • I had never seen it before, in all honesty! Shocking, I know, but the simple truth is that it never appealed to me, and I’m from a family that also isn’t too interested in films like this. If I had seen it before, then I don’t remember it.

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