March 3, 2024

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AFI Countdown Challenge #13: The Bridge On The River Kwai

A British Colonel sticks to decorum in war a little too much in this epic war film.

Growing up, I recall my father watched The Bridge on the River Kwai quite a bit.  I remembered a lot of bits and pieces, and he was always quick to point out Alec Guiness in there by telling me it was Obi-Wan Kenobi.  I could remember an intermission in the film before I knew what that was, a scare involving a kite, William Holden being thanked for volunteering, the men marching in whistling at the beginning of the film, and the successful bridge attack in the end.  When I was old enough to watch and appreciate the whole film, it became one of my personal favorites.

It’s also one of three collaborations on the AFI list between director David Lean and actor Alec Guiness, and unless I really re-evaluate my feelings on Lawrence of Arabia, I like Bridge on the River Kwai the best of the three.

What is it about Bridge that I like so much?  It’s essentially about how men try to put rules on the arbitrary cruelty that is war.  On the one hand there is Guiness’ Lt. Colonel Nicholson.  He was ordered to surrender by his superiors, so he won’t hear about escaping.  He seems to believe first and foremost in discipline and order, believing that the Geneva Convention rules should apply in the middle of the Burmese jungle.  On the other side is the Japanese commander of the camp, Colonel Saito.  He believes in the Bushido code Japanese soldiers were using during the war.  That means while Nicholson insists that POW officers should not do any work on the railroad and bridge the other prisoners were working on, Saito insists anyone who surrenders is weak and doesn’t deserve any allowances.  Thus begins the first half of the film’s stubborn game of wills as neither man is willing to budge an inch.

Now, the film is set in the middle of a wild jungle.  The camp lacks guard towers and fences because, well, running away is a foolish thing to do even under the best of circumstances.  It’s hot, and people are as likely to die of disease as they are anything else.  Heck, many of Saito’s own soldiers are also working on the railroad to make up for lost time.  Any sort of code is outright foolish out here, whether its Nicholson’s rules for civilized war or Saito’s Bushido.

In the middle of it all is William Holden’s Commander Shears, the only American in the camp and the film from the looks of things.  His attitude is something I would best describe as pragmatic cynicism.  Seen in the beginning of the film working as a gravedigger, Shears, an enlisted man posing as an officer in the hopes of better treatment, sees the British attitude of “stiff upper lip” and following rules and procedures and ideals as outright foolish.  It’s an insane attitude to have in an insane world.

Holden’s on the left.

By the by, how many times have I seen Holden during this project?  That guy may be one of the underappreciated actors in the history of American film given his appearances span over twenty or so years.

Shears’ luck goes up and down all throughout the film.  He escapes, but nearly dies of thirst stumbling around the jungle, only to be found by some Burmese natives.  Once restored to health, he nearly dies a second time on a one-man dugout canoe when he’s spotted by the British and taken in to recover.  His life seems to be going really well when the superiors there want him to return to the camp to destroy the bridge, and they know his actual story as an enlisted man posing as an officer.  Heck, he accidentally kicks a radio while on the sabotage mission and gets it to work, alerting his small crew that there will be not only a bridge to bring down but a train with it if they time it right.  Shears can win for losing, and it costs him his life in the end.

On the other side, Nicholson seems to finally crack.  He wins the battle of wills with Saito, but he must be out of his mind.  He’s determined to finish the bridge, even taking over the whole project from the Japanese when his own engineers see their captors are building the bridge in the wrong spot.  The POWs had been actively sabotaging the bridge up to that point, but finishing the bridge right becomes a point of pride for Nicholson.  He needs to keep discipline with his men, he needs to show his nation’s superiority perhaps, and he talks about how, when the war is over, the bridge will still be there as a monument to what a British soldier could do.  Saito becomes a silent partner and witness to his own project.

It is, eventually, Nicholson who blows up the bridge, falling on the detonator after seeing a dying Sheers trying to get to him, and after he killed the Canadian member of Sheers’ team.  It’s the moment when, perhaps, Nicholson realized he went from showing off the superior discipline and training of his own men to aiding and abetting an enemy in a time of war.  When the British POW who acted as the medic for the camp hospital, Major Clipton, states the whole endeavor showed “Madness!” from all sides, he isn’t wrong.

Back in 2014, I read a book titled Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of her Survivors.  It’s a nonfiction book about the very ship Shears claims to have been a crew member on in the film.  I had no idea that The Bridge of the River Kwai was actually based at all on a true story.  Yes, the actual story of the bridge was fictional, but the Houston and the horrifying details of the men who worked to build the roads and railroads through the Burmese jungles.  It’s a sad story of death and torture, and it added a sobering bit of detail for me when I saw this film again.  Maybe a British colonel didn’t lose his mind and assist the enemy oh so willingly, but the real story, and what happened to the men in those camps, was much, much worse.  And, quite frankly, the story of this film is bad enough for the characters who lived it.

NEXT UP:  We’re got one last look at noir and the work of Billy Wilder with 1950’s Sunset Boulevard.