Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Broen over floden Kwai
I think the DVD box of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” has been standing on my shelf for about five years, waiting patiently for me to arrive at 1957. Uh, I have been looking at it often, wondering if I should watch it, just for old time’s sake, ahead of schedule, but I have resisted the temptation, knowing that the reward is so much sweeter.

And finally the day arrived when I could take off the plastic cover and savor the pleasure it is to watch this master piece. Oh, I have enjoyed every second!

This is not the first time I watch “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, not at all. I must have seen it about a handful of times over the years, but upon watching it again I realize that it must have been quite a long time ago. It actually surprised me how superior this movie is on almost every parameter. In that light this review could very easily be a checklist of all the reasons I love this movie and that is frankly a bit boring. Besides I think most readers will know this movie and agree with me of its qualities. Instead I would like to focus on some of the interesting themes it brings up.

At the core of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a discussion of war, honor and humanity. Not surprisingly, really. Those themes tend to pop up in this sort of movies. But rarely is the discussion as interesting as here. Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) is old school British army. Honor and self-respect is core to his thinking, both for himself and his outfit. When he and his unit is taken prisoners by the Japanese his objective is to remain a soldier and for his me to remain a military unit and not a prisoner or a slave. He refuses to cave in to Japanese pressure, not by refusing the forced labor they are imposing on his outfit, but by refusing to be considered a prisoner. The project, in this case a bridge, becomes a tool to keep his unit and himself above the swamp of human degradation. That he is actually helping the enemy is to Nicholson entirely beside the point.

Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the commander of the prison camp is just as much a man of honor, but in many ways a very different kind of honor. To him (and his) being taken prisoner is the ultimate dishonor and therefore his prisoners should be ashamed and not proud. He is baffled by the British reaction and struggles to deal with it.  In fact his honor depends on his ability to assert his supremacy on his prisoners. His position is further compromised by the fact that he needs the prisoners. On paper he may have won a victory when the prisoners build him a magnificent bridge (I think it is no coincidence that it resembles the Forth Bridge in Scotland), but to Saito it is a personal humiliation that the bridge was built on his prisoner’s terms rather than his own. His humiliation is clearly demonstrated when he cuts off his samurai knot prior to the opening of the bridge.

While these two “fossils” are defining themselves through their honor we get two radically different points of view in commander Shears (William Holden) and the doctor Major Clipton (James Donald). In the eyes of Nicholson and Saito Shears has no honor. His objective is to keep himself alive and get out of the war with the secondary objective to get laid as often as possible. He does not care what people think of him and do not mind degrading himself. Yet on a personal level he has as much integrity as Nicholson, it is just not the military sort. He sees people, not soldiers and in this sense he represents the “modern” view as the old codes seem to take off in very bizarre directions. As a viewer we may far easier associate with Shears, yet it is difficult not to respect Nicholson and Saito.

And Clipton, he is the voice of reason and sanity and the one that reminds us that all these honor games get people killed, but then, as Nicholson keeps reminding him, he has lot to learn about the military.

The genius of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is that it all makes sense. We understand and respects all these points of view and yet in the end all it does is getting everybody killed. So, the movie manages to be both a great war film and a great antiwar film, demonstrating both the sense and the senselessness of war.   

And in between we get beautifully shot pictures, sublime suspense, terrific action and some of the most memorable acting achievements of the era. I think nobody who has watched the movie will ever forget Alec Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson. No matter his roles before or after, and there are many, this will forever be his defining role. A younger generation may think that Colonel Nicholson sounds like Obi Wan Kenobi, but that is not the case. Obi Wan Kenobi sounds like Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson.

I still have a lot of extra material to get through, but that I will bring along for a long flight on Thursday. That will serve to extend the joy of this masterpiece. Maybe I will also do some whistling…


  1. I really enjoyed your review. I love this too and it has been several years since I have seen it. I do not remember Saito cutting off his topknot. That's really an interesting detail and I look forward to noticing it this time. This is the kind of movie one just has to gush over.

    1. Thank you, Bea. There were so many details I only noticed this time round and it is a much better movie than I remember. It should not be too long before you get to it and I will keep an eye out for your review.

  2. Alec Guinness's performance is, at least to my mind, one of the 10 greatest acting performances in film. When you consider how much of his career prior to this was in Ealing comedies like The Man in the White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob, the fact that he had this in him is doubly astonishing.

    Of course, Guinness only really works when surrounded by the other great performances--Holden, Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, and James Donald specifically--who tie the whole thing together into something seamless.

    Truly great movies work on multiple levels. This works on all levels. There's a reason I think it's one of the five best Best Picture winners in Oscar history.

    1. I can only agree whole-heartedly. If it was only Alec Guinness who did great here it would only be half the film. This is a movie that works on every level and that is why it remain up there with the best even today.