Dir. David Lean. Starring William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins
It’s likely, if not probably, a coincidence that The Bridge on the River Kwai premiered as far away from the end of its war as Full Metal Jacket, The Cranes Are Flying, and All Quiet on the Western Front did from their wars. There were POW movies before River Kwai, homefront movies before Cranes, and anti-war pictures before All Quiet. But something about the distance of a dozen years seems to give the filmmakers more leeway. There’s less pressure to make paeans to the fallen (They Were Expendable), less impulse to run into melodrama for the sake of propaganda (Mrs. Miniver), less effort in recounting some major event (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo). This is in no way a hard law, but it seems like a decent rule of thumb. The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of those movies that can be critiqued as either anti-British or anti-Japanese, and people have certainly made the arguments for one or both in the past. (Two things. First, there’s some good old-fashioned racism in River Kwai in the way that the Japanese are presented. Second, it’s a little ironic that the movie needs the Japanese to be such inept engineers that they can’t even choose a spot for their bridge correctly, but Japan, as of this writing, is home to the world’s longest suspension bridge and its engineering, of course, is the envy of the world. The world is a funny place.)
Even by the standards of the English-language POW subgenre, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a fairly still movie, and it doesn’t always do itself a service by being a little slow. Stalag 17 is chatty, but once Sefton figures out who the informant is, the movie becomes a genuine pulse-quickener; The Deer Hunter has Russian roulette, because reasons; The Great Escape has the great escape. The Bridge on the River Kwai ends with a great big kaboom, but it relies entirely on character interiors to work in a way that not even Wilder tries to do in Stalag 17. What other movies would find fighting drama in, such as the commando team’s dangerous trek through the jungle en route to the bridge, is kept largely at the psychological level. Certainly it lingers on the Japanese soldier who surprises the heck out of one team member, and it makes a great fuss about a foot wound suffered by another, but all of it pays off in a single long lecture about the value of life from Shears (Holden). This general play is not entirely successful—only Alec Guinness’ character is interesting enough to make that work—but when it hits, it hits.
Shears, an impostor who puts on a dead superior’s dog tags before he’s captured, is a cool customer who’s learned how to manipulate the guards as a survival mechanism. He scrounges intelligently enough; in our first look at him, after he’s buried a dead Englishman, he trades the young soldier’s lighter and a terrific story about having the lighter willed to him in exchange for a place on the sick list. Sefton is emphatically not in a life-or-death situation in his prison camp. Stalag 17 is uncomfortable and cold and less than hospitable in every way, but they have barbed wire at Stalag 17. At this Burmese prison camp, there are no fences or walls, because running into the jungle to escape is little more than a Rube Goldberg suicide. He greets the British soldiers under Nicholson’s command with a series of fatalistic warnings which Nicholson gives little credence to. Lost his nerve living here as long as he has, poor chap, is the general reaction. But Shears’ guess that escape has a one percent chance of success compared to a zero percent chance of staying put proves to be basically accurate, even if Nicholson scoffs at that number. While Nicholson builds a bridge, Shears escapes, is nursed back to health by the locals who find him, makes it to an Allied hospital, recuperates in style, and is found out by an ex-Cambridge don with a love of plastic explosives, Warden (Hawkins). Shears ultimately turns into a decent human being, but watching him Yank his way through a particularly British slog back to the prison camp ensures that his character’s journey won’t be terribly interesting. There’s a monologue in there where he gives the game away; frustrated with Warden, who was wounded by a Japanese soldier en route to the bridge and who insists on being left behind with his suicide pill, Shears finally gives vent to his connective ability. You and Nicholson are just alike! he says, as if we hadn’t figured this out for ourselves sometime during the opening credits, and not long after he says “I don’t care about your rules.” I have a soft spot for William Holden, but James Dean in that red jacket and a cloud of pheromones couldn’t have come back from “I don’t care about your rules.”
I want to be interested in Warden and Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) and Clipton (James Donald), but the movie doesn’t quite land them, either. Joyce’s hang-up is the honest but counterproductive problem he has with killing; he’s just not sure he can do it. (One supposes these sort of doubts, which he is frank and vocal about, would have knocked him out of commando school and sent him back to the regular army, but whatever.) Other than being tragically young and cute, there’s not much more to recommend him. As Shears points out, Warden’s obsessions with duty and country and completing the mission is of the same cloth as Nicholson’s obsessions, but by now we know that Nicholson’s ability to pervert them makes him a significantly more fascinating person. Of the bunch, only Clipton, the doctor who fills a much-needed void when he arrives in Nicholson’s command, seems interesting. In a setting where the absurd idealism of men like Nicholson and Warden masquerades as forced pragmatism, only Clipton seems to have the measure of what his situation is. He is the first and only officer of Nicholson’s regiment who befriends Shears before Shears makes his break, and he manages to use the American’s knowledge of Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, in the Hattie McDaniel Memorial Thankless Heavy-Handed Racial Best Supporting Actor Oscar-Nominated Role) to save his superior’s life. It’s mostly a shame that Clipton never breaks out of his audience surrogate part, and of course his memorable final lines (“Madness! Madness!”) are as fatal as “I don’t care about your rules.”
Nicholson’s heel turn is, no matter how many times I see this movie, one of the most shocking developments in a character that I’ve ever come across. Part of that is in the small genius of making him a stickler for his officers’ rights. The Geneva Conventions, he reminds Saito over and over again, forbid officers to work in a prison camp, and a violation thereof would make Saito eligible for a tribunal after the war should things turn out for the Allies. It is a masterful stroke because it’s obviously the right side—what audience wants to be on the wrong side of the Geneva Conventions?—and it acts as a useful smokescreen for the other Nicholson who is making himself known. In an officers’ meeting, he shuts down an escape committee because it might contradict the orders he received to surrender his troops. His stubbornness on a matter of principle balloons far beyond himself or his principles. It almost gets him killed; Saito has him locked in “the oven” for days on end. It also puts the men on the sick list in a terrific predicament; Saito threatens to put men with gangrene and beriberi and malaria on work details, which would be a death sentence. But neither of those situations seem to worry Nicholson too much. It should be a sign to his officers and to us, and yet we still go along with “this guy is fighting for the right side.” Once he’s released from his hot spot, we almost immediately hope that he’ll get thrown back in there. One scene with Percy “Gordon Ramsay” Herbert shows just how far gone Nicholson is.
Grogan is doing a decidedly sloppy job with his detail, winking his eyes off at Nicholson, and he gets reamed out for it. You should always know how many men are in your command, Nicholson scolds him, and goes on to tell him off about what he assumes must be a nervous affliction. His obsession with the rules (which I suppose is a very British problem to have) and with discipline and with shaping up and putting on a good show puts him, as Clipton says, right on the edge of collaboration. After all, deciding to build a better bridge than the Japanese were building for their Bangkok-Rangoon railroad is just that.
The movie’s saving grace is in a short scene Guinness shares with Hayakawa, but it’s really a soliloquy and not a monologue that he recites. Maybe I’m just a sucker for old British soldiers (see under Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The), but this long overdue yet perfectly timed explanation for Nicholson’s mania is the highlight of the film. Walking along the finished bridge, Nicholson begins to wonder about his legacy, and most dangerously his legacy in comparison to other officers with nearly three decades of military service. You get old, he says (“nearer the end than the beginning”), and you start to wonder what it was all for. This is a man who has spent the vast majority of his adult life away from the British Isles, living mostly in India and fighting mostly in Southeast Asia; people who have moved far away from their homes develop a fidelity to their birthplaces like that of the new religious convert. His most exceptional military action, so far as we can tell, was to surrender a regiment in Singapore on the orders of his superiors. But the bridge, with wood that he’s been told will last six hundred years, is a monument with his name on it and everything, a monument to the values he believes he exemplifies. Of all the scenes in the movie, this is the one that is genuinely moving, and one of the best Lean-Guinness scenes of them all.