The Bridge on the River Kwai

by Liza T. Powers

Hailed by many as one of the best movie of all time on World War II, The Bridge on the River Kwai, reveals the hypocrisy of war. The film, set in 1943 in the jungles of Burma at a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, is the epic story of British prisoners of war building a bridge over the Kwai River for the Japanese while at the same time other Allied soldiers are planning the demise of the same bridge. The film unfolds masterfully, developing from the perspectives of three different characters: Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), commanding officer of a battalion of British soldiers; Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), in charge of the POW camp; and Major Shears (William Holden), an American soldier impersonating an officer who escapes the POW camp only to return with Allied soldiers to destroy the bridge.

At the conclusion of the movie, the medical doctor of the POW camp, cries, "Madness! Madness! Madness." This sums up the central theme to the film: war is insane. Indeed, all the characters in the film exhibit some degree of madness. Colonel Nicholson, the British officer, adamantly refuses to capitulate to Colonel Saito. He demands that Saito treat his soldiers and officers in accordance with the Geneva Convention. When Saito declares, "This is war!," indicating that he will treat the prisoners as forced labor, Nicholson rebels. He is forced to sit in the "Oven," an iron hut in the center of the compound where the sun turns the tin into a hellhole. However, when Saito relents, Nicholson arbitrarily narrows the issues of the war to building a bridge, the Bridge on the River Kwai. He turns into a martinet and a tyrant. Ironically, after his struggle not to accept forced labor, not to bend on principle, Nicholson voluntarily devotes himself and his men to completing Saito's bridge, one that will be used to capture and kill more Allied soldiers. He wants the bridge to stand as a monument to British superiority over the Japanese. In his madness, Nicholson commits the sin of hubris. His pride in building a superior bridge in the depths of the jungle leads him to forget the larger issues of the war.

Colonel Saito, Nicholson's Japanese counterpart, is equally mad. He morosely contemplates suicide as he sees the British building a better bridge than his own troops can achieve. Although he has not made a career out of the military as Nicholson has done, Saito is well educated and intelligent if volatile. Yet, Nicholson's successes drive the Japanese leader to a breakdown.

Avoiding the terrible work details involved in building the bridge, the American, Major Shears bribes the medics to allow him to stay on the sick list until he is able to escape. Upon his return to an Allied camp, he is treated well and is promised a medical discharge. British officers persuade him, however, to return on a special mission to destroy the bridge. For Shears, it is insanity to return to the jungle that he fled. Shears sees the absurdity of both the British and the Japanese. He says that Nicholson and Saito are "crazy with a kind of courage. For what? To die like gentlemen when the only important thing is how to live like a human being." Yet, he goes back to destroy the bridge.

The genius of the movie is that it takes a humanistic approach rather than debating the rights or wrongs, the merits or disadvantages, of war. It focuses on the individuals who are thrown into a war where survival, sanity and discipline are subordinated to victory. Eerily and effectively, the viewer at the conclusion of the film does not see the British, the Japanese, or the Americans as different from each other. They are driven mad by the war and their own characters.

The film's release in 1957 took America and Europe by a storm. The film which cost three million dollars to make, an enormous cost for its day, grossed 30 million dollars in only three years. It was also victorious at the Academy Awards, winning for Best Picture; Best Actor, Alec Guinness; Best Director, David Lean; Best Adapted Screenplay, Pierre Boulle; Best Cinematography, Jack Hildyard; Best Film Editing, Peter Taylor; and Best Score, Malcolm Arnold. In addition, Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Giving Pierre Boulle, French author of the The Bridge on the River Kwai and of the novel from which the very different but popular film Planet of the Apes derived, sole credit for the screenplay may have come as a surprise to many Hollywood insiders. In particular since Boulle spoke no English! Originally, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson helped write the screenplay, but the two were not recognized for their work due to blacklisting problems. In 1966, the Writer's Guild of America officially restored their names to the credits.

To know more about World War II jungle warfare of Asia, The Blue Haze: POWs on the Burma Railway by Leslie G. Hay, and Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle are recommended as is Roy Humphrey's To Stop A Rising Sun: Reminiscences of Wartime in India and Burma.