The Bridge on the River Kwai

by Ryan Gest

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a fantastic film that gives the world a view of a particular piece of history. There was no question when it won multiple Academy Awards in 1957. This film gives a realistic view of a World War Two Japanese POW camp. Many elements meld together to both entertain and teach. Because this film was partially an American and British collaboration and it was initially written by a French man, the bias is kept to a minimum, at least as far as the Americans and the British are concerned. There is still a strong bias against the Japanese throughout the film.

The original story is based on the novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai, by Frenchman Pierre Boulle, who is also known for writing the screenplay for the 1963 film Planet of the Apes. The actual screenplay was written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, but they were not given credit: because both writers were blacklisted in Hollywood. Boulle, who spoke very little English at the time, was given full credit for the film. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that Foreman and Wilson were given the credit they deserved.

Bridge Over River Kwai

The story of the film is based on the building and construction of the Burma Railway in 1942. While historically the Japanese did use prisoners to construct bridges and work on the Burma Railway, the particular characters in this film never existed. Boulle based many of his characters on incidents from his time spent serving as a prisoner of war in Thailand. The one exception is Colonel Nicholson who is loosely based on Colonel Philip Toosey. Toosey and his men were forced to build bridges over the Kwai River. Unlike in the film Toosey was ordered to build two bridges. One bridge was built of wood, and one of steel. This in reality took many more than two months to complete. The real bridges built were constantly subject to air raids. POW labor was also used to make the repairs. As shown in the film, many POW workers slowed the progress of the bridge by causing small “accidents” that were simply out of their control. For example, white ants were placed on the bridge to eat away at vital wooden pieces of the structure.

In the film Alec Guinness (better known for his work in the Star Wars movies), plays Colonel Nicholson, a British Colonel who refuses to do manual labor because of his rank as an officer. Nicholson is severely punished by Japanese Colonel Saito for this. Desperate to finish the bridge in time, Saito gives in to Nicholson and grants the British officers the right not to do manual labor on the bridge. During this whole ordeal, the POWs slow the progress of building the bridge. Nicholson is appalled by these actions. He feels that the bridge should be built properly. He quickly presents new and proper “British” bridge design and location to Saito. Saito quickly accepts the British design and begins construction. Nicholson drives his men to finish the bridge by Saito’s deadline.

Nicholson lets his pride get the better of him. He refuses to do manual labor and takes a stand. While this does not seem too out of the ordinary, Nicholson takes things even further. He tries to prove himself by ordering an improved bridge design. Guinness, a known and respected British actor, had many quarrels with director David Lean during the filming of the movie. Guinness disagreed with Lean’s overly proud view of the British. At first, Nicholson claims that the bridge is just to pass the time as they are stuck at the prison. He even encourages his men to put in more time to complete the bridge in time. Does pride drive this man to the point where he doesn’t know what side he is on? At the end of the film there is an attempt to destroy the bridge; Nicholson risks his life trying to save his project. Nicholson’s pride can be viewed as being too strong. For this aspect many view this particular film as anti-British.

Saito on the other hand can be viewed as too weak, and yet he shares the same conflict as Nicholson, pride. He lets his pride control him. If he doesn’t finish his bridge in time he will have to commit suicide. As the film progresses and his deadline approaches, Saito becomes weaker and weaker. First he backs down to the British officers, showing weakness and boosting morale for the British. Then he lets Nicholson plan the building of his bridge. In his culture failure of any kind is seen as shameful. Still it seems very unlikely that the Japanese would have so little control in building a bridge so vital to their victory.

Both Saito and Nicholson must constantly remain composed. These two characters seem to be able to relate with each other. Toward the end of the film Saito and Nicholson treat each other as equals. They rely on each other, however flawed that relationship may be. Saito needs Nicholson and his men to finish his bridge and stay alive. Nicholson feels a need to earn Saito’s respect. Both men meet their goals. It’s been said that Toosey later defended his captor at the prison camp during his war trials, and the two later became close friends.

Nicholson & Saito

As the conflict between Nicholson and Saito is going on, three men make an attempt to escape from the camp. Because the camp is surrounded by seemingly endless jungle, there is no need for fences or major defenses. Two of the men are killed, one, Commander Shears, manages to make his way to the river before being shot. Shears falls into the river and manages to make his way back to civilization. Shears is persuaded to go back to the camp to help destroy the bridge. When he arrives to destroy the bridge, he notices that the bridge is well constructed and can’t figure out why Nicholson tries to stop its destruction.

It’s hard to understand why the men can’t escape this camp. In large numbers they would have a possibility of surviving. Dying while working on this bridge seems like a terrible way to die rather than trying to reach freedom.

Though most of the events and characters in the film are fictional, the story makes for an accurate depiction of a World War Two POW camp. Granted, things are not perfect and some of the events are very unlikely. While it seems possible for a British officer to speak in favor of his captor in a war trial, the two working together seems unlikely. Still projects like the building of the bridges and railways happened during this time and the Japanese used war prisons as a vital labor source. Conditions were most likely much worse than depicted in the film. Many of POW’s spirits would be much lower after being captured and forced to do manual labor and men like Saito and Nicholson would more than likely be much lower in the ranks due to their character flaws. Despite a few flaws I thought the film was an accurate depiction of history. The film shows a more human element to World War Two as well as a point of view rarely seen.

The film was very well put together. Unlike most war films, especially World War Two films, this film had very few action scenes, yet it was easy to get involved in the film. A very human element can be seen in all of the characters, something very untypical of War films. One thing I noticed was that nature sounds were used instead of music. Some of the dramatic scenes were lightly accompanied by a tasteful score. Adding music to this film would take one out of the story. Instead the sounds engage the viewer as if they are in the camp working on this bridge wondering why Nicholson is working so hard to help the enemy. The one exception is when Colonel Nicholson and his men marched in the camp while whistling Colonel Bogey March. This was a very popular tune during World War One and added a proud aspect to Nicholson and his men. Most of the British audience at this time was familiar with this particular march because it stood for British defiance. The cinematography in this film was fantastic as well. This is a dead art in filmmaking today. These reasons could be why the film still seems fresh even fifty years after it was filmed. The story and filmmaking together are timeless.

Two other references closely related to this film are The Man Behind the Bridge by Peter Davies and Le Pont de la Riviere Kwaiby Pierre Boulle. The Man Behind the Bridge is a collection of Colonel Toosey’s Memoirs. This book shows a more accurate depiction of the real conditions in the POW camps. Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai of course is the book upon which the film is based. Boulle was also in a POW camp at this time and shows another view.