Directed by David Lean
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a story about honor, duty and annihilation. The plot centers on two characters who spend very little time with each other but who die together in the final scene. Before the camera drifts away from the spectacle of an exploding bridge, a character utters, “madness…madness” and we fade out while hearing the sounds of soldiers jubilantly marching into war. This final image undercuts the self-importance of battle. We’ve spent over two and a half hours with characters who dutifully follow orders only for it all to fail. Well, not all of it failed. It’s telling, I suppose, that the British military accomplished its goal, though we still end on a solemn note.
The two main characters are Commander Shears (William Holden) and Lieutenant Nicholson (Alex Guinness). They meet at the same prison camp deep in the jungle with different points of view of what their role is. Shears just wants to survive, and Nicholson would sooner “die like a general” than bow down to the prison camp’s illegal demands.
Nicholson and his soldiers proudly march into camp whistling the Colonel Bogey March, and Shears and the other POWs watch with some amusement. The leader of the camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) tells the men that the prisoners are to perform hard labor, constructing a large bridge for the coming railroad. This is all well and good, as Nicholson notes, but he is taken aback when the Colonel tells him that officers are to perform the manual labor as well. Nicholson waves around a copy of the Geneva Convention which states that captured officers do not have to perform the same hard labor as the other soldiers.
What follows is a battle of ego between Saito and Nicholson. Saito orders Nicholson and his other officers to be shot if they do not relent, but Nicholson, it seems, would rather die than give in. It’s only due to the intervention of a captured doctor that Saito doesn’t kill Nicholson. Instead he places him inside the “oven,” a cramped metal box that quickly gathers heat throughout the day. Nicholson endures even as he is only days away from death.
In a pretty great six minute long scene at around the 52 minute mark, Saito pulls a starved, thirsty, gaunt Nicholson into his quarters to talk with him. Saito offers him a meal and alcohol, but Nicholson proudly declines. The two men address their differences and explain where they’re coming from. Saito says that he needs everyone to help build this railroad, and if it’s not completed on time he will have to kill himself. As Saito explains this, he gets up from the table and paces around, using his height advantage as a point of leverage. He dominates the scene while the meek Nicholson merely sits by and waits for him to finish. Once Saito explains that he will have to kill himself, Nicholson says that’s what he should do and finally takes a drink. Then it’s his turn to stand up and pace around, dominating the scene.
Each one emphasizes a certain amount of power over the other and in the end find a common ground. Saito allows Nicholson and the other officers to continue commanding their soldiers over the construction of the bridge. They each get their way, to some extent, and as a sign of appreciation, Nicholson decides to build the best damn bridge he can.
The second half of the film is concerned with that bridge’s construction. A kind of peace is negotiated between Saito and Nicholson, and Nicholson alienates many of his soldiers who can’t understand why he has become such a hard-ass when it comes to building the bridge. Nicholson explains that it’s important they take pride in this project. Even if they are working for the enemy, they are prisoners of war and the manual labor is their duty. He’s a character who values honor above all else.
Now, to backtrack a little, the American, Commander Shears, appears to have been killed in an escape attempt. He will later make it out alive to a British command post on the beach. Shears is happy to be out of the jungle, and he’s happy to spend the rest of his life, presumably, drunk on the beach.
His brief vacation, though, is interrupted when he’s presented with a plan to go back to the jungle and blow up the bridge. Shears does all he can to get out of this mission, but the commanding general reveals that they know he lied about his rank and impersonated a dead officer. Left with no choice, Shears ‘volunteers’ for the mission, helping lead the expedition because of his familiarity with the jungle.
This all leads to Shears and a few men, including a determined young soldier, making their way back to the river just as the bridge has been completed. Shears and his men are appalled by how impressive the bridge is. In a brilliant, tense sequence they set up the charges and then prepare to blow the bridge as a train approaches. The train gets louder and louder, amping up the drama, and Nicholson is the only one who notices the charges in place. He follows the wire to wear a young soldier is set to detonate the bomb, and Nicholson and Shears finally meet face to face for the first time in about two hours of the movie’s runtime.
When this happens, Colonel Saito has been killed by the young soldier who himself is then shot. Shears has raced across the river to ensure that the bomb is detonated but is shot as well in the process. Nicholson then utters, “what have I done?” and is himself killed, but as he dies he falls on the trigger and detonates the bomb, destroying the bridge as the train passes over it.
The Bridge on the River Kwai charts the difference between Shears and Nicholson, but their individual codes don’t save them. Along with Saito and even a young, optimistic American soldier, they all end up dead, face down in a shallow river. The movie seems to brush aside any of the reasons for war and suggest that it all ends the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re honorable, selfish, idealistic, etc. War is the common denominator, and it unceremoniously kills all of the main characters.
This perspective and the film’s setting makes this feel like a Vietnam war movie, not unlike Apocalypse Now. The second half of this film follows one character deep into the jungle to seek out another character, with Nicholson serving as a kind of General Kurtz figure. Shears is as shocked by what Nicholson has become than by his mere presence. Neither man recognizes the other, but it doesn’t much matter because soon they’re gone.
This is a lavish, epic spectacle of a movie shot on location, similar to another David Lean movie, Lawrence of Arabia. Both stories are long and depict the way war transforms a person. You’re not the same man going in as you are coming out, assuming you even make it out at all.
Both films make use of their incredible real world setting, whether that’s the jungle or the desert. Both movies are shot in cinemascope, a wide-screen format similar to today’s use of IMAX film, meant to enhance the visual spectacle of the film. In The Bridge on the River Kwai, there are almost always several planes of view within a given scene. A fairly mundane conversation will take place outdoors with an insane vista in the background…
And in many instances, characters move forwards and backwards within the frame, sometimes with the camera itself moving with them. There is a focus on foreground and background space, as in this scene…
…in which the group in the foreground interacts while orders are barked to the men in the background, one at a time. They are all framed neatly within the shot so you can see them clearly.
In this shot, Shears talks with another commander while a brief love interest swims in the background…
In other moments, characters look offscreen to emphasize the space behind the camera, or they talk to each other while occupying different planes of view. So on one hand you have two people talking as in the above shot, the same distance from the camera, and in many other moments you have shots like these…
Characters are often looking forward or background. Maybe there’s a more significant, thematic point to this, but it certainly always emphasizes the amount of space within the shot. The cinematography of The Bridge on the River Kwai works to reflect and dramatize just how big this world is. It’s as if David Lean wants to make sure you know this isn’t a movie shot on a set. This is the real world, uninhibited by studio space or, in some cases, by the placement of the lights.
So what else is at play here? This is a story of construction and destruction that ends in destruction. Is everything all for naught? That seems to be the case, and the point is made that war is ultimately destructive. This is hardly a revolutionary idea today, but maybe it was a unique point of view in 1957, before the Vietnam era.
We don’t have the familiar war hero in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Both Shears and Nicholson embody some of the traditionally heroic qualities, but they are doomed all the same. Shears is that cowboy sort of figure American audiences had come to know. He’s a reluctant hero but a hero all the same. Nicholson is all about honor, but we see how this fails him. The two characters, when combined, might make the perfect hero, similar to the two protagonists in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a western from the same year.
Up Next: Annihilation (2018), The Paths of Glory (1957), The Boxer (1997)