The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the memorable, epic World War II adventure/action, anti-war drama, was the first of director David Lean's major multi-million dollar, wide-screen super-spectaculars (his later epics included Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965)).
The screenplay was based upon French author Pierre Boulle's 1954 novel of the same name. [Boulle was better known for his screenplay for Planet of the Apes (1963).] Although he received sole screenplay credit, other deliberately uncredited, blacklisted co-scripting authors (exiled Carl Foreman - who scripted High Noon (1952) - and Michael Wilson) had collaborated with him, but were denied elibigility. They were post-humously credited years later, in late 1984, in a special Academy ceremony. [Note: When the film was restored, the names of Wilson and Foreman were added to the credits.]
[Note: The film's story was loosely based on a true World War II incident, and the real-life character of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. One of a number of Allied POW's, the senior British officer Toosey was in charge of his men from late 1942 through May 1943 when they were ordered to build two Kwai River bridges in Burma (first a temporary one made of wood completed in February 1943 and a permanent one of steel/concrete completed a few months later), to help move Japanese supplies and troops from Bangkok to Rangoon. In reality, the actual bridge for the Burma Railway - depicted in the film - spanned the Mae Khlung River, not the Kwai River. It took 8 months to build (rather than two months). The two bridges were actually used until they were destroyed two years after their construction by Allied bombings - in late June, 1945. The memoirs of the 'real' Colonel Nicholson were compiled into a 1991 book by Peter Davies entitled The Man Behind the Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai. Today, the steel/concrete bridge has been rebuilt and is used by passenger trains - the river was renamed Kwae Yai ('Big Kwae') to accommodate tourists searching for the bridge from the film.]
The film was the number one box-office success of the year (the highest grossing film) and it won critical acclaim as well - eight Academy Award nominations and seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Director, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Pierre Boulle), Best Cinematography, Best Score, and Best Film Editing. Only Sessue Hayakawa, a former silent screen star and one of the first important Asian stars, who was nominated for his Best Supporting Actor role as the hot-tempered Japanese colonel, lost. The film created an additional stir when it debuted on ABC television on September 25, 1966. The date was dubbed "Black Sunday" due to the loss of business at movie theatres on account of its popular airing.
Shot on location in the steamy, colorful, dense tropical jungles of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the story's theme is the futility and insanity of war, and the irony of British pride, viewed through the psychological, confrontational struggle of imperialistic wills between a proud and rigid British and Japanese Colonel. The two protagonists are symbols of different, opposing cultures, but actually they share much in common - egotistical pride, dedication, a belief in saving "face," and stubborn, inflexible obedience to their class, military codes and rules. With an all-male lead cast, themes of heroism, pride, military tradition, hierarchy, and power are masterfully interwoven into a plot that is ambiguous enough to allow for various viewpoints and perspectives.The Story
Before and during the title credits, an evocative opening shows a single soaring, circling hawk, free from restraints. The aerial camera view pulls back to reveal a vast, green, and steamy tropical jungle (from the hawk's point of view), then descends into the teeming, chattering, and dense underbrush of the forest to pan by a row of crude graveyards (in the jungle and next to train tracks), marked with makeshift wooden crosses. A train with a machine-gunner on top whistles as it roars past the graves, coming upon POWs in a World War II Japanese prisoner of war camp. The camp inhabitants are building one link in the infamous Bangkok-Rangoon "death railway."
A newly arrived regiment of defeated British POWs is marched into the camp from the Southeast Asian Burmese/Siamese jungle - it is 1943. Two current, long-time prisoners, one of whom is handsome American Navy sailor "Commander" Shears (William Holden), are digging graves to bury comrades. [In the original novel, Shears was a dedicated officer, but here, he's a typical Hollywood hunk character.] Sweltering, Shears notices the new arrivals and jokes:
Shears: Those new prisoners see us diggin' graves, they might all run away.
Japanese overseer Captain Kanematsu (Henry Okawa): No time for jokes. Finish work...Dig dig.
Shears and his Australian companion Weaver are placed on the sick list after bribing the Japanese Captain with a cigarette lighter (taken from one of the corpses). Shears lacks a commitment or adherence to any specific code or ideal other than to himself - and toward his own survival. His cynically-stated goals are to stay alive and eventually escape, as he turns and brashly offers a mocking eulogy for one of his compatriots just interred:
Here lies Corporal Herbert Thompson, serial number 01234567, valiant member of the King's own, and Queen's own, or something, who died of beriberi in the year of our Lord 1943. For the greater glory of...(pause) what did he die for?...I don't mock the grave or the man. May he rest in peace. He found little enough of it while he was alive.
The camp's dutiful Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), is interrupted and told of the arrival of the battalion. In his bamboo hut, Saito is kneeling and dressed in a traditional kimono, with a Japanese print behind him. He hears the distant, insidious whistling, the tune of the "Colonel Bogey March," [which became one of the year's hit records] as the British troops approach closer to the camp, insolently announcing their arrival, swelling the sound to a rousing, defiant crescendo by the time of their appearance.
Now uniformed and wearing his ceremonial sword, Saito emerges from his hut, salutes, and walks up to the newly-arrived, stiff-lipped ranking British commandant, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) in the open, dirt yard. He orders the British prisoners (including all the officers) to build a bridge - beginning the next day after a day of rest. He also offers the inmates a motto: 'Be happy in your work'. [Note: This scene was referenced, in homage, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), in the speech of the Klingon Commander (William Morgan Sheppard) of a high-security work/prison camp on the ice world of planetoid Rura Penthe. Rura Penthe was itself a reference to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne - the name of the slave labor camp that inspired Captain Nemo's rage against society and that was the location of his death.]:
Nicholson: My name is Nicholson.
Saito: I am Colonel Saito. (He steps up on a box to view the prisoners and address them.) In the name of his Imperial Majesty, I welcome you. I am the commanding officer of this camp, which is Camp 16 along the great railroad which will soon connect Bangkok with Rangoon. You British prisoners have been chosen to build a bridge across the River Kwai. It will be pleasant work requiring skill, and officers will work as well as men. The Japanese Army cannot have idle mouths to feed. If you work hard, you will be treated well. But if you do not work hard, you will be punished!
A word to you about escape. There is no barbed wire, no stockade, no watchtower. They are not necessary. We are an island in the jungle. Escape is impossible. You would die. Today you rest. Tomorrow you will begin. Let me remind you of General Yamashita's motto: 'Be happy in your work.' Dismissed!
In brief cutaways to Shears from the side, the chief 'know-it-all' gravedigger watches with a mixture of amusement and disgust. He condescendingly mocks the scene from the open-air hospital hut at a distance. Brave, proud, and determined, but obstinate, ramrod British officer Colonel Nicholson refuses to surrender full command of his regiment. Maintaining an iron-clad fixed position, he immediately locks horns with Saito by arguing that according to the Geneva Convention, officers are not permitted to do manual labor alongside enlisted men:
Nicholson: I heard your remarks just now sir. I can assure you, my men will carry on in the way one expects of the British soldier. And naturally, my officers and I will be responsible for their conduct. Now sir, you may have overlooked the fact that the use of officers for manual labor is expressly forbidden by the Geneva Convention.
Saito: Is that so?
Nicholson: I happen to have a copy of the Convention with me and would be glad to let you glance through it if you wish.
Saito: That will not be necessary. (Saito turns and walks into his hut, as lightning claps are heard from tropical storm clouds overhead - a brief storm passes through.)
The malingering "Commander" Shears, shaving in the medical hut, has lied about his rank to get preferential treatment reserved for officers. He tells the touring Nicholson that he and the Australian are the only remaining survivors of the original POWs who built the camp: "Mostly Aussies, some Lime, some British, Indians, Burmese, Siamese...They died, of malaria, dysentery, beriberi, gangrene. Other causes of death: famine, overwork, bullet wounds, snake bites, Saito. And then there were some who just got tired of living." As Shears is examined by Army POW Doctor Major Clipton (James Donald) on a cot, he tells Nicholson: "Don't bother about me, Colonel. I'm not anxious to get off the sick list."
After Nicholson marches off - thinking Saito is 'a reasonable type' and sympathetic to his point of view about manual labor, Shears is amused:
I can think of a lot of things to call Saito, but reasonable, that's a new one.
In a late-night meeting between Nicholson and his officers, attended also by Shears and Clipton, the men contemplate the odds of successful escape and survival. Nicholson determines that escape is not only impossible but not permitted:
Shears: Oh, I'd say the odds against a successful escape are about 100 to 1...But may I add another word, Colonel...The odds against survival in this camp are even worse. You've seen the graveyard. There you realize. You give up hope of escape. To even stop thinking about it is like accepting a death sentence.
Nicholson: Why haven't you tried to escape, Commander?
Shears: Oh, I've been biding my time, waiting for the right moment, the right company.
Nicholson: I understand how you feel. Of course, it's normally the duty of a captured soldier to attempt escape. But my men and I are involved in a curious legal point of which you are unaware. In Singapore, we were ordered to surrender by Command Headquarters, ordered, mind you. Therefore, in our case, escape might well be an infraction of military law. Interesting?
Dr. Clipton: Yes, interesting point.
Shears: I'm sorry sir. I didn't quite follow you. You mean you intend to uphold the letter of the law, no matter what it costs.
Nicholson: Without law, Commander, there is no civilization.
Shears: You just took my point. Here, there is no civilization.
Nicholson: Then, we have the opportunity to introduce it. I suggest that we drop the subject of escape.
As an English gentleman, Nicholson insists that his men be treated as soldiers and that the officers serve only in supervisory capacities, according to the military code of behavior: "I want everything to go off without a hitch starting first thing tomorrow morning. And remember this: our men must always feel they are still commanded by us and not by the Japanese. So long as they have that idea to cling to, they'll be soldiers and not slaves." Shears knows better through experience: "I hope they can remain soldiers, Colonel. As for me, I'm just a slave, a living slave."
Both commanders blindly follow their own rigid military codes, soon coming to an impasse. The next morning, Saito orders "the English prisoners" to finish the bridge by a rigid deadline - the 12th day of May, working under the direction of a Japanese engineer. As commanding warden, Saito insists that all the men work without regard to rank:
All men will work. Your officers will work beside you. This is only just. For it is they who betray you by surrender. Your shame is their dishonor. It is they who told you: 'Better to live like a coolie than die like a hero.' It is they who brought you here, not I. Therefore, they will join you in useful labor. That is all.
Stoically and stubbornly, Nicholson keeps his men standing in the hot sun, rather than letting his officers work side-by-side in physical labor with the enlisted men. He cites Article 27 of the Geneva Convention to defend his principles. Equally determined in the stand-off with his armed men behind him, Saito slaps Nicholson across the face with the tattered book, drawing blood from his nose.
Saito: You speak to me of code. What code? The coward's code. (He throws the book away to the ground.) What do you know of the soldier's code? Of bushido? Nothing. You are unworthy of command. (He breaks Nicholson's commander's stick in two and throws it to the ground.)
Nicholson: Since you refuse to abide by the laws of the civilized world, we must consider ourselves absolved from our duty to obey you. My officers will not do manual labor.
Saito: We shall see. (He steps to the side and addresses the prisoners.) All English present prisoners to work! (All the prisoners, excluding the officers, are marched away toward work.)
When Nicholson still refuses to give the order for his officers to begin work, and his men obey him, Saito persuasively calls for a jeep with a machine-gun in the back, pulling it up in front of the British commander and his officers. From the hospital hut, Shears tells the doctor, Major Clipton that he fears the worst about Saito's threat: "He's going to do it. Believe me. He's really going to do it." Before Saito reaches the count of three, Clipton runs out and interrupts the tense stand-off:
Colonel Saito. I've seen and heard everything. So has every man in the hospital. There are too many witnesses. You'll never get away with calling it a mass escape. Most of those men can't walk...Is this your soldier's code? Murdering unarmed men? (Saito looks up at the blistering hot sun, and slowly walks into his hut. Flies are heard buzzing on the soundtrack as the men remain at attention.)
Hours later at the end of the work day as the roasting sun is finally setting, the work detail of enlisted men are marched back to the prison yard. The defiant officers are still standing at attention in their same places (all holding fast to their positions - except for one who dropped to the ground from the intense heat). All officers are ordered to "the punishment hut" (or "the hole"), while Nicholson is summoned into Saito's headquarters. Hands raised, the men shout their support for their Colonel when he disappears inside. A few moments later, his legs limp, Nicholson is dragged to a corrugated metal-encased sweat box (called "the oven" by Shears) to be tortured under the blazing sun so that he will change his mind. The men pick up the tune: "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" and then offer three cheers.
Taking advantage of the situation, Shears successfully manages to escape from the camp into the almost impenetrable jungle (his two companions from the hospital, the Aussie Corporal Weaver and British Lieutenant Jennings are not so lucky), but he is shot and falls into a rushing river. Down-river, he manages to swim to safety. [Scenes of Shears' escape and struggles are alternatingly cross-cut with scenes back at the camp.] Construction resumes on the bridge, but progress is slow, ineffectual and behind schedule, fouled by accidental mishaps and engineering failures - without the presence of the morale-boosting commander.
After three days, Clipton, the British medical officer, is granted an audience with Saito. On the wall in Saito's quarters, behind a scale model of the bridge, hangs an American pin-up calendar showing the month of February ("Joey's Garage, Elk City, Ohio"). Clipton pleads to him that Nicholson's health is deteriorating, and that he is only following the rules of the Geneva Treaty Accord. Clipton learns that the Japanese commandant blames Nicholson (still in the oven) for delays in the bridge construction: "Because of your colonel's stubbornness, we are far behind schedule." When Saito accuses the workers of sabotage and threatens shooting them, Clipton points out to Saito how gunning the soldiers down would violate his own set of principles, illustrating how the Japanese colonel is caught in a no-win dilemma - he will lose face if the bridge is not completed by the rigid deadline, and he will also lose face if he accedes to Nicholson's demands:
Saito: Enlisted prisoners sabotaged the work. I have seen it. I could have them all shot.
Clipton: Then, who would build your bridge? Besides, are you sure it is sabotage? Perhaps the men don't work well without their own officers to direct them.
Saito: My officers will direct them. Your officers will work beside them.
Clipton: That's for Colonel Nicholson to decide. As he pointed out, it's against the rules.
Saito: Do not speak to me of rules. This is war. This is not a game of cricket. He's mad, your Colonel. Quite mad.
Clipton is allowed five minutes in the oven to speak with Nicholson during his severe punishment. The imprisoned, highly-principled commander also believes that Saito is mad. In parallel fashion, he refuses to give in:
Nicholson: That man's [Saito] the worst commanding officer I've ever come across. Actually, I think he's mad...Blackmail...
Clipton: I know, sir. He means it. I'm sure he does. It's a question of face, pure and simple. He can't give in.
Nicholson: It's still blackmail.
Clipton: Sir, you can't stand much more of this. And wouldn't the officers be better off working than suffocating in that hole? The men are doing a wonderful job. They're going as slow as they dare. But Saito has cut their food rations. And if he makes the sick men work, well, they're going to die. That's all there is to it.
Nicholson: Yes Clipton, I understand, truly. But don't you see. It's a matter of principle. If we give in now, there'll be no end to it. No...I'm adamant. I will not have an officer from my battalion working as a coolie!
Clipton wonders to himself after having witnessed both colonels calling each other mad: "Are they both mad or am I going mad? Or is it the sun?" He gazes upwards into the blinding sun.
Into the searing sun elsewhere walks a weakened and dehydrated Shears. Vultures begin to gather above him as he crawls through a parched wilderness. A vulture's shadow turns into a colorful kite (of a red-headed bird), the playtoy of some local village boys - he is rescued.
In the camp, Saito addresses the enlisted men about a lack of progress in the bridge's construction - there are only three months remaining until the deadline. Saito announces that chief engineer Lt. Miura (K. Katsumoto) is "unworthy of command" and has been removed from his post. The men are given a day's rest ("All work and no play make Jack a dull boy," rationalizes the ingratiating Saito) and mail (and Red Cross packages) are delivered to them. However, they will begin all over again the next day with Saito personally in charge of the bridge construction.
The last words in David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai" are "Madness! Madness ... madness!" Although the film's two most important characters are both mad, the hero more than the villain, we're not quite certain what is intended by that final dialogue. Part of the puzzle is caused by the film's shifting points of view.
Seen through the eyes of Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), commanding officer of a battalion of British war prisoners, the war narrows to a single task, building a bridge across the Kwai. For Shears (William Holden), an American who escapes from the camp, madness would be returning to the jungle. For Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the Japanese commandant of the camp, madness and suicide are never far away as the British build a better bridge than his own men could. And to Clipton (James Donald), the army doctor who says the final words, they could simply mean that the final violent confusion led to unnecessary death.
Most war movies are either for or against their wars. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957) is one of the few that focuses not on larger rights and wrongs but on individuals. Like Robert Graves' World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That, it shows men grimly hanging onto military discipline and pride in their units as a way of clinging to sanity. By the end of "Kwai" we are less interested in who wins than in how individual characters will behave.
The film is set in 1943, in a POW camp in Burma, along the route of a rail line the Japanese were building between Malaysia and Rangoon. Shears is already in the camp; we've seen him steal a cigarette lighter from a corpse to bribe his way into the sick bay. He watches as a column of British prisoners, led by Nicholson, marches into camp whistling "The Colonel Bogey March."
Nicholson and Saito, the commandant, are quickly involved in a faceoff. Saito wants all of the British to work on the bridge. Nicholson says the Geneva Convention states officers may not be forced to perform manual labor. He even produces a copy of the document, which Saito uses to whip him across the face, drawing blood. Nicholson is prepared to die rather than bend on principle, and eventually, in one of the film's best-known sequences, he's locked inside "the Oven"--a corrugated iron hut that stands in the sun.
The film's central relationship is between Saito and Nicholson, a professional soldier approaching his 28th anniversary of army service ("I don't suppose I've been at home more than 10 months in all that time"). The Japanese colonel is not a military pro; he learned English while studying in London, he tells Nicholson, and likes corned beef and Scotch whisky. But he is a rigidly dutiful officer, and we see him weeping privately with humiliation because Nicholson is a better bridge builder; he prepares for hara-kiri if the bridge is not ready on time.
The scenes in the jungle are crisply told. We see the bridge being built, and we watch the standoff between the two colonels. Hayakawa and Guinness make a good match as they create two disciplined officers who never bend, but nevertheless quietly share the vision of completing the bridge.
Hayakawa was Hollywood's first important Asian star; he became famous with a brilliant silent performance in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Cheat" (1915). Although he worked onstage and in films in both Japan and the United States, he was unusual among Japanese actors of his generation in his low-key delivery; in "Kwai" he doesn't bluster, but is cool and understated--as clipped as Guinness. (Incredibly, he was 68 when he played the role.)
Alec Guinness, oddly enough, was not Lean's first choice for the role that won him an Oscar as best actor. Charles Laughton originally was cast as Col. Nicholson, but "could not face the heat of the Ceylon location, the ants, and being cramped in a cage," his wife, Elsa Lanchester, wrote in her autobiography. The contrasts between Laughton and Guinness are so extreme that one wonders how Lean could see both men playing the same part. Surely Laughton would have been juicier and more demonstrative. Guinness, who says in his autobiography that Lean "didn't particularly want me" for the role, played Nicholson as dry, reserved, yet burning with an intense obsession.
That obsession is with building a better bridge, and finishing it on time. The story's great irony is that once Nicholson successfully stands up to Saito, he immediately devotes himself to Saito's project as if it is his own. He suggests a better site for the bridge, he offers blueprints and timetables, and he even enters Clipton's hospital hut in search of more workers, and marches out at the head of a column of the sick and the lame. On the night before the first train crossing, he hammers into place a plaque boasting that the bridge was "designed and built by soldiers of the British army."
It is Clipton who asks him, diffidently, if they might not be accused of aiding the enemy. Not at all, Guinness replies: War prisoners must work when ordered, and besides, they are setting an example of British efficiency. "One day the war will be over, and I hope the people who use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built, and who built it." A pleasant sentiment, but in the meantime the bridge will be used to advance the war against the Allies. Nicholson is so proud of the bridge that he essentially forgets about the war.
The story in the jungle moves ahead neatly, economically, powerfully. There is a parallel story involving Shears that is not as successful. Shears escapes, is taken to a hospital in British-occupied Ceylon, drinks martinis and frolics with a nurse, and then is asked by Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkins) to return as part of a plan to blow up the bridge. "Are you crazy?" Shears cries, but is blackmailed by Warden's threat to tell the Americans he has been impersonating an officer. Holden's character, up until the time their guerrilla mission begins, seems fabricated; he's unconvincing playing a shirker, and his heroism at the end seems more plausible.
Lean handles the climax with precision and suspense. There's a nice use of the boots of a sentry on the bridge, sending hollow reverberations down to the men wiring the bridge with plastic explosives. Meanwhile, the British celebrate completion of the bridge with an improbable musical revue that doesn't reflect what is known about the brutal conditions of the POW camps.
The next morning brings an elaborate interplay of characters and motives, as the sound of the approaching train creates suspense, while Nicholson, incredibly, seems ready to expose the sabotage rather than see his beloved bridge go down. (The shot of the explosion and the train tumbling into the river uncannily mirrors a similar scene in Buster Keaton's silent classic "The General," in which the train looks more convincing.)
Although David Lean (1908-1991) won his reputation and perhaps even his knighthood on the basis of the epic films he directed, starting with "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in 1957, there's a contrarian argument that his best work was done before the Oscars started to pile up. After "Kwai" came "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago," "Ryan's Daughter" and "A Passage to India"; all but "Ryan" were nominated for best picture, and the first two won. Before "Kwai" he made smaller, more tightly wound films, including "Brief Encounter," "Oliver Twist" and "Great Expectations" (1946). There is a majesty in the later films (except for "Ryan's Daughter") that compensates for the loss of human detail, but in "Kwai" he still has an eye for the personal touch, as in Saito's private moments and Nicholson's smug inspection of the finished bridge. There is something almost Lear-like in his final flash of sanity: "What have I done!"