The Bridge on the River Kwai spends most of its considerable running time puffing up a romantic image of the British gentleman soldier, presenting an organized, highly capable military man who handles ever situation—even time as a prisoner of war—with civility, decorum, and perseverance. Then the movie dedicates its final moments to detonating its own stiff upper lip.
That’s not only the theme, but also the gist of the film’s parallel plot, which is drawn from the Pierre Boulle novel of the same name. One narrative strand takes place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the border of Burma and Thailand, where a British colonel named Nicholson (Alec Guinness) dutifully maintains order among his men, even though they are all under the cruel command of Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). After a series of tense mind games between the two officers, the British prisoners are put in charge of constructing a bridge over the title river, a project that the Japanese have largely botched. Arguing that it is better for his men to have a goal and good work to pursue, even if it means helping the enemy, Nicholson pushes them to complete construction in time for the arrival of a train of Japanese dignitaries. He hopes the finished bridge will be a testament to British resilience and ingenuity, long after World War II has ended.
At the same time, the secondary plot follows a group of British commandos—accompanied by a reluctant American (William Holden) who has recently escaped Saito’s camp—on a mission to sabotage the bridge, preferably on the very day of the train’s arrival. That’s when the film comes to its climax, but director David Lean (Doctor Zhivago) prefaces it with so much English exceptionalism that I was shocked by the muddy, messy way—the “madness,” to borrow one character’s words—that the movie ends.
Consider, after all, how Nicholson and his troops enter the film. As prisoners, yes, but marching in order into the camp, whistling a cheery portion of “Colonel Bogey March.” (Composer Malcolm Arnold would famously incorporate this into the movie’s theme.) Nicholson stands before his men, aware of Saito watching from his hut behind, but barely giving him a backwards glance. Later, when Nicholson delivers an inspiring speech in the sick ward, rousing a few of the abler men to join the workforce for one last push, they march similarly away: proud and determined, albeit limping. These Brits will get the job done, and done in an orderly fashion.
These Brits will get the job done, and done in an orderly fashion.
The commandos in the jungle, led by Jack Hawkins, have more of a guerrilla style, but they’re no less heroic, fearlessly parachuting into fields and traipsing through waist-high swamps. Indeed, it’s Shears, Holden’s American—who had hoped to parlay his time as a POW into an easy discharge from service—who comes across as selfish. Shears is also distracted by the nubile village women who carry the team’s supplies; in a touch that’s especially gross for modern audiences, these women spend most of their time gazing adoringly at the white, Western commandos.
Lean, thankfully, is also distracted by the awesome natural splendor that surrounds the story (the film was shot in Sri Lanka). Vast landscapes dominate the wide, CinemaScope frame, often encompassing towering mountains and trailing rivers in a single shot (to say nothing of the moments that capture the entire span of the bridge). One of my favorite images—that of a massive colony of bats erupting from trees at the sound of a grenade—could have come from a nature documentary.
Eventually the commandos make it to the completed bridge, where Nicholson stands with perfect posture, and no small sense of pride. The extended sequence that follows is excruciatingly tense and ethically exasperating. Seeing that British prisoners have built the bridge and might indeed be traveling over it on the Japanese train, should the commandos abandon their mission? If Nicholson discovers the explosives that have been attached to his beloved edifice, should he alert Saito or play dumb? I won’t give any answers, nor detail what actually happens, except to say that Lean stages the events with an expert sense of suspense, then leaves us wondering what to make of the mythologizing that came before. Was all that whistling really the sound of legendary British resolve, or were those soldiers only whistling past their own graveyard?