There are many things that I admire about the British. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the American Film Institute’s (AFI) thirty-sixth greatest American film of all time, calls many of these traits into question. I will not spend a lot of time on these details, hoping that it will become evident as this review unfolds. Instead, I will leave it to medical officer Major Clipton’s (James Donald) final word of the movie, repeated a couple of times, as he watches the title span (spoiler alert) explode as a Japanese train crosses it: “Madness!” This is not meant to be an indication of the quality of the film, or a comment on the pace of the proceedings. Again, you will have to read on to understand why he is compelled to say this at the end.
Before there is The Bridge on the River Kwai, there is a lone Japanese prisoner of war camp deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia during World War II. Here, “Commander” Shears (William Holden) is held with a number of other Allied soldiers, and we find them burying their dead comrades. They are at this as in the distance they begin to hear the whistling of a new group of captured men led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) marching smartly into camp. The evidence of their captivity is apparent in many ways, but Colonel Nicholson insists on maintaining proper military discipline at all times. He is also a stickler for the Geneva Conventions, something the commandant of the camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), is keen to flaunt. This leads to a showdown between the British and Japanese officers, the main issue being Colonel Saito’s demand that the British officers must work alongside their men. Colonel Nicholson is adamant that his men will only take orders from himself and his chain of command, not from the Japanese directly. Thus, he flatly refuses to labor, citing the Conventions, and his officers follow his example. This results in them standing all day in the hot sun as the rest go to begin their first day constructing the bridge. In the commotion that follows their return, a few decide to attempt to escape, including Commander Shears. He is the only one to get away alive. Back in the camp, all the officers are put into the “hot box,” a small shack on the grounds with corrugated metal sidings for walls and a roof. Colonel Nicholson is separated from the others, being brought out occasionally to have Colonel Saito try and convince his counterpart of the need to cooperate. One of the main issues is the coming deadline. If Colonel Saito does not meet it, he will be forced to commit seppuku, a ritual whereby Japanese people kill themselves. Colonel Nicholson tells Colonel Saito that such is the Japanese officer’s problem, and he is put back into the hot box. While the officers bide their time in their sweltering confinement, construction continues to stall. It is only out of desperation that Colonel Saito finally relents and releases Colonel Nicholson and the rest of the British officers, agreeing to their conditions that they oversee their own soldiers. As Colonel Nicholson takes charge, he is reminded by one of his juniors that the bridge is being built in the wrong place. In response, Colonel Nicholson takes this and a number of other suggestions to Colonel Saito. Remarkably, the camp director agrees to make the proposed changes on the condition that his deadline be met. Colonel Nicholson voices his doubts that it can be done, but promises to do his best regardless. Interspersed with these scenes are those of Commander Shears fleeing from the camp. Delirious, he stumbles into a friendly Siamese village. They nurse him back to health before sending him on his way downriver. Though he had received help, it is another long trek on the body of water before he ends up adrift in the Indian Ocean. Luckily, he is spotted by friendly aircraft and taken to a military hospital in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka). He lives it up convalescing, and expects that he will soon be medically discharged and sent back to the United States. What ruins this tidy little dream is Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) of Force 316. This military unit with an innocuous name is a British special forces outfit, and they are aware of the Japanese effort to build the railroad and continue their drive to invade India. The eponymous span is a major part of this in the eyes of the British, making Commander Shears a person of interest. British intelligence also learns that Commander Shears is not the American naval officer he claims to be. In turn, they get the Americans to give them “Commander” Shears, now made a major, to be a part of the small team they are sending to destroy the bridge and disrupt the Japanese plans. Major Shears tries to refuse, but finds he has no choice. This makes him one of four members of Force 316, along with Major Warden, who parachute into Southeast Asia. One of their number dies in the jump, but the rest carry on with a group of local guides. Along the way, their youngest member, Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne), must learn how to kill without hesitation. This is put to the test when they run across a Japanese patrol, and they must hunt down the last remaining member and kill him. Lieutenant Joyce’s pulls up at the crucial moment unsure of himself, forcing Major Warden to act and get wounded in the process. In spite of this new infirmity, they press on to their target. As they trudge towards their destination, Colonel Nicholson becomes more obsessed with finishing the project on schedule, convincing the officers to work alongside their men even though that had earlier been a bone of contention. Thus, the morning after its completion and the day the first train is to pass over, he notices the explosives Major Warden’s team have rigged to the span’s base. Along with Colonel Saito, Colonel Nicholson attempts to prevent the sabotage before he realizes the terrible mistake he has made. With his dying breath, he lands on the detonator, causing the explosion to take out the bridge just as the train is coming onto it. Cue Major Clipton’s shock and the movie ends.
Major Clipton calls the final act of The Bridge on the River Kwai as “madness” because of all the hard work they had done, only to see it go up in a flash. Throughout its construction, he had consistently wondered whether they should be this assiduous in aiding the enemy. For Colonel Nicholson, it becomes less about whose flag under which he had served than keeping the status quo. It is not so much of a problem of their situation in a prison work camp than maintaining order, or what he sees as the natural order of things. This all comes into the proper perspective when Lieutenant Joyce dies in his arms while protesting that he had been sent by British intelligence to blow up the bridge. There is an earlier scene when Commander Shears is asked by Major Warden what will be the sum of the American officer’s life. For Colonel Nicholson, he is experiencing the irrational notion that the bridge will be his legacy. One can take comfort in the fact that it is really God who is in charge of determining how we will be judged by that legacy, and He does so with an infinitely kind heart. As such, Colonel Nicholson can be forgiven for his actions. It is war that is the true madness, and it makes it difficult to follow Jesus’ commandment that we turn the other cheek to those who would strike you. More temporally, it is crazy that the same army that built the span would be the one to destroy it. To quote Our Lord and Savior in Luke 23:34 as he hung dying on the Cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
The Bridge on the River Kwai is lengthy, which can make it hard to get through in many circumstances. However, it is worth it, if for no other reason to see the climactic moment when the bridge blows up with the train on it. This is something they did specifically for this one shot, and it looks spectacular.