“Madness! Madness! Madness! “
That is the enduring battle cry of ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, a movie about stubborn obstinate people who stick to their guns regardless of the consequences. It is a war movie in the sense that it takes place during a war, but it has more in common with Indiana Jones than it does with Saving Private Ryan.
‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ was made in 1957 by David Lean, the great movie maker also known for directing the epic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as well as many other high budget films. The film follows a group of British and American prisoners of war in a Japanese P.O.W camp being run by a ruthless overseer known as Colonel Saito, who has been tasked by his government with building the bridge from which this movie derives its name. Saito is a man of rigid and stern discipline who expects orders to be followed, and promptly at that. He adheres to a strict Bushido code of honor. In his eyes the prisoners at his camp are no longer soldiers. They are barely human beings. They are simply cowards who did not have the intestinal fortitude to do what he would have done in their situation—commit Harakiri.
The first person we meet in the movie is an American prisoner named Shears, played by William Holden. Shears’ first on screen act is to bribe a Japanese officer with a lighter he stole from a dead man in order to be placed on the sick list and kept off the work detail. This of course, is the hero of the movie. Holden here plays a role that looks like it was written for Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, or some other classic Hollywood antihero. Holden comes across a little too much like the traditional Hollywood guts and glory style hero to truly make you believe in him as a slacker here, but that doesn’t keep him from putting in a strong performance here. Early on, Shears manages to make an impossible escape from the prison, but is later blackmailed into returning in order to blow up the bridge.
The “evil” Col. Saito meets his match when he comes across his latest group of prisoners, a group of British lads who “left right left” into the camp whilst whistling the classic ‘Colonel Bogey’ march. Good luck getting that little ditty out of your head after watching this film, by the way. The leader of this merry band of good ol’ chaps is Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, played here by Alec Guinness , who is probably best known to present day readers as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy. In any event, if Saito thinks he’s going to bully old Obe-Wan around with his brutish scare tactics, he’s got another bowl of rice coming.
The main struggle in ‘Kwai’ is between Saito and Nicholson, which pits two of the most honor-bound societies of the twentieth century up against one another with the Bushido code of the Samurai versus the ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ of Winston Churchill, among others, in a massive battle of wills. Of course both men are extremely stubborn, but beneath it all is a desperate need for order and discipline. Nicholson refuses for him or his officers to do ordinary manual labor as Saito commands, and the penalty for his stubbornness is to spend weeks on end locked in a miniscule bamboo cage. Nicholson argues that his men would work better under the command of their usual officers. Saito scoffs, but eventually is proven wrong, and simply worn down by the old Brit’s dogged determination.
The great irony of the movie is that once Nicholson prevails in this epic battle of wills he sets about building the enemy a better, stronger, bridge than they ever could have on their own. His own personal quest to prove himself right and uphold strict military discipline in his men clouds his judgment on the murky subject of assisting the enemy in wartime. This then pits him in a race with Shears who is now returning with a crew of British soldiers to attempt to blow up Nicholson’s proudest accomplishment.
There are so many great performances here. Guinness (who won an Oscar for this role) puts in mesmerizing work as Nicholson, who you go from staunchly admiring to quickly questioning his astonishing during the course of the movie. Sessue Hayakawa goes over the top in some scenes depicting Saito as the typical evil foreigner of that time period, but it is in his quieter and more solemn moments, such as the dinner table scene with Nicholson that he truly shines here, and you begin to feel true sympathy for the character. Holden gets to have the most fun here, and while I never really bought into him as a rebellious deserter, he does of course come around in the end and gets to be the classic Hollywood hero.
This is a Hollywood war movie to be sure. There is a lot of, perhaps deserved criticism of this film’s portrayal of conditions at Japanese P.O.W camps. It’s highly doubtful that actual starving and imprisoned soldiers were allowed to arrange an informal luau or stage their own burlesque show complete with coconut bra’s, but to me that is part of the charm of this movie. Under no circumstances could a movie like this be made today. Modern war movies are great at showing you the horrific blood and guts that real war produces. Classic war movies like this specialize in showing you larger than life personalities and intense character drama. This is the kind of movie that was made purely for escapism, and for that purpose, it greatly succeeds.
This is famously the favorite movie of cult actor Bruce Campbell. The event that brought this film back into my conscious awareness happened a few years ago when Campbell was partaking in a Comic Con panel for a made for TV movie on the USA Network and was asked the inevitable inquiry “What’s your favorite movie?”…This set him off on an epic five minute rant on Kwai in which he laments that movies like this don’t get made anymore. Some of my favorite quotes from this mini-rant included. “This was back when movies had a score instead of a soundtrack… Remember those?” and that “William Holden was a man, not a boy king like Ben Affleck”. Preach on brother Bruce.
I’d like to conclude this review with a pet peeve of mine that occurs fairly regularly in Hollywood flicks nowadays. That being movies whose entire plot is given away by the trailer. It flat out drives me nuts. What’s the point in spending two hours to see something you’ve already seen take place in thirty seconds? Back in the day movie makers used to have this little thing called patience. Take this film for instance. Here is a movie that takes its time. The main storyline of ‘Kwai’ doesn’t even get going until over half the running time has already expired. That is not a drawback or an indictment of the directing skills of David Lean, it is praise. ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ knows exactly where it’s going, and even though it has many threads to weave together it doesn’t rush through things to get to the point. Instead, it stops and lingers on every little detail and lets you soak in every bit of character nuance, and that allows the final riveting climax at the bridge to be the truly stunning payoff that it is.
Bridge on the River Kwai gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.