The 1950’s were definitely a roller coaster of a decade in terms of quality of the films to win Best Picture. 1956’s Best Picture winner, Around the World in 80 Days, was a showcase for excess, bloat, and ridiculousness (not to mention a total 180 degree turn in style from 1955’s exquisite Marty). Competition from television for America’s entertainment dollar forced films to become bigger, bolder, and more uniquely cinematic. In the worst-case scenario, a film like Around the World in 80 Days is foisted upon audiences. In the best-case scenario, we are treated to The Bridge on the River Kwai, an epic adventure film full of widescreen cinematic grandeur that retains story elements, performances and characters that provoke, challenge and above all entertain.
It has become cliché to call director David Lean’s film “the thinking man’s action picture”, but the highest praise I can give the film is that makes audiences think while being thrilled. The cliché about The Bridge on the River Kwai is 100% accurate.
As with many great films, Lean achieves maximum dramatic effect by keeping his storyline very direct and simple. A fictitious account of Japanese POW’s being forced to construct a bridge on the Burma Railway during WWII, The Bridge on the River Kwai centers on three main protagonists. First, there is the Japanese commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who has been ordered to complete the construction of a bridge spanning the river Kwai, the crucial and final link connecting Rangoon (the then Burma’s capital, for the geographically disinclined) to India. Next is Saito’s British foil, Colonel Nicholson (Best Actor-winning Alec Guinness), who fundamentally opposes Saito’s cruel and barbarous practices and eventually seeks to complete the bridge in a more efficient manner to prove the superiority of British methods. Finally, there is the wild card; American Naval “Commander” Shears (William Holden), a prisoner in the camp who eventually escapes then becomes involved in a commando mission to blow up the bridge on the river Kwai.
Even simpler is each man’s underlying motivation. For Saito, it’s about saving face. For Nicholson, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of his civilization. For Shears, it’s about survival. Inevitably, the motivations of each man lead to conflict. In adapting Pierre Boulle’s novel, screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman wisely boil down the story to the fundamentals of character in their three leads. For Saito, Nicholson, and Shears, we know the who, the what, the where, the when, and—most importantly in film—the why and the how. Wilson and Foreman wisely, intuitively know that epic storytelling is born not out of gargantuan set pieces or spectacular events but rather from the essentials of character.
(Of course, there can’t be a 1950’s Oscar winning film without a Hollywood blacklist controversy. Both Wilson and Foreman had their names removed from the credits of The Bridge on the River Kwai by the film’s producers, a practice both men had experienced before, despite each being nominated for screenwriting Oscars during the 1950. Foreman most famously lost for High Noon, Wilson was denied an Oscar for Friendly Persuasion, a film which took home the Palme d’Or. (Wilson did win an Oscar for co-writing A Place in the Sun.) Official credit—and the Oscar win—went to the novel’s author, Pierre Boulle. The problem—Frenchman Boulle neither wrote in English nor a word of the screenplay. In 1984, after both Wilson and Foreman had died, the Academy finally gave the men the credit they deserved and awarded Oscar statuettes to their widows. Screen credit was restored to the authors when the film was restored the same year.)
The film also creates a tremendous level of suspense by making each man neither entirely right, nor entirely wrong. The opening act of the film establishes a perfect balance between the three lead characters. Each man is brought into immediate conflict with the other. Shears, the longtime POW, has grown weary and perhaps even numb to the harsh life in the prison camp. His worldview is shaped on one principle with a single goal: survive—no matter the cost—then escape. His beliefs have crystallized in a barely concealed cynicism. When Nicholson’s troops make their arrival into the camp (they whistle the unforgettable “Colonel Bogey March,” a tune which during the war, had satirical anti-Hitler lyrics associated with it. Listen to it here, but risk getting it stuck in your head: ) Shears states “Those new prisoners see us diggin’ graves, they might all run away.” He is reprimanded by his Japanese superior, “No time for jokes. Finish work. Dig! Dig!” The difference between the American and his Japanese captors can be most clearly seen in their language—the American speaks in cynicism and gallows humor, the Japanese speak solely in imperatives.
Opportunity is what separates Shears and Nicholson. As stated, Shears, with his world-weary cynicism (in many ways, Shears is akin to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca, minus the heartbreak), is only looking out for himself. Escape is the ultimate means of survival for Shears, and he is only waiting for his opportunity to do so. Nicholson has another agenda entirely. Eventually, it is revealed that Nicholson was ordered to be captured, which seems incredibly stupid, but he reveals his true purpose for being at the camp in his first exchange with Shears.
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? 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.
Shears and Nicholson find themselves at cross-purposes. Shears means to escape the wilderness, Nicholson means to tame it. The conversation is also interesting to unfold, because the undercurrent of Nicholson’s tone suggests that Shears is a coward for wishing to escape. When Nicholson says, “I understand how you feel. Of course, normally it’s the duty of a captured soldier to attempt escape,” he is essentially accusing Shears of cowardice. Conversely, when Shears asks “You mean you intend to uphold the letter of the law, no matter what it costs?” he barely veils his contempt. Shears thinks that Nicholson is perhaps insane. Dialogue this rich—combined with the subtle acting from Holden and Guinness—goes a long way in establishing character and conflict, while suggesting that neither man is entirely right or wrong.
The juiciest conflict in the film is between Nicholson and Saito. Willpower is what makes the opposing colonels very much alike, and neither man will fully yield until one has imposed his will upon the other. From the outset, Saito makes his rules very explicit. “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.” Nicholson politely rebukes: “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.” Nicholson then proceeds to pull out an actual copy of the Geneva Convention, all the while Saito stares at him, as if he were trying to burn a hole through the document.
Saito clearly could care less about the rules Nicholson adheres to. And why should he? Saito could order all of the British soldiers shot dead with a mere gesture. The whole time, I was thinking, if they’re in the middle of nowhere—in Saito’s words “an island in the jungle” why the hell would he care about the Geneva Convention, and doesn’t Nicholson understand he is within enemy territory? Why would he expect Western doctrines to be upheld?
Of course, neither man is willing to budge. Saito commands: “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.” I imagined what those words must have sounded like to a soldier under Nicholson. For me, Saito’s words—especially since he has mandated the bridge over the river Kwai be completed in less than three months—make a hell of a lot of sense. The officers are able-bodied. Why shouldn’t they work as manual laborers alongside their men? Rigidly, Nicholson continues to cite from the Geneva Convention to defend his stance. This sends Saito into a fury, as he snatches the Convention out of Nicholson’s hands and slaps him across the face with the booklet. “You speak to me of code. What code? The coward's code. What do you know of the soldier's code? Of bushido? Nothing. You are unworthy of command.” Nicholson replies: “Since you refuse to abide by the laws of the civilized world, we must consider ourselves absolved from our duty to obey you.”
The conflict between the two colonels extends far beyond a clash of wills; it has become a conflict of cultural values. The film asks its viewers: Which set of cultural values do you align with? The honorable and direct Japanese, with their code of bushido? The rigid and stoic British, who feel the need to enlighten the dark corners of civilization? There is also the third option—the rebellious and cynical American personified in Holden’s Shears, out only for his own survival. To their credit, director Lean and screenwriters Foreman and Wilson never provide the audience with an easy answer, preferring (and trusting) that the audience watching The Bridge on the River Kwai will come to their own conclusions/
As the film plays out, each of the three leads find their belief systems challenged and unraveled. Saito is the first to fall; as the more he imposes his domineering will over Nicholson, the faster Nicholson is able to usurp his authority. The Saito/Nicholson conflict reaches its crescendo as Nicholson is imprisoned in “the Oven”—a small structure constructed of corrugated steel designed to amplify the already hot and humid temperatures—where Saito expects his British counterpart to fold under the torturous heat and pressures of solitary confinement. Yet Nicholson only becomes more stoic, and his bravery only inspires the men to rebel by constructing the bridge in a lazy and shoddy manner, making it more difficult for Saito’s mission of completing the bridge by May infinitely more difficult. When Saito realizes that only Nicholson (and his superior engineers) can command the British soldiers to complete the bridge on time, he relents and releases Nicholson. The only way Saito can save face and retain his honor is to complete the bridge on time, but to do so; he must cede power to his enemy. In a very moving contrast, Saito is shown crying privately in his quarters as the British soldiers triumphantly celebrate Nicholson’s release from “the Oven”. For Saito to overcome his shame, he must commit seppuku—ritual suicide—so that his honor is restored in death.
Nicholson becomes driven to prove to the Japanese that the British soldiers under his command can build a bridge far superior to one the Japanese could have constructed. Through the bridge, Nicholson will achieve his goal of establishing civilization in the wilds of the Burmese jungle, for the bridge will stand for “six hundred years” and will serve to “teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame.” The construction of the bridge has a double purpose: it will also restore order and morale amongst his men.
On both counts Nicholson is successful—the morale and health of the POW’s vastly improves—but he becomes so obsessed with the completion of his task that he loses sight of his principles. Ultimately, he abandons the Geneva Convention and enlists both officers and the sick men to help aid in the completion of construction. When the medical officer Major Clipton (James Donald), questions if Nicholson has utterly abandoned his principles in a show of one-upsmanship, Nicholson retorts, “One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity.” It is also Clipton who warns Nicholson of his ultimate folly—that in building a bridge better than the Japanese could build themselves, the British soldiers are ultimately aiding their enemy by providing them with a crucial link in their railway, connecting Southeast Asia to India. When the bridge is completed, Nicholson will have committed treason.
Unbeknownst to Nicholson, Shears—after he escapes—is plotting to see that the bridge isn’t completed. Shears’ arc receives the bulk of the action in the picture. He makes his way to British Intelligence HQ in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time the picture was filmed, and the country where Lean moved the production), and lives leisurely among the officers there. However, Shears quickly finds himself in another trap—this time a catch-22. Shears is brought to the attention of Major Warden of Force 316 (Jack Hawkins), who has been delegated the task of blowing up the Kwai bridge. Warden is recruiting a team of commandos to parachute into Burma and infiltrate Saito’s camp, and Shears’ knowledge of the area is invaluable. Shears—true to the cowardly form Nicholson insinuated he had—tries his best to back out of it. Shears owns up to impersonating a Navy commander, and since he is only an “ordinary swab jockey second-class” and says that his escape from the POW camp had more to do with luck than any real skill as a soldier. Warden doesn’t buy it, saying that Shears’ efforts are heroic, but that Shears can’t be returned to the American Navy. “In one sense, you're a blasted hero for making an escape through the jungle. But at the same time, they can't very well bring you home and give you the Navy Cross for impersonating an officer, can they? I suppose that's why they were so happy to hand you over to us. You see?” Warden turns Shears’ unique situation against him, and where Shears’ detached cynicism helped him survive in the POW camp, it only ends up placing him in mortal danger by being shanghaied into returning as part of the commando team. Shears’ own attitude again makes him a prisoner.
After each man—Saito, Nicholson, and Shears—has been built up and brought down to Earth, the stage is set for the finale. Lean stages an explosive (literally) and tragic final act (I won’t spoil the details entirely), with the film’s last line—spoken by Lt. Clipton (“Madness! Madness! Madness!!”)—revealing the filmmakers’ attitudes toward war in general.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is the first Best Picture-winning widescreen epic where the power of the story and the quality of the filmmaking matches the supersized frame. Not only is the picture supremely worthy of being shot in CinemaScope—with its magnificent vistas, lush Ceylon location, and a bridge that literally spans the frame of the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai is ideally suited for massive presentation—but the ideas presented in the story and its characters provoke thought long after the film is ended. The balanced direction from David Lean gives the film stems from an equally balanced script by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Because the film is based on a novel, it doesn’t have to be burdened with slavish accuracy to history. Instead, the film needs only to retain fidelity to its characters. In the characters of Saito, Shears and Nicholson—three heroic, frustrating, and complicated men who are never entirely good or evil, right or wrong—audiences are allowed to derive their own conclusions instead of being spoon-fed answers.
In a decade where films often dumbed down when they went big, The Bridge on the River Kwai had faith in the intelligence of its audience. Ultimately, this faith paid off, as the film became the most popular of its year in terms of box office receipts, and when the film was first aired on television (a risky move, considering that with commercials, the film would last well over three hours—long films were usually broken up into two parts over two nights), ABC reaped the benefits of 60 million viewers tuning into the broadcast. In any age, The Bridge on the River Kwai will endure.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Director: David Lean
Starring: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, James Donald
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Total Oscars: 7 (Best Picture—Sam Spiegel, Best Director—David Lean, Best Actor—Alec Guinness, Best Adapted Screenplay—Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson and Pierre Boulle, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score) from 8 total nominations (Best Supporting Actor—Sessue Hayakawa)
NEXT BLOG: Gigi and the overlooked Best Picture candidates from the 1950’s