After spending so much time reviewing cult flicks and trash picks, I feel weird that I’m so compelled to write a review for Bridge on the River Kwai of all movies. I’d seen it a handful of times as a kid and what always struck me was that this was a nearly three-hour-long movie with very little action, about the construction of a bridge, and it held my attention when I was probably about eight. This was the first time I’d seen it as an adult. I’d been meaning to re-watch it for literal years, and I finally decided, alright, let’s do this thing, and made myself comfortable and strapped myself in.
Bridge on the River Kwai was my introduction into older films as a kid. Of course I’d seen older movies before that and loved them, but this was a sort of landmark film in my life at the time, I feel like. This wasn’t just a pretty good, fun old movie. This was a larger-than-life spectacle that was more about what was just going on in the plot. I didn’t understand what it was saying, exactly, but I knew it was deep. It became one of my favorites and William Holden was my favorite actor of the era. Hell, he still is.
The film, based on the similarly-titled novel by Pierre Boulle is inspired by the true story of the building of the Burma Railway during WWII. British POWs under the command of Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) are tasked with a massive job and a fast-approaching deadline: To build a bridge over the Kwai river that is strong enough to support a train. Saito breaks down the prisoners by telling them that they are no longer soldiers, that they surrendered their title and honor to him, then tries to build them up by telling them that the bridge’s construction is for their own benefit, that the train will be used to transport sick and wounded prisoners.
The island they are on, Saito assures them, is inescapable. If they escape the camp without somehow being shot, navigating the jungle will surely prove futile. If they somehow make it through the jungle, swimming across the ocean will be impossible. Defying these odds, Commander Shears (William Holden), the only American, becomes the first to escape and survive. Though he wants nothing more than to just go home and leave the war behind, he becomes too valuable to the British Army due to his firsthand knowledge of the island, and is sold out to them, blackmailed, into becoming a part of a commando mission to destroy the bridge. The British Army knows that Shears lied about his rank and promises him to continue having the benefits of an office. With no choice, he agrees.
Back at the prison camp, a war of wills plays out between Saito and Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). Saito wants all men, including officers, to perform manual labor to finish the bridge. Nicholson informs him that this is against the Geneva Convention and will not have his officers perform manual labor. Saito locks Nicholson and his officers into sweat boxes in the jungle heat as a form of torture for his insubordination. Nicholson refuses to give in, despite his met being tortured, other enlisted men being worked to death and killed.
With delays mounting on the bridge’s construction, Saito tells Nicholson that if the project is not completed on time, he’ll have to kill himself. Indifferent, Nicholson shrugs this away. Finally, he caves in to Nicholson’s demands and a new obsession for Nicholson begins: The bridge. Nicholson devotes himself entirely to the construction of it, even recruiting men on the sick list, with infected wounds. Even Saito views this with disgust. The irony of giving Nicholson what he wanted was that Saito now has everything that he wants. He has a bridge that will be completed on time and even bigger and stronger than the one planned before. He doesn’t view it this way, though. Left alone in his quarters, he sobs like a broken man.
All of the performances in Bridge on the River Kwai are incredible. William Holden, as “Commander” Shears does the usual William Holden thing that no other actor can do: Pull off a character who is simultaneously smarmy and charming; someone who is selfish and altruistic. Someone who’s a real contradiction. He sees the absurdity of war and in his mission, but finds the humanity in it.
Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa, though, have this amazing mirroring of each other. Nicholson echoes Saito’s pondering, “To what end?” when it comes to soldiers escaping and dying from the camp. They’re essentially the same person, on different sides of the war. In another time, in another world, they might have been friends… or, given how stubborn they both are, enemies in a different capacity.
David Lean’s direction is top-notch. He has a way of balancing spectacle and story. This is a personal story about obsession and will, told on a grand scale. Intimate conversations occur during huge set-pieces with hundreds of extras running around in the background. And it all builds to something meaningful. There are no action scenes for padding, no chase scenes for an added thrill. Every minute of the movie means something.
Most war movies are about the bravery of sacrifice. Bridge on the River Kwai is about the absurdity of it. Sacrifice, the movie believes, when other people’s lives are at stake, is madness. And perhaps it’s fitting that the last line of the film is, indeed, “Madness!” At the end of the film, with its grand climax and blood spilled and bullets flying, what the hell did any of it mean? A clash of titanic egos, on both sides of the mission, resulted in a “job well done” that didn’t mean a damn thing.