36. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

British POWs are forced to build a railway bridge across the river Kwai for their Japanese captors, not knowing that the allied forces are planning to destroy it.

You know, I think the one thing that this film made me realize, more than anything, is that I have no grasp on how plastic explosives work. 

Directed by David Lean and written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, The Bridge on the River Kwai stars William Holden (Shears), Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson), Jack Hawkins (Major Warden), and Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Saito). 

Honestly, this film infuriates me to no end. The first time I watched this film, I was in college, studying David Lean in a class. The film left me irritated. I had hoped that, upon rewatching the film, I would feel differently. But, I am just as frustrated now as I was then. 

The moral dilemma that the film centers around just doesn’t make any sense to me, no matter how I try to spin it. For Brian Terrill's 100 Film Favorites – #40: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” |  Earn Thisthose that don’t know, British POWs are forced to build a bridge that would help aide their Japanese enemy. At first, the POWs are sabotaging the build, which makes sense to me. However, once Colonel Nicholson finds out that they aren’t doing their best work (after having quite the discussion with his captor, Colonel Saito), Nicholson persuades/orders them to do everything correctly. He wants everything done just as well as if they were building the bridge for the British army. That part is absurd to me. On one hand, if the British POWs do not help their Japanese captors, it will surely make their lives harder. On the other hand, by building the bridge and even helping to improve the original plan, they are helping the enemy, which could easily be seen as treasonous. Colonel Nicholson’s British pride just makes no sense to me. And, that’s either because I’m an American or because his pride caused him to be blind to what he was actually doing. Mind you, this is the same man who tried to present Colonel Saito with rules from the Geneva Convention about making his officers do manual labor. After about the third mention of rules, Colonel Saito states it perfectly: “You will not speak to me of rules. This is war. This is not a game of cricket.” And he is exactly right. So, I’m really out of touch with Colonel Nicholson’s thought process right from the beginning. 

As far as the actual technique of filmmaking goes, David Lean is masterful. He directs through the eyes of an editor, and I think that’s one thing that does make his films so special. That and his use of the camera to showcase vast landscapes. He doesn’t do that so much, in The Bridge on the River Kwai, but we see it an awful lot later with Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. 

The three best sequences done in the film are, without question, the killing of the runaway enemy soldier by Warden and Lieutenant Joyce, the placing of the plastic explosives on the bridge, and then the finale. The first two scenes rely heavily on silence with a mix of jungle noise. There’s no music. There’s not even a lot of folly work for footsteps or for the water. These scenes perfectly build up the tension needed to end the film big. The final scene, especially when Colonel Nicholson bursts out “What have I done?” after killing allied soldiers, is so well executed. The final words uttered in the film being “Madness. Madness.” is simply poetic. 

colonel nicholson
That was the moment he knew he had fucked up.

 It is still an absolute disgrace that Sessue Hayakawa did not win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, when every other category this film was nominated in, it won. You can’t help but read into that, considering all the other nominees for Best Supporting Actor were white, and, in my opinion, don’t have performances as memorable as this one. Plus, look at the time period this was made. I’m just saying that it’s hard to not see that as a slap in the face to non-white actors of the period. 

I’ve gone back and forth with myself on whether I agree with The Bridge on the River Kwai being on the AFI’s Top 100 Films over 100 Years list and, honestly, I don’t think I agree with it. That’s not because I don’t think it is a deserving film. But, David Lean already has Lawrence of Arabia on this list, which is a far superior film. There are so many other great films by other directors that did not get on this list, and Lean has two spots. That just doesn’t seem fair to me. (Just like I don’t think so many Westerns need to be on this list. Honestly. There’s ten of them. Why?) 

Anyway, I’ll have that damn whistle song stuck in my head from now till eternity. 


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