Pierre Boulle, Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson, and David Lean, 1957
#4 of 28 in the 20th century series
This is the first movie in this series that I did not originally watch for a class. Instead, I saw it during my year off between college and grad school. It was the first time I had my own apartment and my own cable TV subscription, and I had them load me up with several of the premium add‐ons: as I recall, I got Showtime, the Movie Channel, and Cinemax, but not HBO. I have no idea how these channels schedule their programming nowadays, but at the time, they seemed to follow this pattern: at the beginning of prime time, some recent popular movie (e.g., Forrest Gump). At the end of prime time, something edgier (e.g., Reservoir Dogs). Then in late night, on to the hooter flicks and softcore porn (e.g., Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000 and Emmanuelle: the Series). But around four or five in the morning, the old movies would come on. Then as now, I was fairly nocturnal, so I would often still be up to catch some of these — I remember that I spent one pre‐dawn watching Paths of Glory, and another early morning watching Butterflies Are Free. And so it was around sunrise that I first saw The Bridge on the River Kwai, and was sufficiently impressed to immediately put it in my pantheon. It still held up pretty well for me this time around; my one criticism would be that the movie has a tendency to assign characters speeches in which they pretty much state flat‐out what the themes are. But those themes are pretty compelling.
The Bridge on the River Kwai breaks down into two halves. The first half focuses on a three‐way culture clash — much more interesting than a two‐way one, as it implies a whole canvas of ideologies rather than a mere spectrum. On one axis you have the conflict between Cmdr. Shears, an American sailor on gravedigging duty at a World War II P.O.W. camp in Japanese‐occupied Thailand, and Lt. Col. Nicholson, commander of a British battalion that has just arrived at the camp after surrendering in Singapore. Shears has no qualms about bribing guards to let him malinger on the sick list — or about pretending to be an officer in order to get better treatment — and thus is flabbergasted to hear Nicholson reject the notion of trying to break out because, as he and his men had been ordered to give themselves up voluntarily, to attempt to escape “might well be an infraction of military law”. This leads to one of those on‐the‐nose but memorable exchanges that I mentioned above:
This looks like a fairly pat, invidious pairing of brash maverick and feckless bureaucrat, but in an interesting twist, it is Nicholson’s insistence on upholding the letter of every law that ends up making him the conquering hero of the film’s first half. When Col. Saito, who oversees the camp, announces that officers as well as their men will be forced to construct a bridge that will extend the Japanese rail network from Thailand into Burma, Nicholson refuses, on the grounds that forcing officers to perform manual labor is forbidden by the Geneva Convention. Nothing shakes his resolve. We might expect that he would withstand threats to his life and tortures such as beatings and days‐long stretches in a tiny hotbox, as indeed he does. But he is equally unmoved by the torture of the other officers and by threats to the lives of the wounded prisoners in the hospital, which I have to think many viewers would find less admirable. Making things even more complex is Nicholson’s choice of a hill to potentially die on: that officers not share the lot of the enlisted men? This is the point of principle that no concessions from Saito, no amount of pleading from his own medical officer, will convince him to abandon? He went to war to make the world safe for aristocracy? Of course, Nicholson would likely argue that, no, he went to war to preserve “the laws of the civilized world”, and that giving in on the slightest detail of those laws would open the door to abandoning them all. But while Shears might dismiss Nicholson as someone who insists on “dying by the rules”, Saito objects not to Nicholson’s adherence to a set of rules but rather to the values that underpin those rules. When Nicholson turns to Article 27 of his copy of the Geneva Convention and explains that “the code specifically states that the—”, Saito backhands him and bellows, “You speak to me of codes? What code? The coward’s code! What do you know of the soldier’s code, of bushidō? Nothing! You are unworthy of command!” Later Saito fumes, “I hate the British! You are defeated, but you have no shame! You are stubborn, but have no pride! You endure, but you have no courage!” Again, this sort of thing is fascinating to me: people talking past each other, not because they do something so simple as to disagree, but because they don’t even share a framework for thinking about the world. If someone does wrong, is that an example of sin or error? When you read a story, are you cataloguing motifs, evaluating the author’s politics, or deciding which characters to “ship”? Are international negotiations about working together to create a better world or about “winning”? When Saito attempts to get the British enlisted men to turn on their officers by pointing out that “it is they who betrayed 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!”, his gambit fails to bridge the cultural divide. The British troops aren’t eating their hearts out with shame, and to them the idea that anyone would long to die like a hero is suicidal insanity. The two sides fundamentally fail to understand one another, and Nicholson and Saito both confide to their aides that the other one is mad.
The reason that Saito doesn’t just kill Nicholson is that the imperial Japanese government does operate on the principle of bushidō, particularly as it involves yū, “heroic courage”. Top command’s standard procedure is to hand down impossible tasks, leaving commanders in the field, like Saito, the options of either somehow performing them or committing suicide. A quick digression: apparently one knock on this film is that it’s not very accurate, in that conditions on the Burma Railway in real life were much harsher than those depicted in this movie. That doesn’t bother me; to me this film is more parable than history, and I’m happy to accept this story as taking place in an alternate timeline where things weren’t quite so bad as in ours. Similarly, I don’t think it matters much to the story whether in real life American culture emphasizes hedonism, or British culture emphasizes fair play, or Japanese culture emphasizes yū. But as it happens, last semester I audited a course on the Axis powers in World War II, team‐taught by a pair of professors, and the Japanese specialist contended that this actually was the approach the Japanese top command took to the war. Apparently Yamamoto’s strategy was to just go wild for a year and attack, attack, attack, gambling that maybe Japan would catch some breaks and find itself in a tenable position at the beginning of year two, while Tojo agreed that, yeah, sometimes you just have to jump off the roof and see what happens. In any event, that’s how this movie’s Japan operates, and that’s why Nicholson is able to outlast Saito: the Japanese plans for the bridge are flawed, the British conscripts sabotage what little progress ever gets made, and Saito caves in, knowing that only Nicholson can get the troops working hard enough to meet the impossible deadline and save him from a date with disembowelment.
And Nicholson makes a genuine attempt, assigning challenging work quotas and refusing to countenance any shirking or substandard construction. When his aides express surprise and concern that he’s effectively collaborating with the enemy — “Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built themselves?” — Nicholson initially cites the need to restore discipline and the deleterious effects that idleness has on morale, but this second half of the movie soon becomes in large part a meditation on the sin of pride. Saito may have accused Nicholson of not having any, but he soon turns out to be possessed of several varieties. There’s cultural pride: “We can teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame. We’ll show them what the British soldier is capable of doing.” There’s also personal pride, both the kind that keeps him from really listening at all when his fellow officers gently try to correct his course, and that which is revealed when he waxes wistful about wanting to leave a legacy, and when he marvels at the prospect that a bridge with his name on it might stand for centuries. And again, the fact that the movie is dotted with such speeches kind of short‐circuits any attempt to tease out the themes — they’re already right there on display. But what I didn’t realize until I started doing some research for this article is that there is some subtext to The Bridge on the River Kwai. We can start with the fact that this movie is, particularly in its first half, about a culture clash among American, British, and Japanese characters, and by the time the movie is over, it’s added supporting characters from Australia, Canada, and Thailand. But the author of the story…
…is French! And once I had learned that, the question of “why tell this story?” suddenly fell into place. In grad school I took a class on Nazism, but the professor was from the French department, so we wound up spending a lot of time on Vichy and Marshal Pétain and the like. Collaboration was the focus of a lot of soul‐searching in postwar France. And in 1952 along comes Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, a novel about a British officer who becomes a major asset to the Japanese war effort. Author Pierre Boulle said that while he had researched the real Burma Railway and the thousands of Allied prisoners of war who died working on it, the character of Col. Nicholson was based not on the actual senior British officer at the Tha Maa Kham P.O.W. camp, but rather on his own memories of collaborationist French officers he had known. (Boulle had fought for Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, and been captured by Vichy collaborators.) By taking the issues of resistance and collaboration that so many of his compatriots were grappling with, stripping it of French and German characters, and relocating it across the world, Boulle successfully springs the themes free of their historical context and the automatic responses that come with it, and allows us to look at them with fresh eyes. That’s a pretty neat trick.
And there’s one other thing I thought was pretty neat. So many war movies push the message that once the fightin’ starts, it don’t matter what the war is supposed to be about, because you’re just in it to help your buddies make it back in one piece, knowin’ that they’re doin’ the same for you, etc., etc. And that if you don’t understand that, then in Col. Nicholson’s words, you have a lot to learn about the army. So it was nice to see a movie put forward the brave notion that, fuck yes, it does matter what the war is about and what side you’re fighting for. That heroic accomplishments on behalf of evil aims are villainous, and should make us not proud, but sick. And that “having a lot to learn about the army” actually may make you better equipped to recognize madness when you see it.