“Great Expectations” director David Lean made what qualifies as the greatest World War II movie of all-time. I saw this fantastic film when Columbia Pictures released it in 1957, and the spectacle of an actual bridge being blown to smithereens with a real locomotive and freight cars trundling along the railway tracks on it captivated me at the tender age of four. I have never forgotten it. I’ve seen “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (**** OUT OF ****) more times than I can remember, and this movie has never lost its allure. Basically, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a World War II action thriller set in Burma during the spring of 1943 featuring a predominantly all male cast with women in supporting roles as British nurses and Siamese cargo bearers. This Sam Speigel production received seven Oscars from the Academy of Arts and Science during their annual 1958 ceremony. The film won Best Picture, Best Director (for David Lean), Best Actor (for Alec Guinness), Best Cinematography (for Jack Hildyard), Best Editing (for Peter Taylor), and Best Music (for Malcolm Arnold). The film also received the nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (for Sessue Hayakawa). Additionally, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” also won Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.
This stirring epic is based on Pierre Boulle’s award-winning 1952 novel, but director David Lean and scenarists Michael Wilson of “A Place in the Sun” and Carl Foreman of “High Noon” took several liberties with the narrative. First, Boulle didn’t obliterate the bridge. The British commandos were able to derail the train, but the bridge itself remained intact. Second, Colonel Nicholson discovered the sabotage, but he didn’t collapse on the plunger and blow-up the bridge. Third, no Americans, specifically the character of Shears, appeared in the novel. Fourth, although there was a Shears, he was a British commando, but he tried to cross the river during the finale to kill Nicholson. Fifth, the British said that they had to send in commandos because the Royal Air Force couldn’t fly the distance to bomb the bridge. In Boulle’s novel, the British don’t send in bombers because they felt the Japanese could repair any damage from bombing raids and have the bridge back in action. Nevertheless, this memorable film brims with irony and answers all the questions about life. This movie also immortalized the whistling march theme “Colonel Bogey March.” Interestingly, former BritishPOWs hated the movie and wanted to lambaste it, but they kept their silence for fear that their protests would provide more publicity for a movie that they felt deserved nothing in the way of publicity. This is a beautiful movie, and the cast is stupendous. Although Alec Guinness won the Oscar for Best Actor, I believe that the incomparable William Holden as the only American prisoner of war steals the movie hands down. Holden made a specialty of playing anti-heroes. As Shears, he is at his anti-heroic best. SessueHayakawa makes a terrific adversary. By and large, the Japanese are treated with respect despite their status as the enemy in this World War II outing.
Essentially, David Lean’s masterpiece concerns a clash of wills in the middle of the jungle during World War II. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness of “Star Wars”) and his British officers and enlisted men survive a grueling march through the jungle to a Japanese labor camp where camp commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa of “The Swiss Family Robinson”) orders them to erect a bridge across the River Kwai. Saitostipulates in no uncertain terms that British officers will work alongside their men, but Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson refuses to abide by these terms. He cites the rules of the Geneva Convention. Saito’s reacts with incredulity, “Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of “cricket!” Saito confines Nicholson to a sweat box, and the intense heat very nearly kills Nicholson. Nonetheless, Nicholson refuses to capitulate toSaito’s demands.
Meanwhile, construction work on the bridge commences, but the Japanese make virtually no headway. At the same time, Shears engineers an escape from the camp along with two other British soldiers and nearly dies in the process. Initially, everybody believes that Shears drowned in the river. The two British soldiers that accompany him die in the attempt. Natives find the destitute Shears washed up on the shores of their villages. He is deliriously and emaciated. He is in such bad shape that he mistakes a kite for a vulture. The villagers nurse Shears back to life, provide him with fresh supplies, and send him on his way in a boat. Eventually, he reaches British lines. Back at the Kwai camp, a desperate Saito loses the battle of wills with the obstinate Nicholson and agrees that the British officers do not have to work. Interestingly, Saito and Nicholson both believe that each other are “mad.”
Ironically, Nicholson decides to embrace the bridge construction so as to occupy his men and prove to the Japanese that the British soldier is the best soldier in the world. When Nicholson’s chief medical officer, Major Clipton(James Donald of “The Great Escape”) suggests that helping the Japanese erect a bridge could qualify as treason, Nicholson reminds him that they were ordered to surrender to the enemy. Nicholson goes on to say, “If you had to operate on Saito, would you do your job or would you let him die? Would you have it be said that our chaps can’t do a better job? You’re a fine doctor, Clipton, but you’ve a lot to learn about the army.” Nicholson and his officers devise a way of constructing a suitable bridge, and one of Nicholson’s engineers tells him that a similar bridge built of wood survived 300 years. Nicholson becomes so obsessed with the project that he eventually has his own officers pitch in and finish it. Remember, earlier Nicholson had balked at issuing such an order and almost died when he stood by his demands.
The British dispatch a team of commandos led by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins of “Shalako“) to destroy the bridge. A former university professor, Warden is an expert with plastic explosives. Warden convinces a reluctant Shears (William Holden) to lead them to it since Shears knows the way. Shears explains that he cannot because he isn’t really an officer. It seems that when his ship the Houston sank, he swam ashore with an officer. Eventually, after his superior died, Shears appropriated the officer’s insignia and impersonated him, erroneously believing he would receive better treatment than an enlisted man. Such was not the case. Warden surprises him when he observes that he has known about the masquerade. He also gives Shears the simulated rank of major for the mission. Reluctantly, Shears agrees to lead Force 316 through the jungle to the bridge. The four members of Force 316 bail out over enemy territory, but Sergeant Chapman dies when his parachute drifts in the trees and kills him. Ironically again, our heroes must take an entirely different route because the route that Shears took is swarming now with Japanese. Since the village cannot furnish them with male cargo bears, they recruit women to lug the explosives and other supplies across some of the most treacherous landscape imaginable. Our heroes have to make a forced march through swamps teeming with leeches, across rugged mountains, before they eventually they reach the bridge. Along the way, during a rest break at a scenic waterfall, Japanese troops surprise our heroes, and Warden and his men must track them down and kill them. During the fracas, Warden is wounded in the foot when Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne of “The Implacable Three”) cannot muster the nerve to stab an enemy soldier. All along the British High Command worried that Joyce didn’t have what it takes to kill a man. Joyce recovers his nerve during the spellbinding finale and kills Colonel Saito.
Altogether, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” simply ranks as the greatest World War II ever made.
Author’s Note: Despite all its awards and prestige, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” enraged British POWs in the Pacific Theater of Operations, because the movie did not tell the truth story. Furthermore, the beautiful wooden bridge did not exist in reality. The Japanese shipped sections of a metal bridge from the Dutch East Indies. Initially, the British Prisoners-of-War thought about launching a protest against the film, but calmer head dissuaded them because they felt the protest would provide the film with greater publicity, so the British POWs maintained stiff upper lifts. Nevertheless, no matter how vastly different fiction is from reality, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is still a masterpiece.