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The Bridge on the River Kwai should not be regarded as a factual account. The bridge is blown up in the movie, but in real life two bridges were erected, one of which still stands today, marked by Allied bombing. Conditions in the POW camp depicted were significantly much worse than the filmmakers would allow to be portrayed… and the character of Colonel Nicholson seems to have little in common with the man who inspired him, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. Some considered this film to be an insult to Toosey, as well as being generally anti-British… but the brilliantly conceived psychological game is a key element of what makes the movie great.
British prisoners arriving
The story takes place in a Japanese prison camp in western Thailand. U.S. Navy Commander Shears (William Holden) has been a POW for quite some time and has become utterly disillusioned; burying fellow prisoners who’ve succumbed to the poor conditions in the camp is now routine. One day a fresh contingent of British prisoners led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) arrives in the camp. When the Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), tells him that everyone, including officers, will be forced to work on the construction of a new railway bridge over the river Kwai, Nicholson points out that it’s against the Geneva Conventions. Saito refuses to abide by the rules and throws Nicholson into the oven, a corrugated iron box in the punishing sun.
Meantime, Shears escapes along with two other POWs; in the end he is the only one to make it alive into a Siamese village. Saito and Nicholson eventually find common ground for different reasons in the construction of the bridge… but Shears is enlisted to blow it up as part of a commando mission.
Exquisitely shot in the jungles
The first of director David Lean’s spectacular blockbusters in color, The Bridge on the River Kwai still stands as the ultimate POW movie, exquisitely shot in the jungles of Sri Lanka. Still, in spite of the grandeur on display it is the human relationships that primarily make the film sparkle. The stubborn conflict between Saito and Nicholson is easily understood but difficult to solve. The Englishman is a person who lives by the rules of the so called civilized world; abandoning them means anarchy and loss of control. In his view, trying to escape will surely lead to a pointless loss in lives. Saito on the other hand has strict orders from the authoritarian regime in Tokyo to have the bridge constructed on time; failure to do so means disgrace, unacceptable to a Japanese officer.
The two men’s fights and eventual agreement is the focal point of the film, as well as Nicholson’s arrogant attempts at steering the administration of the camp and the construction of the bridge. Holden plays a simple role as an expected American hero (even though the character does have interesting traits), but Guinness and Hayakawa are highly memorable, their clashes colored by a dry sense of humor.
As for the supposedly anti-British sentiment, Nicholson may be a tough character to like, but his men are the true heroes of the film, a testament to the capability of WWII British forces. Let’s not also forget that Holden’s commando mission is led by the British… and Malcolm Arnold’s adaptation of “Colonel Bogey March” is the ideal, stirring symbol of their fighting spirit.
Oppression works in different ways. The men who wrote the screenplay, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, were blacklisted after the McCarthy hearings; the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay was picked up by Pierre Boulle who wrote the novel. A disgraceful chapter in Hollywood history. The script puts a lot of emphasis on the value of personal integrity and honor; I’d like to think of the win as some sort of apology.
The Bridge on the River Kwai 1957-Britain. 161 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sam Spiegel. Directed by David Lean. Screenplay: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson. Novel: Pierre Boulle. Cinematography: Jack Hildyard. Music: Malcolm Arnold. Editing: Peter Taylor. Cast: William Holden (Major Shears), Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson), Jack Hawkins (Major Warden), Sessue Hayakawa, Geoffrey Horne, James Donald.
Trivia: Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart were allegedly considered for the part of Shears, Charles Laughton as Nicholson, and Howard Hawks for directing duties. Followed by Return from the River Kwai (1988).
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Guinness), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Film Editing. BAFTA: Best Film, British Film, British Actor (Guinness), British Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Actor (Guinness).
Quote: “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.” (Guinness to Donald)
Last word: “[Sam Spiegel’s agent] gave me the book and I read it. I saw the agent a few days later and said, ‘Look, if the script (which he didn’t have) is more or less faithful to the book, then I’ll do it.’ Then I couldn’t get the script. When I finally read it, I said, ‘If this is it, I don’t want to do it. I’ll start again from scratch but otherwise I’m out.’ I mean the whole film when I read it started in an American submarine; the thing was being depth-charged. It really was not very good. So we started all over again, and, one writer, two writers, three writers, and including me, four writers worked on it, and we finally did it.” (Lean, David Lean: Interviews)