Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bridge Over the River Kwai

“The Bridge over the River Kwai” is a fantastic film. I recently saw it for the first time.

The movie takes place during WWII in Thailand. It starts out with British Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) efficiently marching his men into the Japanese work camp. Nicholson and his men are the prisoners, but they march in like kings. While they march they whistle the Colonel Bogey March, my personal favorite whistling tune, I remember learning it from “The Parent Trap” when I was a kid.

William Holden plays Commander Shears, an American POW that had been at the work camp for many months helping to build the barracks. He is one of very few men to survive; the graveyard around the camp is quite large. Shears tries to warn Nicholson that the Japanese commandant is insane, but Nicholson doesn’t listen. He is convinced that he must be a reasonable man. Nicholson is a true optimist while Shears is a pragmatist or a realist.

Nicholson refuses to let his officers perform manual labor on the bridge. He sees the officer’s job to organize the men. He cites the Geneva Convention and even pulls a copy of it out and offers it to the commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).

Saito hits him with the book and shouts “ Do not speak to me of rules. This is war, not a cricket game.” Saito puts Nicholson in a hot box and will not let him out until he relents.

Shears manages to escape the prison and returns to civilization. However, the British army recruits him to return to the work camp and blow up the bridge.

Back at the work camp, Saito slowly begins to realize that his project is way behind schedule and that it isn’t going to get any better. The prisoners are poor workers and do everything they can to sabotage the construction. Finally Saito decides to submit to all of Nicholson’s demands. It is a tremendous reversal, I thought Nicholson was completely over idealistic and I doubted that Saito would ever relent. Nicholson got lucky in my opinion; Saito was worried because failure to complete the bridge on time would force him to commit seppuku. A commandant from any other country would probably not be so concerned with his honor.

Nicholson quickly and completely takes over the bridge project. He and his officers redesign the bridge and motivate their troops. Saito is reduced to mumbling, “I have already given the order,” to whatever Nicholson suggests and throwing temper tantrums in his apartment when no one is around.

The bridge is completed the day before the deadline, but unbeknownst to Nicholson, Shears and a small strike force have just arrived to blow up the bridge. The small number of men with Shears are a stark contrast to the over 100 men who built the bridge. I couldn’t help but think how easily Nicholson and the others could have broken the chains that bound them if they’d tried. Instead Nicholson was seduced by the idea of building the bridge. When it was completed he imagined people using it for years after the war and he thought they’d remember that British soldiers had built it. He saw the bridge as one of the major accomplishments in his life. As a viewer, I was right there with him. War is hell, but a bridge is something good, something that is useful and can help people.

However, the commando team lays charges and is set to blow up the bridge as the first train crosses it. Nicholson and Saito find the wire the plastic explosives are attached to and trace it to the detonator. The green commando who is supposed to blow the bridge kills Saito with a knife, but tries to reason with Nicholson. Nicholson’s first reaction is to call the Japanese soldiers for help.

Shears races across the river while being shot at. He sees Nicholson and the two recognize each other. Shears dies, but seeing him is enough to bring Nicholson to his senses. He rushes over to the detonator and right before he dies from a mortar blast he manages to blow up the bridge.

The movie ends with the British doctor, Major Clipton, surveying the chaos of the destroyed bridge and the dead men strewn about the riverbanks. (He is kind of like Horatio at the end of Hamlet). All the doctor can say is, “Madness!”

Madness pretty much sums it up. Only in war could the destruction of something as seemingly positive as a bridge be the right thing to do. The Japanese and British learned to work together. The bridge was a testament to this and yet as long as the two countries were still at war there was no other option. Even Nicholson realized this in his last moments. He was so proud of the bridge, he’d almost forgotten he was still a soldier.


  1. A friend of mine had me take a personality test based on the Enneagram test. I was surprised by how perfect it described my nature. Your review of the Bridge Over the River Kwai made me wonder if we could see personality types in film and book characters. See

    You should try a test, see

    And then think about the characters in the film.

  2. In the past I've done all sorts of research on characters I've created, from figuring out their backstory, to giving them personality tests, to making email addresses and business cards for them.

    I'm not familiar with the Enneagram test though, it looks like a good one. I'll check it out, thanks.

  3. Yeah, that's a great movie, John. Thanks for bringing the memory back for me.