Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Bridge on the River Kwai

(UK, USA, 1957)

Before Michael Bay and his big CGI extravaganzas, there was David Lean, the master of the sweeping epic with little or no special effects. He also directed Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. This is one of the all-time great movies. But first I need to get to the history …

I could wish that the author of the book, Pierre Boulle, had chosen some other location for his fictional tale. There really was a bridge over the River Kwai, and it was really built by British and other Commonwealth POWs. And Boulle really was a prisoner himself, and he did slave labor on the infamous Death Railway between Thailand (formerly known as Siam) and Burma (now known as Myanmar). But every other element of the story is made up, and some of it is defamatory to real persons, and the 13,000 Allied POWs who died building it. Not to mention the at least 100,000 (and probably many more) Indo-Chinese civilians. Conditions were much harsher at the camp than is portrayed in the movie.

The real SBO (Senior British Officer) at the prison camp was Philip Toosey, and he was nothing like the collaborator Lt. Colonel Nicholson in the movie. He encouraged acts of sabotage. They actually collected termites to eat the timbers! He also aided in escape attempts, for which he paid dearly. The outraged ex-POWs who were there all agreed that a man like Nicholson would have been “quietly eliminated.” Sort of like the more noisy eliminations in Vietnam known as “fragging.”

There really was a Saito at the camp, but he was a Sergeant-Major and second in command. He was well-liked because he was fairer and more merciful than the other Japanese soldiers. Toosey even defended him in his war crimes trial, and they became friends!

The Japanese are portrayed as incompetent engineers, who designed a faulty bridge and were put to shame by British engineers. In reality, the Japanese were superb at building bridges in the jungle, and had far more experience at it than the prisoners.

The central conflict in the movie is between Alec Guinness as Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa as Saito, over whether or not British officers would be required to work alongside enlisted men, contrary to the Geneva Conventions. That always left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. I mean, the British officer class always had it pretty cushy wherever they went. I understand Nicholson’s point that the prisoners should obey their own officers, and that it improved morale to do so … but in the end, what is “morale” in an army but the willingness to follow the orders of a man who might be a fucking idiot, and march toward death? Fuck morale, and fuck all officers, I say. But then I’ve always known I could not deal with being in the military.

And in reality, Toosey refused to establish a separate officers’ mess or officers’ shacks, having them eat and bunk with enlisted men. This is the way to maintain discipline and morale, in my opinion, and his men deeply respected him for that.

I realize that Boulle’s intent in the story was to demonstrate the insanity of war, the contradictions of military life, and so forth. I only wish he had fictionalized it more, putting it in a different place with wholly fictional characters.

So, enough of that. Taken just as a movie, there are few that can equal it for sheer tension. The scenes of the torture of Nicholson are harrowing. The humiliation of Saito, who only wanted to be an artist, are very affecting. After all, he was only following the rules of his own culture, and lost so much face when he gave in to Nicholson that he was getting ready to rip his own guts out as soon as the bridge was opened.

But it is the destruction of the bridge that really elevates this movie to greatness. The sequence runs about eighteen minutes, from the discovery that the river has gone down in the night, exposing the charges and the wire leading to the detonator, to the glorious spectacle of that train plunging off the destroyed track. I vividly recall the first time I saw it, when I’m sure my heartbeat doubled. “Kill him! Kill him!” I wanted to shout, along with William Holden. There are two of the greatest shots in cinema here. One is the expression on Holden’s face as he mimes plunging the knife into Saito’s back, and twisting it as the kid across the river does the actual killing. The other is the sudden awareness on Guinness’s face, as he utters the line, “What have I done?” Then the mortar shell goes off, he is knocked down … and slowly gets up, bends over to pick up his hat and shake off the sand like a proper British gentleman, and collapses over the plunger. Fantastic! Madness! Madness!