Leading the Brits is Colonel Nicholson, the role played by Alec Guinness. A career officer, Nicholson radiates an aura of civilization in the British Imperial mold through his single-minded devotion to proper procedure.
The Japanese camp commander Major Saito, played by Sessue Hayakawa, intends to use the captured soldiers as labor, to construct a railway bridge over the River Kwai. Saito insists that all prisoners will work, including the British officers. Nicholson refuses on the grounds that the order contravenes the Geneva Convention.
A clash of wills follows. Saito shuts Nicholson and his officers into brutal confinement. But, Saito runs the greater risk. If he kills Nicholson, he is sure to have a camp full of enraged Brits, imperiling the goal of completing the bridge. In time, Nicholson’s stubborn idealism exhausts Saito’s tyrannical will, damaging Saito’s inherent honor.
The men’s opposing goals eventually coincide when Nicholson puts his soldiers to work to build the best possible bridge as a way to boost their morale.
The British improve the plan for the bridge, and set to work constructing it.
Saito becomes an onlooker to his own project. Nicholson’s assumption of command over the project does galvanize his men, despite the evident aid they are providing to the enemy. The ideal of duty can be pushed to such an extreme that it turns into treason, as Major Clipton, the British doctor, warns Nicholson.
Bill Holden plays Major Shears, an American who successfully escapes from Saito’s camp, making his way to safety in a British military enclave. Shears’ ideals extend only as far as his own skin, the saving of which is his definition of duty. Nonetheless he is coerced by the Brits to return to the jungle from which he just fled to help them blow up Nicholson’s bridge.
Shears; round-trip inscribes a telling figure. The pattern of undoing what’s been done, or the dynamic back and forth between creation and destruction, weaves through the narrative fabric of Lean’s epic. The theme, solidly rooted in its wartime context, suggests an existential questioning of the uncertain value of human effort.
The bridge built, with only hours to spare before the deadline, Nicholson proudly inspects the result. In a reflective moment, he drops his guard momentarily with Saito, and expresses a morsel of self-doubt.
This scene may echo director Lean’s own thoughts. Nearing fifty, he had worked in the British film industry for nearly 30 years and had directed 11 films. His meticulous control of his pictures may have also been mirrored in Nicholson’s orderly supervision of the building of the bridge. Lean’s career took a turn with The Bridge over the River Kwai. With his next films, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago, he consolidated a reputation as an international director of sweeping epics with broad appeal.
Never lionized by the critical establishment, Lean is usually not included in the pantheon of auteurs. His craftsmanship and professionalism have always earned him the favor and respect of filmmakers. Lean’s control of composition, pacing and performance, coupled with sensitivity to setting and atmosphere, make his later films case studies in the kind of crowd-pleasing epic that Hollywood required in the 1960s and beyond in light of competition from other media and shrinking audiences.
For a war film, The Bridge on The River Kwai contains very little violent action. The film’s core focuses on the test of wills between Saito and Nicholson as it builds to its paradoxical climax. Its last moments stand among the most memorable in the popular cinema because of the way action at a grand scale conveys philosophical premise. For an instant, creation and destruction resolve together. The question this raises — what is the purpose of human endeavor? — receives an answer in the film, from Major Clipton.
CLIPTON: Madness, madness!
But, that answer only leaves us with more to ponder as the vultures circle over the River Kwai.
"The Bridge on the River Kwai" screens Thursday at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.