David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is not just a great film, it is a nearly perfect one. Even better, it was recognized as such from the start by virtually everyone. The critics lionized it and continue to include it on their “best” lists. The movie business showered it with prizes. Bridge won seven Oscars, including best picture and best director. Audiences made it the biggest film of 1957 and a perennial favorite ever since.
Bridge was Lean’s twelfth film and his first “epic,” which cast the die for the rest of his career. It was followed by Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), also classics. Then Lean ended his career with Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984), which fail as films in part because their slighter stories were overwhelmed by Lean’s epic style of treatment, which had hardened into mannerisms.
Bridge might have shared the same fate because of its source material. Lean’s film adapts Pierre Boulle’s best-selling 1952 novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï. (Boulle is also famous for another novel that made it to the screen as Planet of the Apes.) The novel is set in Japanese-occupied Thailand during the Second World War. The Japanese are building a railroad to connect Bangkok with Rangoon using forced labor, both native civilians and British prisoners of war.
The British prisoners in a particular camp are tasked with building a bridge over the river Kwai. The main conflict is between the Japanese camp Commander Saito and British Lt. Colonel Nicholson. Saito demands that officers do manual labor. This being contrary to the military code, Nicholson refuses, and he and his officers are punished. Naturally, the construction project is plagued by sabotage. Saito eventually relents because he needs the cooperation of the British officers to finish the bridge on schedule.
Nicholson then marshals his men in order to build a better bridge than the Japanese could have done. Nicholson appeals to legalism, esprit de corps, and British chauvinism—but they all fall short of a case for enthusiastic collaborationism. The core of the novel is the absurdity of a man who collaborates with the enemy out of a misplaced sense of duty. It is not clear if Nicholson is supposed to be an imbecile or a madman, but he’s definitely something of a buffoon: a snob, a bore, a martinet, and ultimately a traitor.
Most Brits who read the novel found it to be offensive and rather tasteless: offensive, because it reads as a rather crude Gallic lampoon of the British national character, especially the British military; tasteless, because approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died during the construction of the railway, plus up to 100,000 of the local civilians; it is just not something to be treated lightly.
Lean followed Boulle’s plot fairly faithfully. The main departure—the destruction of the bridge at the end of the film—was approved by Boulle. Where Lean departed from Boulle is his treatment of the character of Nicholson. Lean turned Nicholson from a buffoon into a tragic hero worthy of Sophocles or Shakespeare. In Lean’s eyes, Nicholson stands for genuine virtues: patriotism, loyalty, duty, pride one’s his work, and obedience to law, authority, and moral principles. He wouldn’t be a tragic hero unless he had genuine virtues.
Nicholson’s “tragic flaw” is that he does not see that his virtues only really make sense when practiced among his own people, for their benefit. In the prison camp, however, these virtues are being exploited by a ruthless enemy who aims to destroy the Empire that Nicholson so loyally fought to preserve. There’s a lesson in this for white people today, since our openness to strangers, altruism, and moral idealism are being exploited by a system that is destroying us as well.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is masterful at exploring the fundamental distinction between aristocratic ethos that prizes honor above all else and the bourgeois ethos that prizes comfort, security, long life, and pleasure above all else.
G. W. F. Hegel famously claims that history begins with a battle to the death over honor, in which two men are willing to risk their lives for an idea. Prehistory is governed by the necessities of life. History is governed by ideas. If both men prize honor above life, and one is defeated, he will choose death before dishonor. But if the defeated party chooses life at the price of honor, he is revealed to be a very different kind of man who is reduced to the status of a slave, to toil for the victor.
This is exactly how Japanese Commander Saito (played by Sessue Hayakawa) sees the matter. By surrendering, the British have lost their honor and have been reduced to slaves, including the officers, thus all must work. Saito will not spare the officers from the full measure of their disgrace because of a mere legalism that forbids imprisoned officers from doing manual labor, as if they were still gentlemen. To him, the Geneva Convention is nothing compared to the Japanese warrior code of bushido. The Japanese military felt superior to the British because the Japanese still committed suicide to avoid the dishonor of defeat, whereas the British, being a Christian nation, rejected suicide and used legalisms to preserve their honor even in defeat.
The dispute between Saito and Nicholson—brilliantly portrayed by Alec Guinness—becomes another struggle to the death over honor. Saito puts Nicholson in a metal box in the blazing sun to break his will, but he refuses to relent and do manual labor, even if it kills him. Unfortunately for Saito, the bridge is behind schedule, the Japanese engineer is incompetent, and the prisoners are at best sullen workers, at worst prone to malingering and sabotage.
If the bridge is not committed on schedule, Saito will be expected to commit suicide, a fate that he wishes to avoid. Thus Saito uses the anniversary of the Japanese victory over Russia as the occasion for a face-saving amnesty. Nicholson and his officers will not have to labor but will organize their men to complete the bridge on time. The roles have been reversed. Nicholson has chosen death over dishonor, and Saito has flinched, choosing dishonor over death. It is Nicholson’s high point. After that, his fall begins.
Nicholson’s quest to build a better bridge than the Japanese also makes sense in terms of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Nicholson has beaten Saito on an essential point of honor. But he is still a prisoner, and his men are still slaves. However, Hegel describes as pathway by which the slave can restore his self-respect and humanity. The master rules over men, including slaves. The slave, however, can make himself a master over nature, which is what Nicholson and his men do by building the bridge, and doing it better than the Japanese could. Saito is shamed by this, and even though the bridge is completed on time, he still plans to kill himself.
But in a deeper sense, the Japanese have still won, because they got their bridge, which is an important strategic asset in their war against the British. Next stop: India.
Since both Saito and Nicholson are master types, albeit at times “temporarily embarrassed” master types, the film needs a well-developed slave type as a contrast. The American studio wanted a big American star to appeal to American ticket buyers. Enter William Holden as the American Commander Shears. (In the novel, Shears is British.) The Americans also wanted a love interest to appeal to chicks. Lean groaned, because war stories are guy stories. (Lean got his way on his next film, Lawrence of Arabia, in which there are no speaking roles for women.)