Film Review: The Bridge on the River Kwai
In 1957, David Lean released The Bridge on the River Kwai, based on the 1952 novel Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai by Pierre Boulle. Starring William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne, Andre Morell, Peter Williams, John Boer, Percy Herbert, and Harold Goodwin, the film grossed $30.6 million at the box office. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor, the Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack Album, Dramatic Picture Score or Original Cast, the film won multiple awards including the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Music, Scoring, the Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture - Drama, Best Actor - Drama, and Best Director, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, and the Sant Jordi Award for Best Foreign Actor.
When a British battalion is captured in Thailand and sent to a Japanese prisoner camp during World War II, they are forced to build a bridge over the River Kwai which is supposed to help the Japanese war effort. However, the British government knows of the plans for the bridge and begins a covert mission to blow it up.
A very good film, Bridge on the River Kwai is a tragedy that also doubles as the blackest of comedy.
It wouldn’t have been the film it was without the conflict of personality and power struggle between Colonel Nicholson and Colonel Saito. It’s notable that the two of them are actually very similar as they both are obsessed with following their own codes, the Geneva Convention for the former and the Japanese code of honor for the latter.
During their conflict, they both see the other as responsible for their stalemate and any damage that arises from it. Where Saito originally has the power, it shifts to Nicholson following his punishment after sticking so closely to the Geneva Convention. Saito sees himself as being on top as he’s the one forcing the bridge to be built and forcing the prisoners to do so. However, Nicholson has actually assumed power over Saito because following the punishment, he has a misplaced sense of British pride which causes him to want to build the bridge to the best of his and his men’s ability as a demonstration of the British work ethic and resolve.
The shifting of authority can also be seen in the swagger stick, and later a makeshift stick, that Nicholson carries. In the beginning, when he’s informing Saito of the Convention’s rules pertaining to forced manual labor, Saito shows his superiority by snapping the stick in half. Later though, when the power has shifted to Nicholson, he replaces the stick with a tree branch, which he drops into the river after it’s completed.
That's of where the black comedy and tragedy commingle, as it’s a tragic, but unfortunately funny example of how Nicholson doesn’t know when to fold. His refusal to compromise and following the Convention to the letter results in reduced rations and the aforementioned building of a superior bridge due in part to that pride and also in part because of the requirement that the prisoners can be forced to work. The tragic comedy is furthered because it isn’t until the end where Nicholson realizes that his misplaced sense of honor has turned him into a traitor of sorts to the British. What’s more is the other notable British officer, Major Clipton, knows that Nicholson building the bridge has the chance of him being perceived as aiding the enemy, but he is ultimately unable to convince Nicholson.
The ending also has some tragically dark comedic irony, where the two leading the effort to blow the bridge up are killed by friendly fire, albeit intentionally so they won’t be captured. Further, after Nicholson realizes that he’s become a traitor, he’s wounded by mortar fire and falls on the detonator. It blows up the bridge, which his pride had convinced him to work so hard on.
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