Even before its classic final scene, the subject of madness runs under this particular bridge, as all three of the main characters have their sanity questioned at some point and the chief questioner, played by William Holden, jokingly questions his own mental state. For all its vast scale, The Bridge on the River Kwai remains an indelible and intimate portrait of fanaticism fatally clashing with fanaticism.
Camp 16 is a Japanese POW camp somewhere along the railroad being constructed between Singapore and Rangoon. Its commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), is charged with building a bridge over the river and, to that end, he brings in a cadre of fresh British prisoners, commanded by Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness in a career-defining role) to complete the construction, which is already behind schedule. Nicholson recoils, however, at Saito’s insistence that officers labor alongside the enlisted men, a violation of the Geneva convention. He refuses to cooperate, even when Saito threatens to machine gun his officers and throws him into the “oven,” a tin shack that reaches inhuman temperatures in the heat of the sun.
Taking a dim view of Nicholson’s devotion to the rules is Commander Shears (Holden), the lone American in the camp, who is simply biding his time on grave digging detail until he can escape. He has buried enough people to believe that Nicholson’s stand is suicidal. When he finally gets his chance to make a break, the other escapees are killed and Shears thought to be drowned.
The battle of wills between Saito and Nicholson is not so one-sided as Shears thinks, as the Japanese commander is under pressure to finish the bridge by a rapidly approaching deadline and the combination of passing sabotage by the British and incompetent engineering by the Japanese puts him further and further behind schedule. If he fails, he’ll be expected to kill himself.
He ratchets up the pressure on Nicholson but the British colonel refuses to budge even an inch, despite the hardship to his men and Saito’s threat to use the sick and wounded prisoners to replace his officers. Saito is caught between a rock and a head case. Finally, under the guise of celebrating a Japanese holiday, Saito gives into Nicholson’s demands. At the British celebrate his release, their captor collapses in private, frustrated tears.
Nicholson emerges to find that, while his officers were being punished, military discipline among the enlisted has fallen apart. He has a simple solution, which is to direct their energy toward finishing the bridge, and building it better than the Japanese could. His medical officer, Captain Clipton (James Donald), is worried that this might be seen as collaboration, but Nicholson isn’t having any of it. He becomes obsessed with finishing the bridge as a monument to British soldiers that will outlast the war and the Japanese.
Meanwhile, Shears has been rescued and is recuperating at a British hospital in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he has taken up that all-American pastime, chasing nurses. The Brits, however, would like to blow up the Japanese bridge and, as the only person who has been there, Shears’ help would be of great value. The American, however, wants no part but quickly finds out that he doesn’t have a lot of choice. Both the Brits and the U.S. Navy have figured out that he’s not really a commander, but that he switched uniforms with a dead officer to get better treatment from the Japanese. Without much in the way of options, Shears reluctantly “volunteers” to assist Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) in the mission.
While Lawrence of Arabia remains David Lean’s most famous film, I would argue that this film represents the pinnacle of his work. Both of them are excellent examples of what Lean did better than anyone, stage an intimate character drama on a Cecil B. deMille scale, but Bridge is almost flawless in the way it drills down on the stories of three men, Nicholson, Saito, and to some degree, Warden, who are almost unbending to a fault in their pursuit of their goals.
If there is a minor flaw in the film, it is in the inclusion of William Holden in a role that, on the surface, seems somewhat like a retread of his part in Stalag 17. While his function in the story, providing the audience a voice on the action of the other three major players, is absolutely necessary, the casting of Holden as an American seems like a studio-ordered sop to the U.S. market. Holden doesn’t give a bad performance, or in any way hurt the film, but there’s no dramatic reason why his function couldn’t have been fulfilled by a British character.
The new Blu-ray release of this film, if you have bought into this format, is a must have. The transfer is beautiful and seeing this picture makes me question the sanity of those who think that downloading and streaming are any replacement. Even the best quality HD stream can’t come close to what I just watched, which is to say a flawless presentation of a near-flawless film.