#36 Bridge on the River Kwai

“I hate the British! You are defeated but you have no shame. You are stubborn but you have no pride. You endure but you have no courage. I hate the British!”
Colonel Saito

Bridge on the River Kwai is an interesting sort of war movie, in that it really isn’t about war, it’s about people.

The film centres on a group of British POWs in a Japanese war camp during World War two. The Central character, played pitch perfectly by Alec Guiness, is Col. Nicholson.  Nicholson is a commanding officer that retains his position, even in the POW camp. To him, it is unacceptable that British officers should be treated the same as the enlisted men. And this leads to a head-butting match between him, and Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).

After a lengthy battle of wills, Saito agrees to let Nicholson and his officers retain their positions as officers in the camp, in exchange for the Colonel’s complete co-operation in building the Movie’s titular bridge.

The Bridge quickly becomes an obsession for Nicholson who sees the completion of the bridge as a point of pride, and the integrity of the bridge as a statement of his own integrity.

Everything seems to be working out for both sides, if you conveniently forget that the Bridge will prove to be a major strategic point for the Japanese in the war against the allies as Nicholson did, that is until the allies send an escaped prisoner back to the POW camp, to blow up the bridge.

This is when Nicholson’s obsession becomes obvious, as the escaped prisoner returns, with a misfit band of soldiers to blow up the bridge, and gain a major tactical advantage for the allies.

Nicholson however, cannot let this happen. To him, the bridge is a representation of him self, and allowing it to be destroyed would be allowing himself to be crushed by the war-machine of his country.

At its heart, this is what Bridge is about, the battle of the individual versus the state. Nicholson is forced to choose between the idol that he has created for himself, and the good of his country.

As he says upon the bridge’s completion, “One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity.”

Nicholson is ultimately forced to choose between the immortality of keeping his pyramid, which will stand as a monument to Britain and more importantly his own greatness, and sacrificing it for the good of the allied forces.

Bridge works hard to illustrate the struggle that an individual faces when being forced to choose between him or her self, and the collective good.

Much like Heller’s Catch 22, Bridge, examines the absurdity, and brutality of war. However, unlike Heller’s novel, Bridge does not glorify the needs of the individual. It lends fair camera time to them, but acknowledges the necessity for personal sacrifice.