Directed by: David Lean
Written by: Carl Foreman & Michael Wilson
Starring: William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa
Even in the most precarious situations imaginable, pride can overtake the actions of men. Having one’s chin in the air matters more than what makes more sense. Unsurprisingly, this character trait shows itself aplenty in military units, which is displayed in the large-scale and terrific The Bridge on the River Kwai. A story unafraid to mash selfishness with the concept of leading other men.
Having recently surrendered to the Japanese, the British unit led by Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) are held in a POW camp where they must provide manual labor for survival. Their project becomes the construction of a bridge, which will assist the Japanese in their efforts, which many of the soldiers object to, but Nicholson does not allow them to refuse.
For someone, whose filmography does not exclusively have long films, David Lean’s most prominent ones have typically been the ones covering wide swaths of land and bulky in their runtime. Films like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago tell such grand stories, but The Bridge on the River Kwai feels more intimate because of the landscape it provides. The setting feels much more contained but the story feels just as epic because he truly goes for it as a filmmaker in attempting to tell such vast stories. A similarity many of his films harbor shows the amount of pride held by the British, which stands out compared to any other nation.
As the soldiers line up and file into the prisoner camp, I would not begrudge any of them to be slouching seeing as they’ve been told to surrender. However, they’re led by the incredibly prideful Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, who cares more about how the British army presents itself rather than the well-being of his men. They all stand at attention, as he goes to speak to the man overseeing them. With all of the work demanded on the men, Nicholson refuses to let them slack off because of the representation of having British men seem like slobs. Additionally, he forbids them from trying to escape from the camp because they were given orders to surrender, and any attempt to leave would be direct disobedience. A position, which seems incredibly harsh on his part, especially when he advocates that he and his officers should not be put to do manual labor due to the Geneva Conventions.
The stoic nature of Nicholson makes someone like Alec Guinness the perfect person to portray him. His attitude and demeanor match the role he was asked to play and properly received the accolades for it. This complete embodiment of pride becomes part of his flaws but also what makes him a noble man, which undoubtedly contributed to him rising in the ranks of the military. The amount of pride he derives from his work almost made me laugh when they erected a sign of the bridge, which states the British army constructed it. The obvious reason being, if his men are going to build it then it will be the greatest bridge the Japanese have ever seen and it will forever be known the British created it.
With Nicholson leading the group at the camp, the narrative also features the journey of an escaped prisoner, who gets back to a British base and joins a group wanting to blow the bridge being constructed by Nicholson’s men. Two different groups on the same side with different immediate goals but the same long-term ones. It creates a ticking time bomb with a literal one, as they head into an upcoming collision neither group knows will be coming.
As with many of David Lean’s films, the cinematography of the feature looks breathtaking in how the landscapes are captured. Simply viewing the scenes of Nicholson and his soldiers standing while the bridge continues to be constructed shows the incredible set utilized and the sheer amount of heat radiating from them. It feels incredibly grand even with the more intimate perspective within the feature. The camp design proves to be an inferno where punishment could result in being locked in an iron box getting baked by the sun. Every gruesome scene looks immaculate, which does not surprise me in the slightest sense as Lean knows how to work with tremendous cinematographers and set designers.
The story with The Bridge on the River Kwai remains timeless with what it means to serve and represent one’s nation. Nicholson certainly does not forget what the actions of his soldiers reflect upon him and the nation they serve. The film provides those classic Hollywood vibes, which shows strong filmmaking on elaborate sets and seasoned actors. Its classic status remains deserved as it remains as relevant as when it was initially released.