#87: The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

I don’t think Braveheart (see previous post) and The Bridge on the River Kwai are two films people often choose to see together. It’s not because one makes the English out to be evil and the other makes them saints, because that wouldn’t even be true. Mel Gibson’s tosh is uninformed, sentimental and purely capitalist (though incredibly fun to watch I must say), and while The Bridge does in fact stand partially liable in these points also, it has considerably more depth than the former. It is their sophistication of representation which differs these films. The British prisoners of war in The Bridge behave in a way that often brought my emotionally clenched fist to my heart, and tears to the eyes of my chief challenge assistant Tom. Yet, director David Lean does not offer so clear-cut a portrayal as does Gibson.
An American/English production based on Pierre Boulle’s French novel, this film follows the power struggles within a Japanese POW camp in Thailand during the Second World War. Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) stands firm against camp commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) as the former fights to maintain his men’s pride in their identity as British soldiers, combating the suggestion that they are merely enslaved labourers. Not that Nicholson attempts escape, though, or indeed encourages any form of uprising; once his own principles are satisfied, he makes his men work harder on building the bridge than even Saito did. Nicholson claims to be strengthening the men’s morale and making a point about British competence by building so magnificent bridge for the Japanese army. However, their collaboration does not sit well with a western audience, especially when the Allied forces’ mission to destroy it emphasises the bridge’s infrastructural significance to the advancement of the Japanese Empire. The Bridge is not your simple war hero film, then. Certainly, the central figure of Lt Col Nicholson is quirky and likable, but as the story nears its end, he is not nearly the man we’d hoped he be. It’s all rather confusing, really.
A more easily interpretable aspect of this film is the culturally interesting Saito/Nicholson standoff, interesting as it gives prominence to the clash of ideologies occurring in the camp. As Saito slaps Nicholson across the face with his copy of the Geneva Convention, the Japanese commander calls it the cowards’ code, despising Nicholson for his ignorance of Japanese warrior values. Nicholson quips back, pointing out the cowardice of gunning down unarmed men. Clearly, these two soldiers have incredibly different views on the nature of war and the status of its participants. I suppose the point of this is primarily to highlight their enmity, but it also serves to show that neither man is simply a mindless sadist. Instead, it’s clear that this is a well thought out film: there is no hero v. evil storyline here. Instead, we find ourselves torn between loyalty, principle and common sense, none of which seem to correspond any longer. War is a hard game to play.

Tom's Summary: 'A stiffer upper lip I ne'er did see'.