The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
In The Bridge on the River Kwai, a battalion of British soldiers are ordered to surrender themselves as prisoners of war. As hostages they are pushed by their Japanese captors into physical work and forced to construct a rail bridge for their war enemies. During the course of the film the bridge comes to take on a symbolic dimension; amongst other things, it represents the need for faith and strength when faced with the problem of adversity.
I think that my key response to this film rests in it’s similarities to Frank Lloyd’s incredible winner from the 1930’s, Mutiny on the Bounty. Both are fascinating studies of control; how does one assert and maintain one’s position of power? In The Bridge on the River Kwai we watch, for the better part of the film, the English Colonel Nicholson and the Japanese Colonel Saito jostle for power in the form of the word of law to, as with Mutiny on the Bounty, an assertion of power through violence against bodies. In some instances this violence is in the form of actions against the body, such as Saito’s beating and long imprisonment of Nicholson, and in others it is through the physical task of building the bridge, thereby enforcing the idea that the body, and by extention the self, belongs to a higher being or entity.
This idea of self runs through the film as a dichotomy between east and west. Saito sees himself as being governed by a higher authority, employing the idea that the whole is greater than the sum, and thinks that his prisoners should follow suit. Nicholson works hard to keep his officers from having to work, thus asserting the clause of the individual. What is playing out is not just a clash between war enemies, but a clash between cultures and attitudes toward subjectivity: how does one ‘bridge’ this gap (see what I did there)?
A stunning performance in this film from Alex Guinness, who won a Best Actor award for his role as Nicholson, but even finer still in my opinion is the amazing performance from Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito, whose raw and intense acting might well be my favourite across these pictures thus far.
The film’s climax puts us into a difficult position. We should by now have learnt that the sum is greater than it’s parts. The bridge over the river has been an instrument for the soldiers to get them through their imprisonment. When the climax hits, it’s no wonder Nicholson responds with such passionate anguish. He’s stuck between his personal feelings – pride and accomplishment at having completed his task – and the greater good of his own nation – knowing that Britain, and himself by extention, must destroy this bridge if they wish to win the war. Thus, in the film’s final moments we see a crystalisation of the heart of the film’s major thematic conflict – the individual, or the group?
I wonder if I sense a faint whiff of 1950’s anti-communism here. And fair enough too – it’s important to open a dialogue about these things, and On The Waterfront never really did justice to higher questions of unionism and capitalism. But whatever we’re supposed to take away from it, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a focussed, fascinating and compelling film.