David Lean is known for his epic movies. Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter all neatly fit within the pervue of what we call an epic. In fact Lawrence of Arabia is considered the perfect epic movie and is shown in film classes as an example of what the genre is capable of. However, it took Lean several decades to get into epic filmmaking. He toiled in the British film industry for some time, making quintessential British movies for a British audience. (He adapted Oliver Twist and Great Expectations for pete’s sake. How British can you get?) But he was not known in the international film industry, so he struggled to finance and secure film work. It had gotten so bad for him that he was nearly broke when a famous Hollywood producer called and offered him work. Sam Speigel had just bought an ambitious novel about World War II POW soldiers. Fate presented itself and Lean transitioned into his most lucrative phase of his career. The Bridge on the River Kwai straddles the clean dividing line between Lean’s two careers. It is an epic in plot structure, but his focus on small problems is more indicative of his earlier movies. This leads to a fascinating, if uneven movie and great, quiet performances.
Colonel Nicholson arrives with his troop in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. This camp is run by a ruthless Japanese officer by the name of Colonel Saito. When this new batch of prisoners arrive, Saito mandates that all must work on a bridge they are building, including to the officers. Colonel Nicholson objects to this order and will not back down from the issue. According to a Geneva Convention, no officer should be forced to do manual labor in a POW camp. Saito takes this resolution as a threat and sends Colonel Nicholson to a sweat box for several days. Saito releases an emaciated Colonel Nicholson and asks him in return to make the deadline for the bridge to be built. Saito takes to this plan readily and improves Saito’s men’s original plan. He rallies his troops towards accomplishing this goal, not to aid the enemy, but to show British ingenuity. Running alongside this story is the story of Shears. Shears is an American POW who bribes his way into the sick tent and finally breaks out of the camp with a couple of fellow prisoners. The lone survivor (just barely) of this prison break, he is picked up by a British ship and finds himself convalescing in a British hospital. However Shears has lied about something. He is not an officer, but just an enlisted man. A British commander takes advantage of this knowledge to force him to go back to the POW camp and blow up a bridge. He reluctantly agrees. As the bridge is racing towards completion, Shears and a couple of other soldiers journey across the jungles to blow it up. Nicholson becomes so proud of his accomplishment that he sabotage’s the Allied troops’ attempt to blow up the bridge. He forgets what side he is on for a short period of time, before recovering and blowing up the bridge himself.
This movie is less about delivering an anti-war or pro-war message but more like a character study. This is where you can most clearly see Lean’s previous incarnation as an intimate filmmaker. He takes his three main characters and lives within their world views. Colonel Nicholson is seen as an upright military veteran officer who cannot fathom not doing a good job when a task is assigned to him. This isn’t overly explored or explained, it just exists in Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson)’s blood. Colonel Saito can be seen in close to the same way. Saito understands different viewpoints, but is so loyal to his country and his orders that he must make decisions that will save his life in only the most pro-Japanese way possible. Saito is played by veteran silent film actor Sessue Hayakawa with a quiet intensity that isn’t seen in most portrayals of Japanese soldiers in film. He doesn’t shout his orders but rather quietly says them.
I seem to have issues with most of David Lean’s movies (A Brief Encounter being the exception) and this one is not unique in that way. He tends to take too long to get to the point of the scene, choosing instead to wander about aimlessly to get beautiful shots and irrelevant plot machinations. His focus on Colonel Nicholson and Colonel Saito makes him short change the Shears subplot thus wasting William Holden’s talent. Despite these flaws, this movie is required watching for anyone interested in film.