Yesterday I went and saw a movie at the AFI. It was great. Now, I know that I usually go on about movies quite frequently, mostly to say, so-and-so is really underrated or he was so hot. But this movie made me remember my English major roots, so I’m going to try to be a bit analytical about...The Bridge of the River Kwai.
Brief synopsis, in case you haven’t the opportunity to see this film. It stars Alec Guinness and William Holden and is directed by David Lean. It won Best Picture in 1957 and is ranked 13 on the AFI’s 100 Best Films list. A British colonel is captured along with his troops and sent to a Japanese POW camp to build a bridge over the River Kwai. Initially, all the British troops, including officers, were to labor on the Bridge, but Colonel Nicholson withstands the torture and eventually oversees the construction of the bridge. He feels it will be good for the morale of the troops, even with the complicated moral dilemma of building a bridge for the enemy better than he could do himself.
At the same time, an American commander has been held at the POW camp. Commander Shears is more pragmatic when it comes to living at the camp. Soon after the British troops arrive at the camp, he manages to escape the jungle. However, it turns out that Commander Shears has been too pragmatic about living and has been impersonating an officer. He is blackmailed into joining a British commando unit to go back to the POW camp and blow up the bridge.
Meanwhile, back at the river, the bridge has been successfully built. The commando unit manages to wire the bridge with plastic explosives during the night. But over the course of the evening, the river goes down, exposing the wire connected to the explosives. The Japanese do not see it, but Colonel Nicholson does. He leads the Japanese to the explosives, and eventually the bridge is blown up, but only at the cost of the lives of most of the commando unit. "Madness! Madness!"
The Bridge on the River Kwai is definitely an action movie, but it actually made me think. There are so many interesting things going on in Nicholson’s head. At the end, when he begins following the wire to where Major Joyce is waiting to depress the plunger, I just could not believe that he was going to ruin their – the English – chance to destroy the enemy. The movie also reminded me of my British empire classes and the conflict between the British and the Other. Colonel Nicholson and the Japanese commander were the same, but very different. They had embraced the culture of where they came from – Nicholson hadn’t been back to England for more than ten months in the twenty-eight years he had been in India, and the Japanese commander enjoyed England so much that he brought with him corned beef and scotch.
The aspect that I enjoyed most was the actual building of the bridge. Nicholson is just so different than I had expected. He didn't try to forstall the bridge as his men did, or continue building it in the wrong place. No, Nicholson built it right. In the right location, with the right construction. And it was built on time! Is it madness to do this? I am not sure... And there was one thing that Nicholson said that makes me question this -- the British told him to surrender. He was ordered to surrender, it wasn't a decision that he had made. So perhaps to not cooperate with the enemy would be tantamont to treason?
This was a great movie mostly because it did make me think. I watch so many movies, and most of them I can just passively enjoy. Or they make me want to learn how to do the Charleston. But usually nothing more than that. Nope, The Bridge on the River Kwai was a thinking movie, and one that had me thinking over the period of a few days.