“Madness! Madness!” — Major Clipton
OK, now we’re starting to get into the great ones! The Bridge on the River Kwai is a tremendous film that took home multiple Academy Awards in 1958 and set a standard for hundreds of anti-war films to come. The film is based on the novel by Pierre Boulle and tells the story of a company of British prisoners of war during World War II who are forced to build a bridge by a Japanese Colonel who has some unique ways of motivating his prisoners. The prisoners are led by the overly proper Colonel Nicholson who at first inspires his charges by not giving into Colonel Saito’s demands, then further inspires his troops to build a bridge that will stand the test of time and serve to honor the spirit and work ethic of the Brits. Unbeknownst to Nicholson, the Allies are planning to blow up the bridge as soon as it’s complete.
There are so many great aspects of this film it’s hard to know where to begin, but I will begin with what I think is one of the main themes of the film — the futility of war. Major Shears, played by William Holden, sets the tone early on by questioning Nicholson’s motives when he first arrives at the camp, and then later in the film when he returns to help blow up the bridge he tells his commander:
“You make me sick with your heroics! There’s a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills – they go well together, don’t they? And with you it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman… how to die by the rules – when the only important thing is how to live like a human being.”
The bridge itself is a metaphor for the irrationality of war. The prisoners are there to build the bridge and they build a great bridge, only to have it destroyed as soon as it’s complete. In other words, what was the point? Major Clipton says it in the quote above when he watches the bridge crumble and sees the death all around him.
Another theme of the film is courage. Saito and Nicholson have different definitions of courage, and Saito thinks the British have none. But Nicholson believes courage comes from doing what is right in the face of adversity and he literally proves his point by challenging Saito at the risk of death. Saito learns to understand Nicholson’s courage and finally gives in and in return Nicholson rewards Saito by building a wonderful bridge. Saito and Nicholson are equally stubborn, but to what end as Major Clipton reminds us.
The Bridge on the River Kwai also delivers several spectacular acting performances, especially by Alec Guiness as Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa as Saito. Guiness was rewarded for his work with a Best Acting Oscar and Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It was Sir Alec’s only Oscar win over a tremendous acting career and one of the best performances you’ll ever witness. The film also won Best Picture and five additional Oscars.