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The Bridge on the River Kwai

by on September 28, 2009
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When you are a film critic, the one question you dread getting in social situations is, “So what’s your favorite movie?”

People are invariably disappointed when I give vague, wishy-washy answers like, “Well, I love so many!” or “It’s just impossible to choose.” I suspect that chefs can readily tell you their favorite dish, and sports columnists don’t hesitate to name the athlete they most admire. People don’t like it when those who are supposed to be experts fudge on a pretty fundamental question.

The truth is my tastes have evolved over time. If you’d asked me the “favorite film” question when I was 14 or 15, I think I would have said “Blade Runner” without much pause. That one’s still near the top of my list, although the themes of alienation and dehumanization that seem so important when you’re a teen are less forceful now.

But I think I can say that however my list of favorites has shuffled over the years, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” has consistently remained very high. At this particular moment in time, I’d probably call it the film I most admire.

“Bridge” was directed by the great David Lean from a screenplay (by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman) based on the novel by Pierre Boulle . The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards for 1957, and won seven, including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Editing, Musical Score and Best Actor for Alec Guinness. It also won Best Screenplay, but as Wilson and Foreman were blacklisted at the time, they received no onscreen credit. Their Oscars arrived posthumously in 1984, and their names are listed in the restored edition of the film.

It’s a rousing prisoner-of-war picture, with the usual heroic Allies showing terrific resolve in the face of their dastardly captors. But I think why the film stands up for me is that it’s really about self-delusion. All of the main characters are in some way compromised, a combination of good and evil tendencies. I would go so far as to argue that Col. Nicholson, the British commander of the Allied prisoners, is the real villain of the piece.

Think about it: Nicholson is prepared to have himself and all of his other officers shot dead rather than perform manual labor at the insistence of Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa , who was the only Oscar nominee from the film who failed to take home a statue). Later, after winning his contest of wills with Saito — by nearly suffocating to death in a tin “hot box” — Nicholson undertakes the task of building a railway bridge for the Japanese with such misguided enthusiasm that he becomes a collaborator with the enemy.

As the bridge approaches its deadline and it’s clear they will not finish in time, Nicholson orders his officers to do manual labor — the same principle he was willing to die over. He even cajoles the sick men to hobble away from the hospital and lend a hand, too.

In his final act, Nicholson nearly upsets a plan by British commandos to blow up the bridge right as the first train steams over it. So invested has Nicholson become in the bridge, in what it represents to his ideals, that he alerts the Japanese soldiers and even struggles with one of the commandos. The bridge demolition still goes through — in a spectacular cinematic display, in which Lean actually destroyed a real bridge and train — but three of the four commandos are killed, including Maj. Shears (played by William Holden), who had previously escaped from the same prison camp.

Through it all, Nicholson is convinced that he’s doing the right thing. He sees the bridge construction as a way to restore order and pride to his soldiers, who have become a rabble. Later, he sees it as a symbol of defiance against the enemy, to build a better bridge than they could themselves. The film is a lesson in how a series of decisions, each of which seems sound, can add up to calamity. I think our country’s involvement in Iraq is a modern example.

A few other thoughts on the film:

I must have seen it a half-dozen times before I caught on to the subtle portrayal of Saito. A proud man, he is utterly crushed when Nicholson succeeds in building the bridge that he could not. There’s also a bit near the end whereSaito is shown cutting off his Bushido topknot, and slipping a dagger into his uniform right before the bridge’s dedication. It seems clear now that Saito intended to kill Nicholson, or himself, or possibly one and then the other. Only the complication of Nicholson spotting the demolition wiring prevents this.

Shears, the ostensible American protagonist of the film, is a fraud, liar, impersonator and suck-up. He bribes the Japanese guards for favorable treatment, treats the arrival of Nicholson with great cynicism, and seems bent on doing anything to save his own skin. He only agrees to join the commandos when faced with court-martial and imprisonment for impersonating an officer. If he’s supposed to represent the Yanks, we don’t come off too great.

The use of the “Colonel Bogey March” musical theme throughout the film is interesting. It’s an act of defiance by the British prisoners, but also illustrative of Nicholson’s delusion. During the opening scene, where they’re marching into camp for the first time, the men are whistling the tune. Slowly, the musical score takes up the melody until it sounds like a grand marching band booming away. This coincides with the shift to Nicholson’s perspective. Despite the sorry state of his men, many of them marching barefoot, he still views them as British soldiers, brave and true.

(The tune really was used by Allied soldiers during WWII, who came up with some vulgar lyrics, including the revamped title, “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball.” The film’s soldiers were to sing these lines — which continue, “Goring has two but very small; Himmler is somewhat sim’lar, and poor Goebbels has no balls at all!” — but producer Sam Spiegel felt they were too vulgar, so they came up with the whistling instead.)

The film ends with the British doctor, having just watched the train wreck and the deaths of Nicholson and the commandos, shouting “Madness, madness” into the jungle air. To those who think war is great, it’s an apt indictment.

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