Reflections on "The Bridge on the River Kwai"

Directed by David Lean

Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson,

Based on the book by Pierre Boulle

Starring William Holden, Jack Hawkins and Alec Guinness


A video presentation of this material is available here.


It is early 1943. A group of British POWs under the command of Colonel Nicholson arrives at a Japanese prison camp in Burma, commanded by Colonel Saito. Saito has been set the task of constructing a railway bridge across the river Kwai as part of the railway line intended to link Bangkok to Rangoon, and in part to ensure its completion by mid-May, he insists that all prisoners, including officers, should participate in the construction. Colonel Nicholson points out that the inclusion of officers in work parties contravenes the Geneva Convention, leading to a confrontation between the two commanding officers. Nicholson is beaten and then incarcerated in a corrugated iron container, next to his officers, as the Burmese sun beats down on them until one side or the other concedes.

Such is the opening of this gripping and thought-provoking, yet entertaining, anti-war film.

Saito's insistence on officer participation and the conflict that entails is based not just on practical considerations, but also on a cultural divide. According to the Japanese viewpoint, these POWs, who were not defeated in battle as they were ordered to surrender by their superiors, are disgraced, have no honour, dignity or personal worth exactly because they surrendered. They are no longer to be considered soldiers but prisoners, to be used by their Japanese captors as they see fit, and this applies to all prisoners, enlisted men and officers. Saito states that the rules of war do not apply as his prisoners have not behaved as soldiers.

Clearly, by adopting and pursuing policies of threat and intimidation, Saito hopes and expects that his prisoners will accede to his authority and offer no resistance. However, Colonel Nicholson considers rules and principles the backbone of civilised society and he will not give in to physical abuse. He refuses to accept the yoke of defeat or bend with the wind of pragmatism. He and his men may have surrendered as ordered, primarily to save lives, but they remain who and what they were and retain the honour, dignity, pride and values they exemplified before their capture. Spiritually, they remain undefeated, and so the scene is set for a stand-off between these two men who represent different cultures and differing values.

Nicholson readily accepts responsibility for the conduct and wellbeing of his men, including the necessity to inspire belief and confidence in the values he and they seek to represent. Indeed, Saito's actions inadvertently provide the means of maintaining the men's fighting spirit. Not submitting to pressure provides a sense of purpose and value, and serves to unify the British soldiers against perceived injustice, when Saito sought to appeal to a sense of disappointment and a feeling of dishonour, a further consequence of differing cultures and perceptions.

In the meantime, work continues on the bridge but, under poor Japanese direction and planning, progress is slow and limited. It becomes clear that success will require not just a workforce but experience and knowledge as well, elements which, Nicholson points out, could be provided by the British officers currently held in isolation, if the rules of the Geneva Convention were to be upheld.

Saito concedes but contrives to find a way of maintaining his position and saving face, but it is clear that Nicholson has won the day. It is also clear that respect and co-operation are more likely to bring about success than attempts to coerce one side into submission.

Upon his release and recovery, Nicholson is concerned by the poor discipline and attitude of his men. He recognises the need to restore discipline and good order, and he decides the best way to do that is to give the men a purpose. He sees the construction of the bridge as a tool to maintain the spirit of his men, but also as a means of embarrassing and humiliating their Japanese captors by planning and building a bridge that is superior to anything their captors might produce.

Of course, the irony is that in so doing, the enemy cause is also being advanced. However, Nicholson refuses to see beyond the immediate effect on the morale and discipline of his men. This has the secondary, and unintended, consequence of steadily undermining Saito's authority as the British officers take decisions and make demands regarding the bridge. Saito is acutely aware of this effect, but to take steps to reduce their input or to rail against their involvement would be counter-productive. Thus, Saito is embarrassed and weakened by the successful progress of his task because he cannot claim control or credit.

Counterbalancing these men of principle, we have Commander Shears, an American officer whose outlook is heavily and amusingly influenced by self-interest and survival. For all he lacks the moral fibre of Nicholson and Saito, Shears is intelligent, resourceful, courageous and determined. He manages to escape, along with two others who die in the process, and, suffering considerable hardship, he eventually makes it to a military hospital where he contemplates his discharge from the army on health grounds.

Shears is a sort of common-sense everyman who just wants to be allowed to lead his life as he wishes. In fact, we discover he is not an officer at all, but has merely impersonated one in order to take advantage of the better conditions offered to officers, a clear example of his resourcefulness. He is somewhat sceptical and is unswayed by matters of principle, and he offers a lighter and refreshing approach to the problems of war. He becomes involved in a plan to destroy the bridge because his military superiors have offered his services, indicating that as long as the war lasts, his life is not really his own. In the great scheme of things, he may be a little man but he is capable of great actions and recognises, however unwillingly, the value of the mission he is about to undertake. He also supplies a certain comic relief at times from the intense drama, while remaining likeable but at risk.

He is recruited by Major Warden, a commando in charge of an operation whose purpose is quite simply to disrupt the enemy war effort as much as possible, in this instance by ensuring the bridge on the river Kwai is destroyed.

Warden is a man of action. Something of an academic in private life, he trains men and leads them on dangerous undercover missions. In keeping with other British officers, he is keen on principle, planning and the application of rules for all eventualities, down to killing comrades rather than allow them to fall into enemy hands. There is no doubting his courage, determination and commitment, but while these are positive qualities, training and unquestioning loyalty can lead to a rather blinkered view of situations.

For Warden and his small group of men, the bridge is a target whose destruction will hamper the war effort of the enemy. As they move on the bridge, crossing hostile terrain and encountering enemy activity, there is ample opportunity to admire the skill, courage and resolution of these men.

We are reminded, however, of the human cost of their actions. Killings are quite brutal and painful, and not without physical and psychological damage to the survivors. At one point, the young and relatively innocent Lieutenant Joyce comes face to face with a young and terrified Japanese soldier. Both hesitate and both are afraid, suggesting, perhaps, that neither wants to be in this situation that has been inflicted on them and is not of their making. The human cost of conflict is brought home in this up-close-and-personal confrontation and quandary which is decided by Warden who is willing to take a life, painful though he finds it, for the sake of the cause he is fighting for.

By now the bridge is all but complete and is due to carry its first train and passengers. Nicholson's plan has worked. He and his men have, indeed, produced a magnificent feat of engineering and construction, and it has served its purpose of sustaining discipline, order, pride and dignity, to the extent that even the sick are willing to leave hospital to help out and Japanese soldiers have been conscripted into service to complete the bridge on time. Effectively, Nicholson has taken over the running of the camp as he supervises all aspects of construction and issues orders regarding its completion. In the process, he has dealt profound psychological damage to Saito for Nicholson has achieved far more by appealing to the spirit and pride of his men than Saito could have done by force and brutality. Saito has virtually been reduced to a role of camp administrator and, with his ego and pride severely dented, he contemplates suicide.

Both Nicholson and Saito are so self-involved and obsessed by position, honour and principle that both fail to see the bigger picture and the obvious, that the Japanese war effort has been advanced by the building of this excellent bridge, yet the captives are celebrating what has become their victory over their Japanese guards while the captors are commiserating over what is viewed as their dishonour.

Warden, Shears and co see the bridge from a wider perspective and are set to blow it up, but as a result of the lowering of the level of the river, Nicholson spots wires which lead to a detonator and, wishing to protect his pride and joy, he sets out to investigate, putting himself, Saito and the commando unit at risk.

In the resulting fracas, Shears and Joyce are killed while trying to prevent Nicholson's exposure of the detonator, and Saito and Nicholson are fatally wounded and die, though not before Nicholson comprehends what is happening and realises he has acted against the interests of the Allied forces. He falls on the detonator, destroying the bridge and the train which had started to cross it. Warden is the sole survivor of the group but he is riddled with guilt as, blindly following his training, he fired on his own men to save them from falling into enemy hands.

From a vantage point above all this mayhem and death, the British doctor, who has expressed doubt over Nicholson's policies in the past, is left stunned and bewildered by what he has just witnessed, repeating "Madness, madness...". Just as Warden and co saw the bridge from a wider perspective than Nicholson and Saito, so the doctor, from a suitably higher standpoint, sees the whole from an even loftier perspective. All the pain, effort, endurance, courage and determination on the part of both those who built the bridge and those who destroyed it, have led to this point - the destruction of everything and the deaths of just about all involved. Great things can be achieved with time, effort, co-operation and resolution, but they can be wiped out in an instant through petty differences, intolerance and conflict, with no winners or losers in the end, just devastation.

At the beginning and end of the film, birds of prey are seen circling, as if in wait for man's inevitable self-destruction. The Earth and nature will continue even if man squanders his opportunity to thrive and develop.

The script by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson cleverly and skilfully combines reflection, action and humour, while the direction and photography make you feel the heat, discomfort and pain endured by the POWs, allowing you to appreciate the natural beauty of the landscape at the same time. David Lean tells the story masterfully, capturing the feelings, motivations, personalities and development of his characters as well as creating tension and excitement in the action sequences.

All the lead actors handle their roles with confidence and flair, and receive superb support from their co-stars. It should be said, however, that third-billed Alec Guinness steals the show, perhaps because of the emotional intensity and the understated and inspirational, if slightly misguided, heroism he brings to the role.

The music by Malcolm Arnold and the use of "Colonel Bogey" only enhance our emotional engagement.

This is a great war, or anti-war film. It allows us to admire the personal qualities of the characters yet it invites us to see the whole from a wider perspective, emphasising the pain, wastefulness and overwhelming destructiveness and futility of war.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be reached at .