This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
“Madness. Madness!” So go the tragic final words of David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), a spectacular and deeply-moving WWII adventure film that still entertains and challenges over sixty years later. Starring Alec Guinness, William Holden, and Sessue Hayakawa, among others, it paints an engaging portrait of what pride and fatalism does to the human psyche. It also explores the ultimately inspiring theme that we are all more alike than different as human beings.
When the film opens, British soldiers under the command of the courageous and dignified Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness in an Oscar-winning performance) are marched into a Japanese POW camp located within the jungles of Burma. They whistle a song of defiance (the now-legendary “Colonel Bogey March”) to demonstrate that prisoners though they now be, they will never stop being soldiers. After entering the camp, they are addressed by Colonel Saito (former Japanese silent film star Sessue Kayakawa), the no-nonsense camp commandant who is a subtle reflection of Colonel Nicholson’s own stubborn soul.
Colonel Saito demands that all the captive soldiers, including the officers, participate in the construction of an important military bridge over the river Kwai. According to the Geneva Conventions, a military code that laid out what could and could not be done to prisoners of war, officers were not to be forced to do manual labor. Colonel Saito does not care about this “coward’s code” as he calls it, but Colonel Nicholson is adamant that the rules must be followed. Until Colonel Saito agrees to let him be in command of his men rather than working beside them, the stubborn British colonel goes on strike and is punished by having to spend his days sitting in a small wooden box. What ensues is one of the greatest battle-of-wills in film history, one that ultimately reveals the seemingly ruthless Japanese colonel’s fragile humanity.
Colonel Nicholson’s men put up their own protest, purposely doing a terrible job on the bridge construction and making absolutely no progress until their leader is released. Colonel Saito becomes quite worried, for if the bridge is not finished in the time allotted by his superiors, he believes he will have to kill himself for the sake of honor. He invites his fellow stubborn colonel to dinner and desperately tries to convince him to surrender his pride and help build the bridge. “Do you know what will happen to me if the bridge is not built on time?” he asks Colonel Nicholson with fear in his voice. “I’ll have to kill myself. What would you do if you were me?” Without missing a beat, Colonel Nicholson holds back a wry smile as he dryly replies, “I suppose if I were you… I’d have to kill myself.” These two strong-willed and honor-obsessed men can just not find it within themselves to surrender to each other’s terms.
As the deadline for completing the bridge grows nearer and nearer, Colonel Saito’s pride is drowned by his fear, and he finally agrees to accept Colonel Nicholson’s Code-adhering terms: officers will not be forced to do manual labor but rather will remain in semi-command of their soldiers. As Colonel Nicholson and his men celebrate this victory, we see Colonel Saito at his most vulnerable as he quietly sobs in his bedroom, humiliated by the triumph of Colonel Nicholson’s iron will over his own.
His morale boosted by his triumphant psychological battle with Colonel Saito, Colonel Nicholson sets out to build a “proper bridge” for the Japanese that is worthy of Great Britain’s engineering reputation. Major Clipton (James Donald) questions this determination to do a superior job for the enemy, saying, “The fact is, what we’re doing could be construed as– forgive me– collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable activity. Must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built for themselves?” Colonel Nicholson dismisses Clipton’s worries, telling him that the only thing he should be concerned about is the reputation of the British military, a reputation that will be tarnished if they decide to do a second-rate job on the bridge. Clipton remains skeptical, but Nicholson does not care. From his point-of-view, he is “turn[ing] defeat into victory” and preoccupying his men with positive emotions different from the discouragement and despair usually felt by prisoners of war.
Meanwhile, a cynical but life-loving American prisoner named Shears (the always-fun William Holden) has made a bold escape from the camp into the surrounding jungle. He is eventually picked up by an Allied helicopter and brought to a military hospital in Ceylon, where he meets a rather death-obsessed British major named Warden (Jack Hawkins) who happens to be organizing a small team to go to Burma and blow up the bridge on the river Kwai. Major Warden thinks Shears would be a highly-valuable asset to this mission, as he is familiar with the jungles of Burma having just escaped from the prison camp there. Shears is reluctant to help– he has had quite enough of war and has no desire to go back to the Burmese jungle– but there is a catch. Ever since right before his capture by the Japanese, he has been impersonating a Navy officer when in fact he is really “just an ordinary swab jockey, second class.” The Navy has agreed not to prosecute him for his dishonest actions if he agrees to help out Major Warden; he really has no choice.
On the way to blow up the bridge on the river Kwai, Major Warden is shot in the foot by Japanese soldiers and begs the rest of his team to go on without him. In his mind, the importance of the mission always triumphs over the sacredness of human life; he is resigned to sitting up against a tree and bleeding to death, perhaps taking an L-pill if necessary to quicken the process. This infuriates the life-loving Shears, who then delivers one of the film’s most moving speeches:
“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!”
While Warden will not readily admit it, he is clearly moved by this speech, and he agrees to limp onwards with the rest of his team.
We then come to what I think is one of the most beautiful scenes in cinematic history. Standing atop the newly-completed bridge, Colonel Nicholson stares contemplatively at the sunset beyond, his heart warmed by the satisfaction of a job well done. He then hears Colonel Saito approaching, and without a hint of expected aversion, he remarks to him, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Thinking that he is talking about the beautiful sunset and not the bridge, Colonel Saito softly replies, “Yes. A beautiful creation.” Colonel Nicholson then delivers a poignant monologue that gives us a wonderful insight not only into his heart, but also into the similar heart of Colonel Saito:
“I’ve been thinking. Tomorrow it will be 28 years to the day that I’ve been in the service. 28 years in peace and war. I don’t suppose I’ve been at home more than 10 months in all that time. Still, it’s been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. [I’ve] hardly made a difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking’s very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time.”
Like most people, Colonel Nicholson wants his life to mean something. He wants to know that his birth onto Earth has had a purpose, that the world will be at least a slightly better place because he existed. The bridge on the river Kwai has become his raison d’etre, his proof to himself that he can make a difference in the world. Whether or not this difference is a good one can be debated, but in this quiet moment, Colonel Nicholson is oblivious to it being anything other than magnificent. While Colonel Saito does not say so explicitly, the way he listens to his fellow colonel’s monologue with deep understanding in his eyes makes it clear that he also worries about whether or not his life has made a difference. In these beautifully peaceful and all-too-quick moments, two enemies stand united in their common humanity and their deep-rooted desire for a meaningful existence on Earth.
The hope and contemplative peace of Shears and Colonel Nicholson’s respective monologues does not last for long. Without spoiling the exact ending, it will suffice to say that much blood is shed, and the steadfastly war-weary Major Clipton is left to lament, “Madness. Madness!” And so the film comes to its conclusion with a simple but powerful message: the force that possesses human beings and tells them to kill each other through warfare is nothing less than utter madness. Shears’s sheer love of life made him aware of this madness, as did Major Clipton’s ever-logical mind. But did Major Warden see the madness beneath his almost masochistic fatalism? Did Colonel Nicholson and Colonel Saito see the madness beneath their stubborn pride and desire for their own lives to make a significant difference at all costs? It sadly does not seem so.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a true masterpiece that challenges us to find and combat the mad pride and fatalism in our own souls. It also beautifully portrays the truth that even the bitterest of enemies are more alike than they are different and can most certainly learn to relate to each other. We should always keep in mind Shears’s memorable words: “[You focus on] 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!” Our lives are now, so let us enthusiastically live them in peace, joy, and love.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.