Like the best of David Lean's films, The Bridge on the River Kwai is sweeping but personal, a formal masterwork that ultimately operates to deepen the moral ambiguity and humanity of its primary characters. The film plays out as two separate battles of wills, both of which converge under the shadow of a railroad bridge being constructed for the Japanese war effort by Western prisoners of war. From these mind games emerges a moral portrait of the conflicting feelings in war: there are no heroes in this film, nor truly any villains. In a time when crowing about the war was still all the rage—hell, has back-patting about WWII ever gone out of fashion among the Allies?—Lean shows the warping effect of conflict on all men, how one can see right through the ridiculous code of military conduct of one side and utterly fail to see the absurdities in one's own.
Lean's gift for finding the human touch even in his most technical, grandiose moments is evident from the first moments of the film. A graceful crane shot through dense jungle spills out into a narrow clearing showing railroad tracks and mound graves with rudimentary crosses made of bamboo marking the dead. A group of British soldiers march through the jungle, the boisterous music belying the less-inspiring truth that they are headed to a Japanese POW camp following the surrender of Singapore. From the moment the unit's leader, Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), steps into camp, we see he's going to be a problem. He has his men march as if on parade, whistling proudly even as shots focusing on their torn shoes and quivering legs undo any sense of the Brits' strength. What at first seems Nicholson's gesture of defiance eventually becomes the first sign of madness implanted by his capture.
To cope with the stress and dishonor of the fall of Singapore, the "Impregnable Fortress" that succumbed to the Japanese in a mere week, and his personal failure, Nicholson arrives at camp clearly resolved to carry on as a British soldier with only the most necessary acknowledgments to suggest he's even connected to reality at all. After formally surrendering to Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), Nicholson keeps the men at attention to hear the commander's "welcome" speech, in which he informs the soldiers, all of them, of the labor they are to do. Saito's tone is respectful and calm, but the intent is clear: work or die, and escape is futile. But when Saito finishes, Nicholson walks up to him as if they were equals and says, in the most passive-aggressive manner possible, that Saito cannot make officers participate in manual labor in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. After another such confrontation, Saito takes the pocket copy of the Conventions Nicholson brandishes and slaps the British officer across the face with it.
Here is a POW movie that cares almost nothing for escape, at least not for its main characters. Nicholson, desperate to retain his dignity, immediately enters into a mental conflict with Saito, whose commitment to Bushido belies a deep cowardice and mounting panic. Though he spins his officer labor as a means of demoralizing an already defeated enemy, the colonel soon reveals his primary motivation for using every soldier in the camp is the knowledge that, if he does not succeed in building the railroad bridge by the allotted deadline, he will have to commit seppuku. And the more things go wrong with construction, either as a result of ineptitude, sabotage or deliberate sloth, the more panicked he becomes.
Thus, the struggle between Saito and Nicholson is not merely for the sake of satisfaction but sanity. Seeking to break the Brits, Saito makes the officers stand at attention in the blazing sun for hours and locking Nicholson in an iron box without food or water for days. At last, Saito invites Nicholson to a secret dinner after dark as a means of wooing the man to his way of things. Disheartened by the latest construction mishap, Saito at last admits to his enemy why he needs everyone working, and suddenly the tables turn. Guinness subtly seizes control instantly, breaking his tacit refusals with a more direct approach, as well as one that makes use of the actor's considerable comic gifts. Saito proposes a compromise, allowing high-ranking officers to skip manual labor, but Nicholson's already seen his warden's weakness. Guinness plays Nicholson in this scene like a reasonable but firm housewife to Saito's raging, work-obsessed husband: he speaks gently but with force, a brick wall against which Saito's increasingly weak protests splatter harmlessly. Finally, Nicholson emerges victorious, securing officer's rights and returning to his elated men of his own power, impressive considering how the torture must have weakened him.
Then, the tone abruptly changes. Back with his men, Nicholson tours the construction sight and notes the lack of discipline among the men and poor design of the site. Amazingly, Nicholson soon whips the men into shape and throws everything into completing the bridge, bewildering the men who rightly see his zeal as aiding the enemy. Nicholson assures the medic, Clipton (James Donald), that he's doing this for morale purposes, to keep the men busy and behaving like soldiers of the Crown as long as possible. He even condescends to Clipton, saying "You're a fine doctor, Clipton, but you have a lot to learn about the army." Before long, Nicholson even starts ordering lightly fatigued and wounded soldiers back out for duty to ensure the bridge is built on time. If Lean undercut Saito's adherence to the Bushido code with a human regard for his own life, he then undoes Nicholson's commitment to hindering Saito by showing the colonel misapplying his need to feel like a British soldier in a place where all his status is now meaningless.
With Nicholson throwing his weight behind completing the bridge, the focus shifts for a time to Shears (William Holden), the American sailor who escapes the prison when Nicholson's torture diverts attention enough to try to slip away. The two others who accompany him die, and Shears himself is shot and falls off a cliff into water, but he survives, makes his way to a village and is ultimately extracted. As he convalesces with a caring, affectionate nurse, however, a British commando leader, Warden (Jack Hawkins) arrives and reveals he knows the truth of Shears' real identity and uses this knowledge to force the sailor to accompany a unit back to the camp to blow up the supply bridge being built.
Though Nicholson and Saito's standoff is more outwardly brutal, what with the Japanese colonel's attempts to break the Brit and the forceful resistance of the proud soldier, the second conflict that emerges between Shears and Warden is far more sinister. These are two men presumptively on the same side, but Warden coerces and strong-arms Shears into returning to the camp for...what, exactly? He lacks the training of the Force 316 commandos, can hardly chart the best path to the camp as he only escaped through sheer luck. The implicit suggestion arises that Warden is simply pissed that "Shears" would impersonate an officer to enjoy the perks as he recovers. Warden and his own C.O. sound stereotypically British, at one point bouncing shouts of "Good show!" back at each other as if playing verbal tennis, but underneath his cheerful side is a clear thirst for blood. With the subtle transparency I so miss in classic film, Lean positions Warden and the other men of Force 316 as sadists; even the accountant among them who is unsure of his ability to kill in cold blood admits he joined because he found regular army service as dull as his civilian life. Comparatively, Shears' cowardice (all the more amusing as it's portrayed through William Holden) seems the logical response, though Lean dirties the character sufficiently to prevent him from becoming the audience's moral compass.
At first, I kept thinking how impressively Lean managed to humanize an epic. But as the mind games played out between Nicholson/Saito and Shears/Warden, I realized that what he really did with this film, and others, is make a human story feel epic. The only reason to call this film epic is in its framing: it generally stays in one area save for the brief bits in Ceylon with a recovering Shears and the introduction of Force 316, focuses only on a handful of characters and charts moral growth over some sweeping narrative.
But that framing truly does give it the feel of a movie far more vast. Lean frames action in long shots, cutting away from the British officers forced to stand at attention at gunpoint in the hot sun to Shears and others watching from the distance. Only when the officers are in the background does one silently collapse from heatstroke. A small skirmish between the commandos and a handful of Japanese patrolmen is presented mostly through sound as the camera tilts up to watch the multitude of fruit bats suddenly launched into the air in a screeching frenzy at the sound of gunfire. Lean's removed approach to the action gives the film its outsized tone, but it also allows him to cut away from the actual violence, not only letting him adhere to standards of the day but also to avoid any true thrill in the already-sparse bloodshed.
Only at the end does Lean even let the film feel like a suspenseful war picture, dropping out the music as the train nears the completed bridge and the commandos prepare to blow it and relying on the sound of buzzing insects and the slow crescendo of the approaching train's whistle for tension. But Lean subverts even this by the nature of the climax: the tension lies not within the fear that the Japanese will discover the commandos but that Nicholson, so far gone he looks at the bridge with a sense of accomplishment, will prevent his creation from being destroyed. Lean at last fully shows the action at the time it reaches its most pathetic low, the accountant Joyce haphazardly stabbing Saito, Nicholson shooting a Shears he no longer recognizes until the end, and Warden firing a mortar at Nicholson in sudden fear. We see all of this, and even in gore-less '50s movie, these actions are repellent, to the point that even the subsequent detonation of the bridge lacks any real sense of victory.
I love so many of the minute touches in this film. Instead of presenting hard-ass, brutal Japanese at the start, Lean first shows a unscrupulous, mildly compassionate guard accepting a bribe and flattery from Shears in exchange for putting the sailor and his friend on the sick list for a few days. In Saito's hut, the most dominant image is an American pin-up calendar confiscated from a prisoner; long before he reveals his true motivations, the calendar undermines his cold image of modern samurai composure. And I actually felt a pang in my gut when Saito openly mocked the officers in front of the prisoners, noting that it was they who surrendered the enlisted men and forced them into this situation rather than let them die with honor. It's still an old-fashioned, ludicrous view of the valor of war, but then the Brits have their own outdated code, too.
Two phrases stand out among the film's dialogue. The first is Nicholson's repeated reply "I haven't the foggiest," used like a subtle comic catchphrase in his double act with Saito. But the sentiment also seems a British understatement for the futility of it all: the POW camp is tucked away from the war, and though the supply line being built is vital, the waste involved raises questions that can seemingly be answered only by Guinness' dead-pan unknowing. This ties in with the other great dialogue, Clipton's exhausted, anguished cry of "Madness! Madness!" that closes the film. We know why the Japanese wanted to build the bridge, and we know why the Allies would seek to blow it up, but looking at the aftermath of it all, the only feelings one can have are revulsion and incomprehension. It's a line that speaks to the insanity of the film production itself, which actually made that bridge, only to blow it up upon completion. In that sense, The Bridge on the River Kwai, though featuring almost no warfare, embodies the lunacy of war better than nearly any other film on the subject: like war, it is a showcase for men building so many wonderful things through grueling labor and dedication, only to destroy it in seconds. It's a powerful commentary, and one so unforced it's actually easy to miss even when it literally blows up in front of you.