Class Notes: “The Bridge on the River Kwai”

7 Aug

Movies with sets this big cannot end well...

I’m a pacifist. I don’t like fighting. I get anxious around animosity. I do not enjoy anything remotely resembling bloodthirsty land ownership.

Yet I like this movie.

Maybe it shows just how crazy war is enough for me to tolerate over two and a half hours of pure torture. A POW camp in the middle of nowhere, Asia during WWII. Modern medicine isn’t that modern, and most of the prisoners are finished off by the mighty mosquitoes.


As we learn, those were the lucky souls.

War is madness claims the army doctor, because so much ill is committed against people in the film for the name of national pride. At what point do you say too far and call it a day? The Japanese colonel in charge of the work camp get pleasure from dominating his captives. His counterpart, the British colonel feels empowered by standing on the principles of soldier’s code. His determination to uphold the Geneva Convention of the West against the brutish nature the Japanese subject their prisoners to. Oh yes, almost fifteen years after the war, director David Lean is not any less bitter against the enemy. Although he seems fascinated by British military men. The man is responsible for the epic, “Lawrence of Arabia.”

In the jungle, only the British still wear their shirts.

And this precursor exists on the epic scale of grand sets, hundreds of malnourished, sunburned extras. Years before computerized special effects, all the soldiers you see populating the camp and building that bridge, those numbers are really represented. All in costume, in the middle of a jungle.

These men mean military business

And boy is it miserable.  But, there’s a humor there too. The nationalities at war are characterized by the officers. The Japanese Colonel Saito, wonderfully played by silent screen star Sessue Hayakawa , has high regard for his appearance and holds to the tradition of suicide after a failure rather than living with his shortcomings. The British Colonel Nicholson is masterfully played by Alec Guinness, as the man who won’t let go of his military code of conduct no matter what the situation. Of course, this includes giving his country his best-even if it means building the best bridge, for his captors. Oh, and there’s the wise-cracking American Naval officer who just couldn’t give a U-boat unless it involves freedom, drinks, and women. NOT stereotyping here-right?

And here’s where the beautiful ethical questions lie: is it traitorous for the colonel to command his troops to work for the enemy? Where do loyalties lie? Why is the American always the most interested in self-preservation?

It's going to be a long war...

It’s great to see these two cultures with high values on honor duke it out on a battle of strategic mind wars.  Quite thriling actually, because for a war movie, there’s surprisingly little combat. It is mostly just that-a mental war. Fighting to hold onto values, to dear life. It’s a struggle that keeps you paying attention for a damn good long time (2.5 hours of pain and suffering anyone?). It’s not mopey at all, when you finish the movie, you too feel a sense of a survivor. You made it out of the jungle, pass the River Kwai.

See the restored trailer here:


One Response to “Class Notes: “The Bridge on the River Kwai””

  1. Ray Bouchard August 8, 2010 at 9:52 am #

    Great review Monica. I think the best war movies bring home the horror, futility, and also the heroism of war. This one does all those things. You can really feel the heat of the jungle.

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