The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


I’m going to expose my lack of World War II knowledge and confess that I didn’t realize Burma was a part of the Pacific theater.  I’m going to further expose my ignorance by admitting that I had to look up where the movie took place, even after having watched the film.  Maybe I’ve been tainted by too many Vietnam war movies, so that anything tropical and war-y would seem to take place there.  (Okay, I knew it wasn’t Vietnam, but I was thinking Thailand for a while.  Or maybe the Philippines.)

As Eurocentric people (referring specifically to white Americans, I suppose), we tend to focus so much on the German side of the war, and forget far too easily what happened in the Pacific.  If not for Pearl Harbor, we might not have bothered getting involved in that particular conflict at all, leaving Japan to run rampant throughout China, Korea, and apparently Burma.  Of course, when I think about it, Burma was a British colony at the time (which I know primarily thanks to George Orwell, who wrote many essays on his experiences in the British Foreign Service).  I’ve just explained a lot to myself.  Thanks for bearing witness to my learning.

All of this is sort of beside the point.  I’m supposed to be talking about a movie here.

Bridge takes place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, where a new group of British POWs is induced to build a bridge spanning the river Kwai (hence the title).  The big conflict, though, is not over whether the soldiers will be forced to build the bridge – that’s a given.  The question is whether the officers will join in the labor, against the rules of the Geneva convention.  Alec Guinness is great as Colonel Nicholson, the stodgy officer who stands on principle in defiance of the Japanese prison camp commanding officer, Saito.  You pretty much alternate between admiring his grit and wanting to pound his head against the wall for refusing to back down even at the risk of death.  His troops all admire him, too, perhaps because they don’t realize that they will not be spared hard labor no matter what the result of Nicholson’s last stand.  Nicholson is even principled enough to order his men to build the bridge right, rather than intentionally sabotaging the job as they’d done outside of his influence.

Meanwhile, there’s an American POW (who is, incidentally, a bit like Don Draper) in the camp who is far less eager to help his captors.  He manages to escape and is then enticed by a guy who looks remarkably like Doctor Who and Sherlock writer Stephen Moffat to return on a mission to destroy the bridge.  While the battle of wits between Nicholson and Saito is probably the more interesting conflict, character-wise, it’s hard to resist an exciting commando mission.

Sorry, Sherlock season 4 is delayed while I go blow up a bridge.

I’m a sucker for juxtaposition, and I love the scene where the two commandos are setting up explosives on the base of the bridge while the prisoners are inside celebrating its completion with pantos in drag (such a British thing to do).

It’s really interesting how each of the war movies I’ve watched so far has approached it from a completely different angle.  This one is almost more of an adventure story that also happens to have a war as a backdrop.  Being a POW is no walk in the park, and the movie sort of brushes past that fact, but otherwise, it’s an entertaining film.  I did think that it was about an hour shorter than it actually was, so I had to pause in the middle when I started falling asleep, picking it up the next day.  But that’s not really a criticism, except in my own planning.

As the Brits might say, “Good show.”  And I’m not talking about the panto.


Theme:  War

Which One:  World War II (pacific theater)

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Bridge to a T


One response

  1. Pingback: Meta-post: The Ranking | Year of the Oscar

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