The film is set in 1943, in a POW camp in Burma, along the route
of a rail line the Japanese were building between Malaysia and Rangoon.
Seen through the eyes of Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), commanding
officer of a battalion of British war prisoners, the war narrows to
a single task, building a bridge across the Kwai. The film then focuses
on exactly what the viewer considers to be mad. For Shears, an American
sailor, (William Holden), madness would be returning to the jungle.
For Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the Japanese commandant of the camp,
madness and suicide are never far away as the British build a better
bridge than his own men could. Finally for Clipton (James Donald),
the army doctor who says the final words, they could simply mean that
the final violent confusion led to unnecessary death.
and Saito, the commandant, are quickly involved in a face off. Saito
wants all of the British to work on the bridge. Nicholson says the Geneva
Convention states officers may not be forced to perform manual labour.
He even produces a copy of the document, which Saito uses to whip him
across the face, drawing blood. Nicholson is prepared to die rather
than bend on principle, and eventually, in one of the film's best-known
sequences, he's locked inside ‘the Oven’, a corrugated iron
hut that stands in the sun.
story in the jungle moves ahead neatly, economically and powerfully.
There is a parallel story involving Shears, following his escape, is
taken to a hospital in British occupied Ceylon, drinks martinis and
frolics with a nurse, and then is asked by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins)
to return as part of a commando team to blow up the bridge. Holden is
extremely good as the malingerer and unlikely hero – you see his
character come full circle as the film ends. Note should be made of
Hawkins brilliant, perhaps his finest role, as the focused British commando.
With all Hawkins military characters you really have faith that he is
who he plays. The long march where he refuses to be carried is a good
example of the stiff upper lipism that he carries so well. He and Holden
handle the British humour well with Hawkins providing lines such as
good show’ to which Holden replies ‘yes jolly good show,
jolly jolly good…good hunting’
perhaps the most humorous moment of the film.
film's central relationship is between Saito and Nicholson, a professional
soldier approaching his 28th anniversary of army service
don't suppose I've been at home more than 10 months in all that time’.
The Japanese colonel is not a professional soldier, but he is a rigidly
dutiful officer. We see him weeping privately with humiliation because
Nicholson is a stronger willed man – a great insult to a Japanese
war movies are either for or against their wars. This film is one of
the few that focuses not on rights and wrongs but on the individuals.
Like Robert Graves' World War I memoir 'Goodbye to All That' it shows
men grimly hanging onto military discipline and pride in their units
as a way of clinging to sanity. By the end of the film we are less interested
in who wins than in how individual characters will behave.