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Colonel, do you suppose we could have a cup of tea?


The Bridge on the River Kwai


It goes without saying that The Bridge on the River Kwai is a masterpiece, one of two David Lean pictures no one, but no one, is going to bad mouth. Except that there are a few dissenting voices, and a few dissenting voices that have problems with the ending, and with what, it seems, the picture is trying to say. I’ve always thought The Bridge on the River Kwai quite remarkable, and like the best of the director when working on an epic canvas, a wholly immersive experience that impresses anew each time I return to it. Yes, there are flaws here and there, but the idea that it’s problematic in any kind of pervasive way is anathema.

Colonel Nicholson: We’re prisoners of war, we haven’t the right to refuse work.
Major Clipton: I understand that, sir. But… must we work so well?

The danger with appreciation for a film like this is that you can end up making excuses for choices through assessing it via the wrong criteria; we all have different – and often inconsistent – standards when it comes to fiction and its relation to fact. My yardstick tends to begin with the simplest one of whether it amounts to a strong piece of storytelling; The Bridge on the River Kwai, even with some of its encumbrances, is a superb piece of storytelling.

That said, absolutely, it can be pronounced guilty of softening of Japanese brutality. And quite probably, as a veteran suggested, anyone behaving as Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) did, would have been “quietly eliminated for collaboration”. We are told the actual officer upon whom he is based, Colonel Philip Toosey, did as much as he could to delay the building of the bridge. It could also be argued The Bridge on the River Kwaimakes the Japanese out to be a bunch of incompetent idiots who only need some sterling British technical skills and discipline to sort out their mess (although, this is evidently among the intentional ironies of the film, as evidenced by Nicholson taking charge of planning and asking for cups of tea).

Guinness and Lean frequently clashed making the film, often over the former attempting to inject humour he felt his director lacked (“Such humour as he displayed was usually dyspeptic and cynical”). But The Bridge on the River Kwai is often very funny and wryly observed, and Lean was right to rein his leading man – at that time in a phase of his career where he was most celebrated for comedies – since the line between blinkered and foolish, and sympathetic and not so, is one that needs to be carefully trodden.

Ian Watt, a Stanford English professor who was a prisoner in the actual camp – and so self-evidently was partial in his prognosis – declared it “a recognisable universal fantasy – the schoolboy’s perennial dream of defying the adult world” with Nicholson the defiant boy and Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) the headmaster who eventually crumbles in the face of the boy’s resoluteness, submitting to his demands. There is undoubtedly an element of this, with Saito baffled at the British mindset, but Lean is so very clearly showing the concomitant rise and fall there – no sooner has Nicholson “triumphed” than the very same mindset elicits his “collaboration” – that there’s no true exultancy in the fantasy.

Screenwriter Carl Foreman – who again had a vested interest, since Lean loathed his contributions and attempted to deny him any legitimate credit, suggesting it was all his and Michael Wilson’s work – accused The Bridge on the River Kwai of having “sentimentalised the essential horror of the actual story”. Kevin Brownlow, in his David Lean biography, argued “had David shown the extremes of brutalities of torture, starvation and suicides, the film would have been unbearable to all but an audience of psychopaths”. Which is a bit much, but comes closer to the point, that Lean wasn’t making the film in order to provide a stark depiction of life in a Japanese prison camp. If he had been, fair play to the brickbats.

It’s crucial to the picture’s barbed edge that Nicholson comes into a camp where most the men have died and insists on treatment according to the Geneva convention, yet through his own reasonableness and desire to promote morale, drives his men harder – makes the officers labour and sends sick men to work – more doggedly than Saito (who, it is very clear, is doing what he is doing because he will be killed if he doesn’t do it). Lean is attempting to parallel the men, both of whom react to the other (within minutes) by saying they’re “mad”. “Are they both mad? Or am I going mad?” wonders Clipton (James Donald), the audience identification. As Lean put it, he’s “the only man with a suspicion of the truth”. The process Nicholson engineers is absurd, but that is the point; it has to be both ridiculous and believable. The amazing part is that Lean steers that course so assuredly.

Major Evans: I beg your pardon, sir. You mean you really want them to build a bridge?

Lean was clear on this: “If they don’t understand and admire him in spite of his misguided actions, this stature will diminish – and being the cornerstone of the film, the size of the film will diminish with him”. One of the reasons he objected to Foreman’s screenplay was that he didn’t feel he understood the nuances of the novel: “To put it over, one has to have a real understanding of the British mentality or it will be offensive… we do have an inordinate respect for discipline and team spirit. We make almost a fetish out of doing a job well… We love the letter of the law. We are ‘superior’ and stubborn as mules… He [Boulle] has shown these characteristics of the old school tie carried to tragic lengths”. So however unrealistic one may see the drama in the context of WWII’s reality, this heightened canvas was precisely Lean’s intention.

It’s also notable that the director wasn’t mad keen on the commando raid subplot, but recognised it, along with having Shears (William Holden) as an American, as one of the simple necessities of getting the movie made (Producer Sam Spiegel was big on both). He was much more interested in the camp activity, and you can tell as much quite plainly from the final film.

The commando plot isn’t exactly perfunctory, but it struts its stuff with little nuance. So Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) has never killed a man, while Warden (Jack Hawkins) has many times, and has been tortured, but maintains the rules at all costs; contrast this with Holden the pragmatist and survivor (“As for me, I’m just a slave. A living slave”), more than happy to pretend to be sick, to be an officer, do anything to avoid the inevitable (which pointedly comes at the receiving end of his benefactor Warden’s shell). “Without law, commander, there is no civilisation” Nicholson tells him, and it’s these laws, or rules, that lead to Shears’ grandstanding outrage at Warden, the latter attempting to hobble along on a broken foot (having spared Joyce a confrontation with a Japanese soldier, little more than a boy).

Shears: You’d leave your own mother, if the rules called for it.

Warden presents the united front of the officer class, L pills and “Don’t be taken alive” (and invoking Mountbatten, since identified as an infamous sicko, per both the FBI and a current court case): “Destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game this war” charges Shears. And the game aspect, the game of those in command, is something oft repeated in such movies, be it WWII or Cold War. It may be an easy place to retreat to, but it leads to a larger truth. The Bridge on the River Kwai is pointing to a particularly English mindset (“How to die like a gentleman, how to live by the rules. Live like a human being”), but Lean is reaching for a more general truth.

Whereby “War is not fun except in bad films and bad books…. These heroics are a positive disservice to youthful audiences who have no idea of war. War is the greatest plague on earth. I don’t think this is a time to minimise its horror and film it in false colours” (he was commenting in respect of elements he objected to in one of Foreman’s drafts). As such “The story of the building… is the story of a folly… if we can show this minor incident as a miniature reproduction of the greater folly which is the War itself, we shall have a great film”. It’s interesting that Lean should make such a comment, since WWII is generally held up as the righteous and reasoned example of a war, and far from a folly.

You can make the argument that The Bridge on the River Kwai isn’t a horrors-of-war movie, and it’s undoubtedly true that it isn’t off-putting in a visceral or gruesome way. But it’s curious that such an argument has now become the common stick to poke at it, when the initial concern was that it was anti-British. Alexander Korda felt Nicholson was “either a lunatic or a traitor, and the portrayal of British PoWs helping their enemies was a thoroughly anti-British idea”; he would sell the rights to Spiegel. On the set, James Donald “had decided that I was making an anti-British film” spreading discontent to others in the cast (with the result that Lean took an active dislike to the actor). But Lean was also sensitive to the more extreme elements in the book, noting “Boulle was having a great joke against the British when he wrote it” such that he felt Nicholson objecting to painting the bridge, as a coat of lime would be an RAF target, was pushing things that bit too far.

The folly of war analogy may be seen to lend itself too to broader themes; if we take the prison camp as the environment in which we all live, and the responses of those within it, be they wardens or prisoners, officers or men, collaborators or objectors, it becomes an illustration of how easy it is to blind oneself to the truth. Escape is impossible, we are told; we can even convince ourselves that actively working against our own best interests is a positive thing, losing perspective through conditioning and physical and mental distress.

It’s notable that, while Saitu is the nominal antagonist, the battle is between the two British imperial mindsets by the picture’s end (in the final analysis, Warden is trying to destroy the bridge Nicholson has built), and “He’s gone mad!” again. But Warden is the one who blows up the men on his own side. When Nicholson ponders whether being there – his life – made any difference, he reveals himself only able to apprehend in a very restricted way, a limited perspective Shears reviles. Lean commented that all the characters, save Clipton, are “victims of a great joke”.

Of the conclusion, Lean recalled there was “controversy raged up to the day of shooting it” over whether Nicholson should fall on the plunger, blow the bridge himself when he realised “the enormity of what he’d done” or the detonator should succumb to a stray shot “as if God blew it up”. While I like the essence of Nicholson realising his error (“What Have I done?”), and then being struck by the mortar, it does feel a little contrived that he should then stumble on the detonator, simply because he isn’t all that close to it.

Pauline Kael called the film “big and engrossing” but “rather misshapen, particularly the sections featuring William Holden, and the action that detonates the explosive finish isn’t quite clear”. The latter, per above, is obviously the intention (although, I think it’s clear enough; whether its wholly satisfying is another matter). Lindsay Anderson, later a director, wrote a rare contemporary dismissal in The New Statesman – one Lean never forgot – where he called it “a huge, expensive chocolate box of a war picture. Inside it is perhaps a better and ironic idea, but it takes more than the word ‘madness’ repeated three times at the end of the film to justify comparisons with All Quiet on the Western Front”. I mean, he’s right about the utterance, but all you can reply is that it fits in context. Overstatement, but appropriately so.

Peter Biskind classed The Bridge on the River Kwai among a new crop of ’50s war films that “content themselves with mildly questioning militarism or fell back on comfortable war-is-hell humanism” (he singled out Paths of Glory as doing a bit more). Time Out’s Phil Hardy regarded it as “A classic example of a film that fudges the issues it raises… the film’s success also marked the end of Lean as a director and the beginnings of American-financed ‘British’ films”. It’s a shame he didn’t elaborate. As for the end of Lean as director, there’s undoubtedly a view – one Kael held – that his transition to epic filmmaker was not a good thing; I tend to the position that it simply meant he needed material – and a cast – that fitted such scale, which wasn’t always so easy to come by.

The Bridge on the River Kwai went on to win seven of eight Oscar nominations, including Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay (its sole miss was Hayakawa for Supporting Actor; Red Buttons won for Sayonara). The screenplay was controversial, of course, as the winning Boulle had no involvement; Wilson and Foreman were both blacklisted at the time, and Boulle had already denied any contribution at BAFTAs; in 1985 Wilson and Foreman’s widows accepted Oscars posthumously (while Lean fiercely rebuked Foreman’s merit, Brownlow considers this position was unfair). Lean was the first Briton to win the Best Director Oscar; that he didn’t also earn the BAFTA was down to there being no such category at that time, but it took both Best Film and Best British Film, along with Actor and Screenplay.

In the aftermath, Lean was offered both Spartacus and Mutiny on the Bounty. And curiously, the Ben-Hurchariot race, with credit. It would be five years until his next film arrived, during which time Gandhi came and went (it would undoubtedly have been much more “epic” than Sir Dickie’s). His new appetite for scale would be topped with Lawrence of Arabia (Miles Mathis deduced Lean was related to TE; with such reasoning, Mathis would likely discover he was also related to Mountbatten). Thereafter, well, the vistas would never quite match the characters.

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