It has recently come to my attention that, of all the movies I’ve seen in my lifetime, only nine are on AFI’s “100 Greatest Movies” list. In an effort to rectify that, I am making my way through the list one film at a time. As always, these reviews are purely subjective, and I reserve the right to retroactively change my rating whenever I want. (I don’t know why I’m telling you that.)

This week’s selection: The Bridge on the River Kwai.

As I get older, I’ve come to the realization that I really screwed the pooch when selecting a major in college. I majored in Spanish, a language that I rarely practice and can hardly understand anymore; meanwhile, I sit here writing blog posts in English and scouring LinkedIn for writing jobs for which my resume would indicate I am woefully unqualified.

I didn’t want to major in English because I figured it would be a waste of time; after all, I knew I was a strong writer, and I didn’t see the point in studying (and incurring the attendant student loan debt) a field that could be practiced and honed on its own. This is what happens when you’re forced to decide what your area of professional expertise will be before your 19th birthday.

Many people have advocated the practice taking a few years off between high school and college. That time can be filled with whatever you’d like: work, exploring the world, or pursuing your passions in some other fashion. When I graduated high school, I didn’t think such a path was a realistic option, and so I never really considered it. When you finish high school, you go directly to college, and that’s that. The idea of putting my education on hold seemed extremely risky; after a few years doing whatever I wanted, would I even want to go back to school? And did I really want to be the weird 21 year-old guy in a class full of 18 year-olds? Of course not.

High school ingrains in you a few behaviors, not least of which is the idea that in order to feel comfortable and secure, you should do your level best to avoid straying from the conventional path. And, since almost everyone in high school just wants to fit in, everyone ends up doing one of two things: graduating high school and going straight to college, or graduating high school and immediately entering the workforce. But with hindsight being 20/20 and knowing what I know now, I would rather have waited a few years to discover my true passions before attending college than jumping right in to the next stage of my life without a clear understanding of where I was going or how the decisions I made as a teenager would impact the rest of my life.

For example, I’ve discovered a passion for history and how past events have shaped the modern world, something I never would have considered when I was in high school. Maybe I wouldn’t have enjoyed majoring in History, but at least I would have made a more informed decision if I’d gone to college a little later in life. Which conveniently leads us right into the movie review. How about that?

Why I Hadn’t Seen It

I’d never seen The Bridge on the River Kwai because until recently, I didn’t really care for old war movies. Much like my appreciation for history, my interest in war movies wasn’t piqued until a few years ago. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I’m starting to gain a sentimental appreciation for movies that have to do with military service, since I never went through that myself. Or maybe it’s because war (or at least the cinematic depiction of war) is fucking sweet. I don’t really know why it took me so long to watch this movie, because — spoiler alert — it absolutely meets expectations.

Synopsis/My Thoughts

The movie opens with a bunch of shots of scenery and swelling orchestral music, which is the best way to start a movie. It quickly becomes apparent that the characters are in some sort of POW camp in the south Pacific, just as it becomes apparent that conditions in this camp are less than ideal. Our hero, a man named Shears (played by William Holden), is burying a body with that characteristic 1950s tongue-in-cheek wit. (Sample line: “Here lies…You know, Weaver, I’ve forgotten who we just buried.”) As the burial is completed, a column of whistling soldiers marches in perfect formation into the camp, headed by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness).

The soldiers are met by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who addresses them with what must have been the inspiration for the “gun line” speech in Life (“A word to you about escape. There is no barbed wire. No stockade. No watchtower. They are not necessary. We are an island in the jungle. Escape is impossible. You would die”). Saito explains what the men will be doing during their stay in the camp: building a bridge over the Kwai River (GET IT?) so that Japanese munitions trains can pass safely from point to point. Nicholson, with all his stiff-upper-lip British bravado, refuses to accept that his men are no longer soldiers and are captives, and he insists on treating the whole thing as a military exercise. The way Nicholson sees it, because they surrendered of their own accord, normal military rules apply; specifically, officers should not have to perform the same manual labor as their subordinates. And for his troubles, *boop* he gets popped into a human-sized oven for a couple of days, because Saito is not fucking around.

Then again, neither is Nicholson, who stubbornly stays in the box until Saito, wanting to save face, uses the anniversary of the Russo-Japanese war to declare amnesty and exempt the officers from manual labor. Nicholson is released to a hero’s welcome, and work can continue on the bridge.

A quick note, here: Nicholson is kind of a dick. First of all, he literally decides roasting in a human oven is preferable to rolling up his sleeves and doing some work on a bridge (while his men work on the goddamn thing anyway). Then, once he does agree to build the bridge, rather than trying to sabotage it like a REAL MAN would, he decides to build the best damned bridge this world has ever seen. His reasoning? “We should do the best job possible, regardless of the circumstances.” Maybe it’s a generational thing, because I’d be all about making the worst bridge ever.

As this is going on, Shears attempts an escape- he knows that he can’t survive much longer in the camp, and rather than wait out a slow but inevitable death, he decides to take his fate into his own hands. He attempts to escape with two other people, both of whom are shot for their troubles. Shears is shot as well, but manages to cliff-dive into a river, where he’s swept away to the safety of a Siamese village. After they patch him up, they put him on a cute little boat and send him on his way along with a traveling companion (more on him below), and he eventually makes it to an Allied base. (Of course, at the Allied base, they shoehorn a quick romantic interest into the plot, which mostly consists of a nurse fawning over Shears and Shears going “Sure, I’ll bang you.” Hollywood!)

Shears meets Major Warden (played by Jack Hawkins), the head of a group of Green Beret-types whose goal is to liberate the camp. Since he’s the only one to have ever escaped and was there for quite a long time, they want him to come along. At first, Shears resists- he doesn’t want to go back, and he doesn’t share the same interest in military valor as everyone else. And really, can you blame him? He was just in that camp for years, almost died trying to escape, and now they want him to go back. I’d say “fuck that” to them too. Anyway, he gets guilted into it and agrees to help out. (“Sorry nurse, can’t bang you. Gotta rescue some folks.”)

Back at the camp, Nicholson is getting all sorts of Stockholm Syndrome, since now he wants the classiest, best, most luxurious bridge and is working with Saito to achieve it. One could argue that he sees that Saito is an honorable man and a good commander and he wants to help, but over time, it becomes apparent that Nicholson is really just selfish enough that he really just wants credit for building this bridge and doesn’t care about Saito. Anyway, construction is going well, and with Nicholson’s help pushing the prisoners to work harder than even Saito would have asked them (seriously, the guy’s a dick), the bridge is completed on time. The next day, the inaugural train is scheduled to come through, and Nicholson stands on the bridge all proud of himself, waxing poetic about how illustrious his military career has been and how great he is for completing the bridge (I’m simplifying things a bit, but that’s the gist).

What Nicholson doesn’t know is that Shears and his gang are about to fuck that bridge’s shit up. They sneak through the jungle with Siamese women as guides and reach the bridge at nightfall, whereupon they set charges all around the base of the bridge. Their plan is to blow up the bridge right as the train passes over it, effectively killing two birds with one stone. Morning comes, and the train is right on schedule, but the water level of the bridge has dropped precipitously overnight, and now the charges are visible above the water line. Nicholson, strutting pompously over the work that “he” (read: everyone but him) did, notices and goes down to investigate. He sees the charges and follows the wires back to the detonator, and rather than being like “Oh cool, blow that shit up ALLIES 4EVA HAVE A GREAT SUMMER SAITO,” he’s all “HEY SOME PEOPLE WHO AREN’T ME WORKED REALLY HARD ON THIS I’MA KILL YOU!” to Joyce (one of the men in Shears’ group). Joyce stabs Saito to death, but he can’t bring himself to kill Nicholson. A big fight ensues- Shears jumps in and is shot for his troubles, and Nicholson comes to his senses when he recognizes Shears from the camp. Warden starts firing mortars in their direction, mortally wounding Nicholson; with one last effort, Nicholson falls on the detonator’s plunger, blowing up the bridge. The film ends with one of Nicholson’s confidantes looking at the destruction below and muttering “Madness…madness.”

Random Thoughts (as written while I watched the movie)

  • No way this ragtag group of soldiers can all whistle that high. (Listen to the song below.)
  • Aside from that whole oven thing, Saito seems like a fairly reasonable and decent guy. (Fun fact from IMDb: “Col. Saito was inspired by Maj. Risaburo Saito, who unlike the character portrayed in the film was said by some to be one of the most reasonable and humane of all of the Japanese officers, usually willing to negotiate with the POWs in return for their labor. Such was the respect between Saito and Lt. Col. Toosey (upon whom Col. Nicholson was based) that Toosey spoke up on Saito’s behalf at the war-crimes tribunal after the war, saving him from the gallows. Ten years after Toosey’s 1975 death, Saito made a pilgrimage to England to visit his grave.”)
  • Meanwhile, Colonel Nicholson spent most of the movie being a stubborn little rules chode and getting people in all sorts of trouble. Shameful.
    • “It’s insane to plan escapes.” SAYS THE GUY SITTING IN A HUMAN-SIZED TORTURE OVEN.
  • Hey Nicholson: Clipton’s coming to talk to you while you’re in the OVEN and you have like 3 minutes, and you want to waste time critiquing Saito’s leadership techniques? Don’t be an idiot.
  • 90% of the mess they’re in is because Alec Guinness just doesn’t want to do physical labor.
  • This movie is so much better than Amadeus.
  • Having never been in a war, I can’t say for sure, but I always assumed POW camps were WAY less civil than what I’m seeing here. Aside from the work and death and stuff, everybody seems pretty cordial.
  • I legit thought the vulture kite that shows up after Shears escapes was their props department’s attempt at creating a real vulture.
  • How did Saito get a calendar from Joey’s Garage in Elk City, OH? Who had that on them when they got captured?
  • I love that the one black guy is tasked with fan duty for the entire movie.
  • Why is Saito firing the engineer (that is, the one guy who knows how to actually build a bridge)? Are you sure that’s the best idea?
    • Saito’s like a bad manager at a construction job.
    • Also, do we need a bridge this tall? They’re literally building upwards like 40 feet, then going outwards. Just…focus less on the “up”part and more on the “out” part.
  • Nicholson post-oven looks like Eli from “Freaks & Geeks.”
  • This entire movie is about labor; specifically, the refusal of a couple people to perform it. (Nicholson.) Seems like a lot of this could be avoided by doing a little bridge work, man.
  • Saito clearly doesn’t care about the rules, so if he really wants this bridge done, he should probably just start killing people. Kind of on him that they’re in such a jam.
  • “Hey friendly natives, do you think you could set me off with, I don’t know, a radio or directions? Oh, just a lei? Cool, thanks.” –William Holden
    • Wait, what happened to his rowing buddy?
  • The rest of the prisoners totally gave up on their cheers supporting Nicholson after, like, day 1.
    • Also, exactly how long was he in there? Where did he poop?!
  • I love the celebration he gets for not having to sleep in an oven anymore.
  • So Nicholson gets out, and within 24 hours he’s started messing around with the structural integrity of the bridge and being a dick to a guy with a facial spasm. Real glad you’re back, guy.
    • “Western methods and efficiency” lol
    • “No no, trust me, these dudes need to work or they get super bored. Let’s build this bridge.” -Nicholson, ignoring the very real threat of death by overwork.
  • “For which I was not to blame.” -Nicholson, being a dick again.
  • SHEARS FOR REAL LEFT AN ENTIRE POW CAMP AND DIDN’T SEND HELP?! WHO IS THE PROTAGONIST, HERE?! Is it Saito? Because he seems like the most cool person in the whole thing.

Final Thoughts

This movie is fantastic. The acting is top-notch across the board, and even a character as thoroughly unlikable as Nicholson finds redemption by the final frame. The writing is perfectly-paced with hardly any wasted or filler scenes, and even though some of the effects were dated, I was immersed in the film throughout.

Overall Grade: A

Is It A Classic?