Let’s Talk About… ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957)

William Holden Centennial

Film #48 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Directed by David Lean

Starring: William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness

Synopsis

A unit of British soldiers led by Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) is marching through the thick jungle in Burma on their way to a Japanese prison camp. They have been captured by the enemy with the plan of building a bridge over the River Kwai that will connect Bangkok and Rangoon. The camp is run by Colonel Saito under a regime of strict discipline, unquestionable compliance and tortuous means of punishment. There is a already a large number of prisoners there, including an American Naval Commander called Shears (Holden). He happened to be separated from his men when their boat capsized and ended up in a mixed military unit made-up of mainly Australian and British soldiers, most of whom perished in the building of Saito’s camp. Shears is convinced that Nicholson and his men are all destined for the graveyard, especially since Nicholson seems to be very naïve when it comes to understanding how dangerous Saito can be.

Saito orders all men to work regardless of their rank whereas Nicholson believes in adhering to official rules, carrying a copy of the Geneva Convention on him and using it as evidence to make his point. Even after Nicholson is severely condemned over the course of one month, Nicholson maintains that officers are to only perform administrative duties rather than physical labour. Nicholson’s unwillingness to break forces Saito to resort to small concessions in order to release him and make progress on the bridge. As it stands without Nicholson at the helm, the British soldiers are non-compliant and advancing at an extremely slow rhythm. Their exchanges become a battle of wits and a question of which Colonel will give-in first.

In the meantime, Shears has managed to escape from the camp but is presumed drowned by the Japanese. He stays along the river for several days until, nearly dead, he is rescued by inhabitants of a nearby village. He makes a full recuperation and once again sets off in a boat, destination unknown. Several days once again go by and Shears is in bad shape in addition to being very ill. By chance, he is spotted by the British Coast Guard and brought to Mount Lavinia Military Hospital in Ceylan, where he is nursed back to health and given to the “ok” to return to the United States. Shortly before he is to leave, he is summoned by British Major Warden (Hawkins) who asks for Shears’ assistance in blowing up the bridge on the River Kwai. To do this, Shears must go back to the jungle and once again risk his life for the Allied effort.

The fates of these men – Nicholson, Saito, Shears & Warden – will be decided when it comes to a final showdown.

 

Background

The Bridge on the River Kwai was largely based on a French novel of the same name that was published in 1952 and authored by a man named Pierre Boulle. Whilst filming the picture Summertime, David Lean received a copy of the book and was immediately attracted to the story. A screenplay for the film version had already been prepared but Lean found it unsatisfactory, thereafter working with Michael Wilson to come up with another draft. Their version differed from the book, particularly in regard to the ending, but Boulle would later tell Lean that he liked the changes. Columbia Pictures agreed to distribute the film and paid Lean the standard rate, knowing that they could sign him at a more reasonable going rate than what he was used to getting due to his dire financial straits after divorcing third wife Ann Todd. Things were so bad off for him that he avoided travelling to the U.K. for fear of having to pay money to his ex-wife. This is the primary reason as to why Lean started doing international pictures after his last British film, 1952’s The Sound Barrier. It was more fiscally advantageous for him to remain abroad.

Unlike a great number of other films, Lean and Wilson did not have any particular actor in mind while preparing the script. Many prominent actors were considered for the role of Nicholson, including Ralph Richardson, Ronald Colman and Charles Laughton. Laughton was most interesting talent-wise but his obesity made it obvious that he could never convincingly play the part. Alec Guinness was eventually selected but it was he who was hesitant about being in the film. The role of Shears was deliberately made American by Lean and Wilson to make it more interesting. Cary Grant contacted Lean and Wilson to express his interest in playing Shears but he was almost immediately determined to be the wrong choice. Eventually, William Holden was signed for an unheard of fee* plus a percentage of the film’s profits which was quite rare at the time. Playing the Japanese Colonel Saito was Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, a 68-year-old former silent film star best known for portraying villains. His command of English was relatively poor so he learned his lines phonetically. Jack Hawkins, whose character is not introduced until about halfway through the film, would later appear in two other films on the AFI 100 list, Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. With the cast firmly set in place, the production was able to focus on the location and other details.

*Some sources give Holden’s slary as $300,000 while some other say it was groundbreaking $1 million, both figures including 10% of the total profits. Since Lean himself was paid $150,000, it is more likely that $300,000 is correct.

Filming took place near Ceylan in an area that was approximately 60 miles from the current capital, Colombo. The wooden bridge for which the film is named was constructed by men and elephants and according to some crew members was non-functional, designed only to have a nice appearance. (In reality, there were two bridges constructed – one made out of wood, the other made out of concrete and steel that still stands today.) Climate conditions were difficult due to the high humidity although temperatures were generally acceptable because most of the filming took place in the autumn and the winter, from August 1956 to May 1957. Most crew members were present during pre- and post-production, which made it so that they stayed in Ceylan for nearly a year. The fact that making the film was such a hands-on process, coupled with being in an isolated geographical area, made the experience linger on. Even back in the day, this was considered very lengthy, particularly compared to studio-based films that could be wrapped in as little as 6 weeks. The durations of the production and of the film itself are proof that The Bridge on the River Kwai is an exceptional breed of film and deservedly assumes its title of being an epic. Contemporary film directors like John Landis, Sydney Pollack, and Steven Spielberg argue that it is in the likes of something that modern and future audiences will never see again.

It could never be made today. Never. Not with the computer generation. Not with a generation that is used to things happening fast. It’s a true narrative movie.” – Sydney Pollack

Today, the bridge would made out of CGI and most of the shots would take place in a studio with green screens later being altered to include a jungle background. Actors and crew members would not have to endure the sweltering meteorological conditions, swarming insects, river leeches, dysentery, and so on. There is a story where cast and crew were doused in bird faeces during a scene where thousands of them fly out of the trees during an exchange of gunfire. The genre of epic films does live on but quality films, particularly those that try to stay as natural as possible, are scarce. The last great epic film that comes to my mind is Dances with Wolves. These productions are unique and are deserving of their praise. It is rare to be able to enjoy a story without looking at your watch or constantly being bombarded by action and/or images. In The Bridge on the River Kwai, “dead time” – meaning moments in a film where the storyline progresses but without dialogue and usually showing something ordinarily mundane – is often used but it so well incorporated that you only notice it afterwards, and probably only if you are doing an analysis.

 

Observations

There are numerous themes that are simultaneously present in The Bridge on the River Kwai that lead the story in different directions but which ultimately bind characters and events together. Three primary points that I will discuss are: Western vs. Japanese vision of war, character development, and historical accuracy.

We, the viewers, get a unique perspective of the relations between friend and foe in a very bold, blatant fashion. Though Colonel Nicholson and his men are taken captive as prisoners, they do not readily submit to Japanese authority. While the prisoners’ attitudes are not unprecedented, Colonel Nicholson’s actions are. He refuses to surrender his authority; moreover, he refuses to surrender his Western values and ideologies of order. Nicholson’s staunch imposition of Article 27 of the Geneva Convention infuriates Saito who responds: “Do not speak to me of rules! This is war!” With this reputation and own life on the line, Saito eventually gives-in to Nicholson’s point but this was in fact just the beginning of Nicholson’s near obsession with appearances. After he ‘wins’ the argument with Saito, he starts imposing his ways when it comes to building the bridge. In the end, it is Saito who is seemingly the underdog. His own men were unable to be as efficient and as clever as the British. This both baffles and depresses Saito who believes that a tactic of intimidation will function as well on the British as it does on the Japanese. Colonel Saito often says “it will be your fault!” in reference to possible (mass) causalities when the British do not comply because he thinks that their personal conscience will persuade them to make the noble choice – that of accepting defeat with humility. When Saito realises that what he has been taught from his family (in regard to their expectations) and from his own military, he becomes suicidal. By the end of the film, Nicolson appears to have become more powerful than Saito and one has the impression that the British and the Japanese cohabitate harmoniously.  The days of harsh punishments and torture seem light years away and there is no reference to the graveyard that was so prominently featured at the beginning of the film.

Nicholson: “Without law there is no civilisation.”

Shears: “That’s just my point. Here, there is no civilisation.”

The evolution of the two Colonels is not a simple tale of right and wrong. Nicholson’s patriotism is admirable but wanting to always come out on top makes him blind. While in the ‘oven’, he states that if he gives in to Saito’s demands, there will be no end to the enemy’s insistence. In reality, this becomes true of Nicholson and his fixation on proving British superiority to the Japanese. The evolution of Saito gradually heads towards showing a softer side with his iron hand losing its grip and sometimes even his spirit lightening up. He says to Nicholson at some point, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” joking around and offering the British men a day of rest as a reward. Saito proves to be more human than Nicholson, showing his private loneliness when he invites Nicholson to his cabin for Scottish whiskey and English corned beef. Ironically, Alec Guinness was unhappy with the sternness of his character and asked Lean if he could make him more personable, a suggestion to which the director fervently refused.

Major Warden and Commander Shears

Commander Shears lives an entirely different experience, always maintaining a sort of carefree outlook on life in order to help him cope with a very harsh reality. While he never loses his sense of humour, he does grow to understand the seriousness of his participation in the war. His attitude is at times misinterpreted by Major Warden who, like Nicholson, reminds him of British rules. When Warden is planning an attack on the bridge, he maintains being very precise and by-the-book in the procedure to which Shears exclaims: “How to live like a gentlemen, how to die by the rules… When the only important thing is to live like a human being.” Warden will come to learn many lessons on their trek through the jungle towards to bridge. Like Nicholson, he is solely focused on destroying the bridge and is so set in his plans that he fails to realise that problems could arise. Though Nicholson and Warden share qualities, they are bestowed different obligations and will ultimately suffer differing fates.

It is clear that the characters of Nicholson and Warden were used to compliment the British war effort. In reality, it is unlikely that an officer like Nicholson could have really existed in terms of being so adamant about making sure that international law was respected in a time of crisis. Chances are that he would have been outright killed, given-in after torture, or have died from prolonged punishment. The inclusion of the American was, as I mentioned before, purportedly David Lean’s idea but it is also entirely possible that he made this change to satisfy Columbia Pictures which was the American distributor.

Much has been made of the film’s historical inaccuracies. Some people are quick to point out that the prisoners would have appeared in a much worse physical state, being grotesquely thin from starvation and weak from beatings and arduous labour. While this is not wrong, it would have been nearly impossible for extras to be like this because it would have put their health at risk. If you look at a film like Schindler’s List, the imprisoned Jews were not reflective of the real-life victims of concentration camps, who were so emaciated that they looked like skeletons with a thin layer of skin covering their bones. In The Bridge on the River Kwai, there is a scene when Nicholson is finally released from the ‘oven’ and when he leaves this cage-like structure, you can readily see his rib cage. If only Guinness had to endure a modified diet in order to obtain this result, then that is really all that is needed to prove the point. There has also been dismay shown at the way the Japanese are presented. In the film, they are portrayed as being unsure of themselves, unorganised, and less educated than their British counterparts. I will not excuse these stereotypes but the way the Japanese are written falls in lines with the overall pro-British stance.

 

Golden Holden

William Holden’s career certainly had not slowed up any since his Oscar win for Stalag 17 in 1953 although he had not had a huge hit since 1954’s Sabrina. It is doubtful that Holden would have accepted the role in the hope of landing a blockbuster but he certainly knew the value of a film directed by David Lean. He was perhaps at his professional best on the set of The Bridge on the River Kwai, staying sober and arriving to the set on-time each day. He probably fell in love with the international filming locales and you can see on film that he really immersed himself into the role of Shears. This is some of the finest acting that he has displayed thus far and it could be that this film marks the pinnacle of his cinematic career. At 39-years-old, he still had his beyond good looks and flaunts an impressive physical form, not to mention his bare chest which was once again ordered to be shaved by the studio.

 

Final Thoughts

I am marvelled to have discovered this film for the first time and am grateful that I was familiar with David Lean’s early career before exploring his international one. Lean has a special ability that allows the viewer to feel as if they are listening in on conversations rather than just watching a screen. The camera seems to follow characters, providing a unique atmosphere of intimacy. I hope that The Bridge on the River Kwai will stay on the AFI 100 Greatest Films lists for many decades to come. And remember … it’s just fiction.

 

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