War films are often divided into two factions: those treating combat as a vulgar, bloody hell, and those which glamorize codes of honor and thrill to don fatigues. The Bridge on the River Kwai, currently running at Film Forum in vivid digital revival, initially seems to be of the latter camp, before startling us with a conclusion that shatters all hawkish pretenses.
Whistling British troops arrive at a Burmese POW camp, circa 1943. Like a gentleman, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) has voluntarily surrendered to Japanese captors. Despite his weary gaze and veil of stubble, Nicholson’s a diplomat. He carries the Geneva Convention in his khakis, and schedules warfare between cups of tea and cordial chats with the enemy. The camp is under the thumb of Colonel Saito (silent film legend Sessue Hayakawa), the bureaucrat curmudgeon aiming to break Nicholson’s will. Saito requires the captured brigade to build a bridge along the jungle river, supporting an Axis railroad spanning from Bangkok to Rangoon. If Saito fails, hari-kari awaits him. Yet his and Nicholson’s mutual contempt soon melts into a curious partnership. Nicholson negotiates the labor terms he wants for his boys, then sets out to give the enemy the best bridge they’ve ever had. His Major wonders aloud if working their hardest for Saito constitutes “treasonable activity”. Even in constructing that which aids his adversary, Guinness pridefully talks of future generations admiring his cavalry’s aptitude.
The phrase “Be happy in your work” echoes throughout the film, and it’s obsessive pride on-the-job that brings each of Kwai’s stubborn mules’ their downfall. Each craves to be of use: for this infantry-as-industry, introspection and idle hands are more fearsome than any possible combat. The Brits are soon wised up by their fellow jailbird General Shears (William Holden), a hard-boiled American dead set on escape. Nicholson is told by Shears that the camp is a place of no civilization: “Then we have the opportunity to introduce it,” he replies. From Guinness’ mirror image Hayakawa we see smoldering desperation, furrowing his brows and chewing his lips before each resigned concession he must make to his cadre. Burma itself, played here by Sri Lanka, proves a complex character as well, cloaking this queasy treaty between foes in a shroud of green flora that’s as sickly as it is plentiful. But damn, what a view: this print’s restored 2:55:1 aspect ratio showcases director David Lean’s prowess with a wide angle lens. Kwai proved a pivotal film for Lean, as he moved from small-scale fables like Hobson’s Choice and Summertime to the panoramic grandeur of Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. Each shot offers crisp depth of field worth relishing. In background and foreground alike we see Her Majesty’s pawns at work.
The brash Shears and increasingly batty Nicholson seem doomed for confrontation, but it’s Guinness who offers the more nuanced performance. Holden amuses, but lacks the balance of leading man bravado and pained humility he mustered in later films like Network and The Wild Bunch. While Shears and the motley crew he assembles to sabotage the bridge do break up the meditative pace of the POW scenes, we never fall in love with Holden as we’re supposed to. His American James Bond routine of bedding bouncy vixens and mixing martinis on the beach feels pasted in from another movie altogether. Yet Guinness and Hayakawa never break their tenacious grip on the material, and their pursuit of leverage proves as heated as the sweat that drenches them.
The film’s explosive climax, one of no winners and a barrage of demise, exemplifies war’s indifference to its mongers’ best intentions. It’s a tense bit of Shakespearean tragedy, set in a shallow river bed made to look massive. The hubris Guinness displays is the stuff of Xerxes and Dr. Frankenstein, and his overdue realization of what he’s become is a master class in bittersweet epiphany. Kwai’s conclusion proves as sardonic a message of peace as those of MASH, Full Metal Jacket, Catch-22, or any other modern military piss-take. Antiquated only in names and faces, Lean’s moral proves all too timely: the more detached we are from combat’s sacrifices, and cozier we become in a semi-permanent state of war, the greater the end cost of our united deception.