The Bridge on the River Kwai is unique as an artistic response to war in that it doesn’t focus on fighting in the trenches as a normal war movie would. Instead, the movie focuses on a few key characters and their interactions. In this sense, the movie shines light on some interesting complexities of war and allows the viewer to focus on them without being distracted by the harsh realities of warfare on the front lines.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a fiction film set in the early 1940s, during the middle of World War II, at a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp. The camp is run by General Saito, a cruel man, who forces prisoners to work in terrible conditions causing a number to die from being overworked. A British troop, led by Lt. Colonel Nicholson, is captured and led to the camp to be held as prisoners of war. When they arrive, General Saito informs Colonel Nicholson that manual labor on a bridge over the river Kwai will be required of all prisoners regardless of rank. Nicholson refuses as it violates rules set by the Geneva Convention. In retaliation to this refusal, Saito places Nicholson and his officers in a hotbox (a small isolated metal shed) and takes the rest of the troops to begin work on the bridge. After days of allowing Nicholson and his officers to suffer in the hotbox, Saito grows impatient and sends a solider in to explain to Nicholson that if the officers will not work then those in the sick ward will be sent to work in their place and would therefore surely die. Still, Nicholson’s refuses as a matter of policy. Meanwhile, the other troops purposefully delay progress on the bridge as to not aid the Japanese with their military operations.
Eventually, Saito brings Nicholson from the hotbox into his quarters and he informs Nicholson the the deadline for the bridge to be finished is nearing and that the bridge not being finished in time will surely result in his death. Therefore, Saito backs off of his original request that all officers work on the bridge and will now only require the lower officers to work on it. Again, Nicholson refuses and explains his decision as a matter of principle. Again after some time, Saito realizes that his only chance to finish the bridge on time will be to succumb to Nicholson’s request that no officer work. His hope is that the troops will gain morale from this and begin working more diligently under their newly freed officers.
Surprisingly, Nicholson returns to leading his troops and is appalled to find how almost no progress has been made on the bridge. Even after being tortured as he was, he thinks that the ultimate way to show a British soldier’s true abilities is to build a masterpiece even while being imprisoned. Therefore, he organizes the troops and begins to force them to work hard in order to build an immaculate bridge for the Japanese. At this point in the film, it is discovered that British Army has received intelligence that the Japanese are building a bridge to support military operations and that their plans are to destroy the bridge with dynamite. After some time, the immaculate bridge is constructed and British Army sends a team to destroy the bridge on the day that a train carrying Japanese officials will cross. The morning of the planned explosion Nicholson is inspecting the bridge one final time when he notices wires connecting to something under the bridge. Therefore, he and Saito, whom he seems to have befriended, go to inspect the discovery when Saito is stabbed in the back by a member of the team sent to destroy the bridge. At this point, Nicholson yells for help and a gunfight commences between the Japanese and British. Upon being told by the man who stabbed Saito that this is a British Army operation to destroy the bridge, Nicholson finally realizes his fault and is killed by crossfire. On his way to the ground after being killed, Nicholson lands on the plunger as the train passes causing the dynamite to explode (shown in the picture) and the film comes to an end.
The most interesting facet of the story, in my opinion, is the interaction between and character development of General Saito and Colonel Nicholson. In the beginning of the film, Saito is painted as a cruel and impatient leader of a prison camp and Nicholson is presented as a proud British military official. Both characters are shown to be too proud or stubborn to waiver from their principle in order to come to an agreement about officers doing manual labor. This trait is especially prevalent in Colonel Nicholson because he is the one who is imprisoned and is not in a position to be bargaining. Further, even when presented with the fact that if he and his officers wouldn’t work that soldiers in the sick ward would take their place and surely die, Nicholson still refuses Saito’s request. This was one of the most intriguing parts of the film. Is Nicholson any better than Saito if he is willing to let the sickly die simply on account of his pride? Just as Nicholson’s flaws begin to uncover themselves, so too do Saito’s. For instance, so little progress was made on the bridge and perhaps if Saito would give in and allow the officers to command the troops to build the bridge more work could get done. However, Saito too seems unable to accept this defeat as a matter of principle. Interestingly, Saito is the man who gives in first and allows the officers to simply command the troops while they build the bridge. It is at this point where, in my opinion, Saito’s and Nicholson’s roles reverse. Saito now faces death if the bridge is not finished by the deadline much like Nicholson faced in the hotbox. On the other side, Nicholson, once again too proud to recognize his flaws, works the troops as hard or harder than Saito in order to finish the bridge by the deadline because he believes that he must show the world the power of the British Army even while being imprisoned. At the end of the film, Nicholson is forced to stare his mistake in face the when he realizes that building the bridge and pushing his troops hard to finish on time was only aiding the enemy.
Another interesting topic in the film is its use of irony. The most prevalent use of irony in the film is Nicholson’s devotion to building an immaculate bridge once he is freed from the hotbox. Nicholson endured for days in the hotbox and sacrificed the lives of others in order for his officers to not manually labor on the bridge. Yet, once released he becomes so infatuated with the idea that the bridge must be representative of the power of the British Army that by the end of the film his officers did manual labor (forced by him) in order to finish by the deadline. Another example of the films use of irony is the bridge itself. After much pain, anguish, and death, the bridge is finally built and at the end of the film it is destroyed. Therefore, it seems that much of the pain and death caused by the bridge’s construction could have been avoided if not for the flaws within both Colonel Nicholson and General Saito. For example, had Nicholson given in an manually worked on the bridge he might not have felt the need to construct and immaculate bridge and instead he could have delayed its construction like his troops did before his release from the hotbox. However, it is the film’s use of irony that provides a unique perspective on war in that it allows the viewer to examine the psyche of the characters.
Finally, the film’s use of symbolism adds an intriguing layer to the story. The bridge in the film seems to symbolize the relationship between General Saito and Colonel Nicholson. The bridge is initially nonexistent. After Nicholson is freed however, the bridge begins to progress. At the same time the bridge is progressing, the relationship between Nicholson and Saito begins to build. Saito understands that Nicholson is perhaps saving him from death and Nicholson respects Saito for admitting his fault and releasing him from the hotbox. At the end of the film, an immaculate bridge has been built and it seems that the relationship between Nicholson and Saito is at its strongest. For example, Nicholson sees a suspicious wire under the bridge and both he and Saito go to examine it. It seems at this point that they are almost equals. Finally, as the bridge is destroyed so too is the relationship built throughout the film as both Nicholson and Saito are killed.
The film shows that war has many hidden intricacies. For example, in the face of death, both Nicholson and Saito are able to come to a mutual respect of one another. The story, although light on action, shows that sometimes war is more about the people than about the countries involved. Finally, the movie shows that at a basic level, all humans have flaws and that in times of war these flaws can cause a large amount of destruction.