UK / 1957
Director: David Lean
Writers: Pierre Boulle and (uncredited) Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson based on Pierre Boulle’s novel
Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald
David Lean’s seven Oscar, four BAFTA-winning epic is, though superficially about the use of British POWs to build a railway bridge for their Japanese captors over the river Kwai in Burma, really about how individual characters face up to duress and circumstances outside their set of experience.
The film opens at a POW compound where cynical American Major Shears (William Holden) rests from grave-digging to watch the arrival of a new batch of British prisoners, led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), whistling the now-famous ‘Colonel Bogey’ march.
Greeted by the camp commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), they are told to start work on the railway bridge across the river Kwai. However, Nicholson points out that under the Geneva Convention, officers are not expected to undertake manual labour. His attitude sets up the conflict between him and Saito, resulting in Nicholson being confined to the ‘sweat box’ in the searing heat and, in the ensuing confusion, Shears manages to escape.
The film now follows the two men, cutting between Shears’ survival, arrival at an Allied hospital and reluctant recruitment by commando Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) to return as a guide for a small force to blow up the bridge and, more dramatically, the strange relationship between Saito and Nicholson. MO Major Clipton (James Donald), acting as a go-between (and hence the audience’s eyes) draws together the intransigence of Nicholson and the bushido beliefs of Saito and shows how much their beliefs coincide in terms of duty, honour and country. Nicholson agrees to take over the command of completing the bridge, believing it will not only boost morale but prove British superiority while Saito sees it not just as surrender but proof of his superiority. As Nicholson becomes more obsessed with building the perfect bridge, so Warden and Shears approach the bridge, bent on destruction…
The film, although set in the war, is almost violence-free, being solely about the battle of wills between Nicholson and Saito. Both Guinness and Hayakawa (the former an Oscar-winner, the latter nominated for his role) give superb performances of driven men but both with a human side. Shears’ character, in contrast, is of the chancer in war, the cynic who is only an officer because he stripped a dead comrade’s uniform for the POW privileges and has to be blackmailed back into the jungle to do his ‘duty’. By using such complex characters, Lean offers an almost unique look at conflict and duty, superbly shot by Oscar-winner Jack Hildyard with a deserved Oscar-winning screenplay from Boulle (and Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, uncredited at the time because of their Hollywood blacklisting but posthumously restored).