The Bridge on the River Kwai: Honor, Duty, and Madness

The Bridge on the River Kwai: Honor, Duty and Madness – an Unforgettable Film even 62 Years Later…

In honor of the anniversary of the US theatrical release of The Bridge on the River Kwai on December 14, 1957, a mere 62 years ago today, I am reprinting an article that I wrote for Sony GetTV a few years ago about the film… This movie left such an indelible impression on me, I was compelled to write about it, and I’d like to share it with you now. If you haven’t seen the film, I strongly recommend it, but brace yourself for a powerful and quite unforgettable film. Here is my article in its entirety, with some images added for good measure…

The Bridge on the River Kwai, winner of 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Alec Guinness)

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I’ve been a classic movie fan for as long as I can remember.  Whether watching screwball comedies or romantic dramas with my mother, or learning all about The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, and W.C. Fields courtesy of my father, some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around enjoying these wonderful films. As time went on, it became second nature for me to watch these films over and over again. I sought out new classics to enjoy, but it was only on rare occasion when I would step out of my genre ‘comfort zone’ and purposely watch a war film.

That said, I distinctly remember the first time I watched The Bridge On The River Kwai. It just so happened to be on television one night as I was flipping through the channels, so I dutifully decided to watch it for no other reason than to simply cross if off the list of movies that I hadn’t seen yet. I was fully aware of the film’s reputation and accolades, so I was relatively sure that I’d appreciate it in some capacity – but I really wasn’t prepared at all for the impact it would have on me. It’s hard for me to put it into words except to say that I still think about the conflicts and implications of the film, and I was absolutely stunned by the unfolding of the final events. Perhaps The New York Times said it best in their original review of the film on December 19, 1957: “Brilliant is the word, and no other.”

Alec Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson

Directed by the now-legendary David LeanThe Bridge On The River Kwai is an epic WWII war film starring Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, and William Holden. The 1957 movie was adapted from the 1952 best-selling novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai by Pierre Boulle, which, although largely fictitious, was based on Boulle’s own war experiences. It also pulls historical context from the construction of the POW-built 1942-43 Burma-Siam railway.

The film is set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma (filmed in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka) where camp commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and newly-arrived prisoner, British officer Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), clash over Saito’s insistence that POW officers work as laborers to build a railway bridge. This begins an intense battle of wills that ultimately leads to an ironic outcome as Nicholson tasks himself and his men (officers included) with building the bridge – not only a bridge, but a ‘proper bridge’ – to raise morale and showcase British superiority to the Japanese. Meanwhile, American prisoner Commander Shears (William Holden) manages to escape the un-escapable camp, but is later coerced into joining a British-led commando team that must return to the camp and destroy the bridge. Now, I don’t want to spoil the ending of this exquisite and powerful film for you, so I’ll just say that the iconic last line of the movie captures it all: “Madness! Madness!”

Sessue Hayakawa as camp commandant Colonel Saito

So what is it that draws me to this film? Yes, it’s the masterful direction of David Lean. Yes, it’s the dynamic performances of the stellar cast. Yes, it’s the beautiful cinematography. Yes, it’s the scale and scope of it all. And, yes, it’s even more. But what really sets this film apart for me is the tremendous battle of wills that plays out between Saito and Nicholson. Each man is bound by a strict moral code of honor and duty that compels him to win at all costs. If Saito fails to complete the bridge on time, he is bound to perform ritual suicide; Nicholson would rather risk death than yield to Saito’s commands which violate wartime law. And, although Saito and Nicholson are stubbornly and diametrically opposed, they are essentially operating under the same code of honor. As the conflict evolves, honor and duty are again taken to extremes as Nicholson becomes obsessed with building the bridge as a testament to British ingenuity – seemingly oblivious to the fact that he will now be aiding the enemy, a potentially treasonous act. It is this dynamic that makes me wonder… Is it honor and duty that eventually drive these men to ‘madness’? Or is it honor and duty that help these men stay sane under extreme and extraordinary circumstances? How could I not thoroughly enjoy a movie that can immerse me in questions like these?

Hayakawa and Guinness are each magnificent in their roles. Although playing disciplined and unyielding officers, their performances are laced with nuances that allow us to understand and appreciate their characters’ mindsets, dilemmas, and subsequent choices, painting compelling portraits of honor and duty that are inherently and tragically flawed.

William Holden as Commander Shears

Box office draw William Holden plays the cynical but pragmatic Shears whose storyline adds an action/adventure aspect to the film and, more importantly, provides the ultimate conflict that propels us to the spectacularly ‘mad’ finale of the film. 

David Lean, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa on set of The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge On The River Kwai was the first of David Lean’s five epic films and the third of six movies that he made with Alec Guinness. It was released in the US on December 14, 1957, taking in a reported $17M+, which made it the highest-grossing film of 1957.  It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, wining seven — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Music, Scoring. It won Best Screenplay for author Pierre Boulle, although the actual screenwriters were Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson who unfortunately were blacklisted at the time; however, they were both awarded their Oscars posthumously in December 1984 and their screenwriting credits were restored by the WGA in 2000. Sessue Hayakawa received his only Academy Award nomination for this film (for Best Supporting Actor), but lost out to Red Buttons for Sayonara.  In 1997, the film was inducted into the National Film Registry by the US Library of Congress.

As much as I love this film, I am sure I am grossly understating its impact on film history and artistry. I will simply sum things up by, once again, quoting that New York Times review (and I couldn’t agree more): “Here is a film we guarantee you’ll not forget.”

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–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

PS: I would be remiss if I didn’t add this gif from the iconic ending scene…

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2 Responses to The Bridge on the River Kwai: Honor, Duty, and Madness

  1. M.T. Fisher says:

    So far, I’ve had one opportunity to see this on the big screen–and had to leave it the midst of it due to illness. Broke my heart.

    A truly brilliant film, but in a way, it ruined Lean, as he felt every film he made afterwards had to be an epic. RYAN’S DAUGHTER is an example. Too big.

  2. Javier Valverde says:

    Hi Annmarie,

    Amazing article about the Bridge on tht River Kwai. I wish I could’ve seen the rerelease for its 60th Anniversary two years ago. You’re right about the performances of Alec Giness and Sessue Hayakawa. They were amazing!

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