The Bridge on the River Kwai (Sam Spiegel; Columbia) will be called a tragedy; it is. It will be called a comedy; it is. It will be called a swell adventure story, a slickly calculated piece of commercial entertainment, an angry razz at the thing called war, a despairing salute to the men war makes, an ironic masterpiece; it is in some degree all of these things.
The story is set in the jungles of Thailand during World War II, where British prisoners, at forced labor, are building a railroad from Bangkok to Rangoon. At one prison camp along the way, the fanatical Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), is having trouble. The senior officer of a new consignment of prisoners, a prim old pukka sahib named
Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), refuses to let his officers do manual work. The Geneva Convention, he informs Saito, expressly forbids it. Saito smiles. He is a Japanese officer, and he will show the arrogant British who is master.
Saito gives the ultimatum: work or die. To his astonishment, Nicholson calmly chooses to die, and his officers with him. Saito is forced to spare them, a fearful loss of face. And so begins a contest of chivalriesBushido v. What England Expectsthat hilariously exposes the ridiculous in what men fight for, and subtly reveals the sublime.
The suspense this situation generates is impressive. Beaten, starved, baked in a sheet-iron ovenhow can the colonel possibly hold out? But he does. Backed by bayonets, stiffened by his codehow can Saito possibly give in? But he does. The British troops so successfully sabotage the bridge they are supposed to build that Saito is forced to ask the colonel's help, and to capitulate to his terms.
After such a climax, a letdown seems inevitable; but Scriptwriter Boulle has capped his climax with a splendid stroke of irony. Having risked his life for the principle that captured officers shall not do manual work, the colonel now decides that they shall. They shall do it, he announces, to the horror of his subordinates, because the British prisoners are not going to sabotage the bridge; they are going to build it; and in building it, they will not only "teach these Japanese a lesson," they will build the health and the morale of the entire battalion.
And so the colonel and his men set merrily to work, all unaware that in building their bridge, they are also constructing a hideous paradox. Even as the British prisoners, with proper pride, are drawing plans for their structure, a British Commando unit is hatching a plot to blow it up. As the bridge mounts, so does the suspense. For every timber that slides into place, the raiders (William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Geoffrey Home) make another march to their goal. As in some awful myth, as in all human history, creation and destruction keep inexorable step. They collide in a conclusion that will be for many almost a shattering experienceand yet a curiously exalting one as well.