The piercing whistle of the now famous ‘Colonel Bogey March’ breaks out of the isolated, World War II Japanese POW camp — soaring above the imprisonment and forced labor. It’s the sonic embodiment of an ideal, a hope; it’s the humanity that is often forgotten in wartime. In that same way, The Bridge on the River Kwai transcends a genre that has become more about guerilla-style filming and politics. As the captured British regiment is forced to build a bridge for the Japanese, the film holds strong to its ideal of showing both sides of the conflict coin.
The moral and ethical questions of war are filtered through three men — the headstrong British officer, the Japanese officer bound by honor and duty and the American navy man looking for a way home. While today’s war films have a keen eye for sentiment and brutal bombastic fire fights, the majority of the action in The Bridge on the River Kwai comes from the British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and Japanese Colonel Saito, while U.S. Commander Shears (William Holden) toils in the push and pull of his duty and desires. Granted, for most of the first half of the film Col. Nicholson sits in a solitary sweat box for not ordering his officers to work on the bridge. This is a battle of wills between the colonels, not a battle of physical strength. Col. Nicholson risks death of himself, his officers, and his sick and wounded by championing principles over practicality. Compared to the likes of Saving Private Ryan, which weighs its sacrifices against the life of another person, The Bridge on the River Kwai presents the idea that our ethical and moral choices make us human — holding those choices above any given man’s life.
As Colonels Nicholson and Saito face off, biding their time before one man’s principles crumble, the American Commander Shears wrestles with his internal demons of desiring his freedom, while bound to his duty. Though Shears’ duty is imposed on him, offering him little choice, he begins to understand how his zest for life plays a role in his decisions as a soldier. He doesn’t sacrifice others for the sake of a cause, but he does come to sacrifice himself. When the three meet on the Kwai’s dried-up river bed at the film’s climax, the largest explosion isn’t that of the bridge. It’s the collision of the trio’s values — Shears accepting his duty, the demise of Nicholson’s values, and the insignificance of Saito for giving up on his own principles for fear of death.
Although British director David Lean (relatively unknown outside of England prior to the film’s 1959 release) seamlessly weaves together three story lines and boils the subtext up to the surface, giving the film more than melodrama, The Bridge on the River Kwai would become the beginning of Lean’s longwinded storytelling (which would be solidified by Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago). It’s not that there is useless information in the film; it’s that there’s just too much. Shears’ passion for women, for example, is largely unneeded. By the time the innuendoes roll around, we already know of Shears’ lighthearted, even whimsical, demeanor. Though it only detracts from the film by adding onto the run time, in today’s faster-than-light pacing and action, an important film can be brushed off as ‘too long.’ But it would be madness to miss the thoughtful and compelling The Bridge on the River Kwai. Its belief in humanity is as fresh and as devastating as it was nearly 50 years ago.