Top 100 Movies Bridge on the River Kwai. First, who changed the name of this dang movie? Is this yet another Mandela Effect from our parallel universe intersection? I always thought that this movie was titled, “Bridge OVER the River Kwai”… bridges don’t “on” rivers. (Well, I guess, spoiler alert… this one eventually does “on the river Kwai”… but I digress. Anyway – here we are for our next edition of the top 100 movies of all time. The Bridge Over – I mean – ON – the River Kwai edition.
The movie is an epic entry in the world of cinematography. This movie is actually based on the real life story of the construction of the Burma Railway… but this movie is almost 100% fictional. The movie has Obi-Wan Kenobi (I mean, Sir Alec Guinness), William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, and a number of other amazing actors all brought together to make this fantastic movie. Not exactly sure what the movie is saying… or the overall point of it all, but maybe we can get into that at the end. But it is fact that this movie was, at one point, considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. It’s the film that made the most money in 1957 when it was released, and was heralded by critics and viewers alike. It won, like, seven or eight Academy Awards and it has obviously been inducted into the cinematic hall of fame by being preserved by the Library of Congress. It’s a dang good movie and you will not hear me dissing it at any point during this movie discussion.
Top 100 Movies of All Time Bridge on the River Kwai Overview
I believe that the Bridge on the River Kwai was the very first war movie I had ever watched. One of those movies that played on ABC’s channel 13. (Back when there were like 3 or 4 channels, 5, 11, 13 and channel U… are you guys remembering that? Anyway, this movie is a very early memory for me. One of those films that just has always been a part of my conscious thought. That and the whistling. Oh the whistling!) Let’s walk through this one, and see what we can learn from it. I enjoyed revisiting this one, and was surprised by the fact that even though it is a decidedly old movie, it still held up marvelously. Maybe that is because of the international or historical setting, I don’t know. Sure the editing was slower cuts, and a much lower key play, but overall I really enjoyed watching this movie all over again.
The movie opens in 1943, when a new batch of prisoners of war arrive in the Japanese WWII labor camp in Burma. At the opening setup of the movie, we learn quickly that an attempted escape from the prison camp is made virtually impossible because of the horrifically dense jungle that surrounds the camp. And when we meet Colonel Saito, the camp’s leader, the prisoners are told that everyone in the camp will work on the creation of a new railway bridge over … wait for it… the River Kwai. The bridge will allow for the connection between Bangkok and Rangoon. Requiring everyone in the camp to work on the bridge is actually a violation of Geneva conventions I believe. Apparently officers are given a pass on manual labor. But when Saito marches the men out to the bridge and threatens to shoot all the officers, Major Clipton informs Saito that there is no way he’ll get away with that as there are too many witnesses. So, as a result, he lets all the officers rot in the sun all day. He said no physical labor… feel free to just stand there. (I still remember, as a child, the men standing there and then randomly falling over in the heat. Definitely left an impression.) That evening, the officers are put in a hut for punishment, and Nicholson is locked in an iron box after getting beaten. Afterwards, Shears and another two men escape, but only Shears survives his run.
Now, let’s talk about this bridge. Apparently the plans are in disarray, the bridge progress is in shambles, and the prisoners are sabotaging whatever they can. Think this through… you need a country critical bridge… who should we contract with to get it built? I KNOW! All the captured military personnel. They are strong and clever. Let’s have them build our dangerously important bridge that we want to drive over on a very heavy train… carrying our nation’s really important materials. THIS IS A FANTASTIC IDEA! Worse, Saito, if he fails to get these guys to build his bridge, he’ll have to commit suicide. So, these guys are going to dig him out of this particular ditch, why?
Well, in order to CYA with the camp inmates, Saito releases the officers and removes them from their requirement to participate in the manual labor. When Nicholson goes and sees what kind of a half-assed job his men were doing on the bridge and he whips them into shape, ordering them to build Saito a super amazing bridge. It will be a tribute to the British Army and their cleverness. (We’ll SHOW THEM! The bridge will be AMAZa-ZING.) And surprisingly, Clipton says, uh, boss? Won’t that mean we are collaborators if we build them an AMAZa-ZING bridge? Which, in my mind, is a fantastic question.
Simultaneously, Shears, having broken free, is voluntold to join a commando mission in order to blow up the bridge soon after it is finished being built. The select team of commandos parachutes into Burma, and after numerous harrowing encounters, they make it to the bridge in order to place explosives on it. The team’s goal is to not only destroy the bridge, but also a train of dignitaries and soldiers. Then, as the morning comes, the train approaches, Nicholson, sees a wire and he – get this – tells Saito about it. And as the train gets closer and closer, they head down to the riverbank to check it out. Joyce, who was about to hit the detonator, abandons his post, and stabs Saito to death. Nicholson, begins screaming for help, and he tries to stop Joyce from making it to the detonator. In the melee and the chaos of Joyce dying, and Shears as well, Nicholson famously declares, “WHAT HAVE I DONE?!?” … along with theater-goers everywhere. Eventually, Nicholson is injured by a mortar, and he falls over on the detonator… blowing up the bridge, and the train, and the famous dignitaries and the works. And as it all ends, one character famously mumbles, “madness, madness!!” And we roll the credits.
The Magic That Is The Bridge On The River Kwai
It’s unexpected. A few months ago (a year ago? I’ve lost track of time in the Covid swamp) I watched Taxi Driver with a fairly fantastic Patreon member, and the thing we both loved about that particular movie was just how completely unexpected the ending was. And that same thing happens here with Kwai. The moral ambiguity of it all is really fantastic. The philosophical and ethical complications just bubble throughout this movie. Is Nicholson a traitor for wanting to build a glorious bridge, an edifice to tell the world of the British superiority? Or, if not for that, what about for wanting to save said bridge? It’s really messy.
Could it be that Nicholson’s desire to build the bridge morphed into a love for his own hard work and cleverness? And then that morphed into a really disassociated abstract thing that couldn’t see it from the lens of war, and the lens of sides, the lens of death and dismemberment? Or, was Nicholson the only right one out there to think beyond such constructs? It’s complicated.
Personally, I think Nicholson was mad – he was swayed by his Stockholm syndrome and caused him to identify with his captors. Worse, could it be that by identifying with his captors, he was being racist in his desire to show a “lesser people” how something complicated like building this bridge, should be done? Regardless, Nicholson was mad. Dissent to war, fine. But agreeing to go to war, and then building the enemy a bridge that would enable the enemy to move war materials, and empower them to win the war? There is really only one term for that, a traitor. Sure, they could have just built it, and been done. But to actively protect the bridge in the end? To risk one’s life in support of their enemies? definitely traitorous. He was consumed by the achievement of his team, and it caused him to lose sight of the bigger picture. But it pains me to say such terrible things about Obi-wan Kenobi. Just saying.
Edited by: CY
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