By Richard von Busack
The first and last thing we see in 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is a flight of vultures. The epic, digitally restored and now playing Sept 10-16 at a long run at the Castro Theater in San Francisc, concerns the ultimate wages of so many soldiers. The idiocy of war has been revisited in more recent epics, both in the napalmed palm trees of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (which can be said to begin where Kwai ends). There’s also something in this David Lean epic that anticipates the reveries of Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line… particularly in the image in Kwai of a parting, with a pair of hands clasped and two arms stretched, as the force of a river separates a soldier and his lover.
What makes Bridge unique is the balance of its senses of mortality and of adventure. If Kwai is about “Madness…madness” in the same way the Coppola epic was about “the horror,” it offers a much deeper understanding of the psychology of officers…and how they go so infernally wrong.
The setting is Burma during World War II, in a POW camp on the River Kwai. A river crossing is the front line between two officers, both mortally flawed. “A busy pair of gravediggers,” judges the slightly elliptical moral center of the film, Major Shears, played by William Holden.
In command of the jungle camp is the Japanese Colonel Saito, a martinet, a man forced into the wrong position; he had meant to be an artist and was made by his family to join the army. Sessue Hayakawa, a renowned silent film star in a comeback role, brings subtle shadings to the part of Saito…as well he might; as a young man, Hayakawa himself attempted seppuku after failing his family’s desire that he should enter the Navy. While Saito surrounds himself with Japanoiseries—silk scrolls and a pot of orchids—he’s essentially unfit. He’s too cruel sometimes, too permissive other times. As luck would have it, he meets a counterpart just as wrongheaded as himself.
The famous “Colonel Bogey March” (the name of the tune came from its early association with golf courses) skirls through the hills as the new arrivals turn up in camp. They’re still in formation, shoeless but whistling. The mud-spattered regiment is led by its starchy Royal Army officer with a makeshift swagger stick; he’s respected by his men, despite his twenty-twenty tunnel vision.
Colonel Nicolson is as tricky and anti-heroic character as the studio era of cinema ever offered us. The part was turned down by a number of actors, including Olivier and Charles Laughton, because they couldn’t understand the role. It took the slyness of the undersized Alec Guinness to animate the part; only an essentially humorous actor could blend the two parallel qualities: first, the magnificent art of stubbornness; second, the destructive limits to having one’s own way. (Among other things, Bridge on the River Kwai is a film that ought to be seen by anyone in management.)
Nicolson and Saito argue over the question of whether officers should be doing hard labor on a key railway bridge across the nearby river. The Japanese try to torture the objection out of Nicolson through the sweat box, but eventually Nicolson makes his point.
Speaking of Bogey…it’s very clear that the role of the watcher to Saito and Nicolson’s strife, the American prisoner Major Shears, was written for Humphrey Bogart. Holden’s slouching handsomeness embodies a special way the vets of the time saw themselves. Here, as in Stalag 17, Holden honors the side of the citizen soldier who knew better than to volunteer, or to trust an officer, or to personally endanger himself if there was a good alternative. (Only film producers ever think there’s any shame in that kind of attitude, and Kwai’s instance that Shears is the moral center of the film is essential to its maturity.)
First seen hammering a bamboo cross into the head of a fresh grave, Shears has several very fishy stories of how a Navy man like himself ended up in the jungle. But he leads us away from the construction zone. Lean follows the story of Shears’ escape, his recuperation, and his later training as a commando. He’s ordered to return to the camp: Nicholson, in a jungle fever of duty, has decided to build a railway bridge to last the ages.
Jack Hildyard’s photography glorifies the rainforests of Sri Lanka, which sat in for Burma; the scenes of the white-water paradise of Kithulgala are especially emerald in this restored version, and you can see them for miles. Unfortunately, The Bridge on the River Kwai is probably about as historically accurate as a tiki bar. (The lamentable true story of the victims of “The Railway of Death” ends with an attack by the USS Pampanito, currently docked at Fisherman’s Wharf as a tourist attraction. That history is far sadder than anything in the film.)
The ordinary soldiers don’t have very memorable faces, except in a superbly staged sequence of the camp’s celebration night with a drag show music hall—the camera always at the right distance to take in the fun without emphasizing the grotesqueness. The scene of the prisoners frolicking in the water, shirking their work on the bridge, seems especially distracted.
That said, Kwai’s attitude toward war and heroism has an accuracy the 1990s wave of Greatest Generation cinema can’t touch by a mile. And it has the advantage of no CGI: it’s qualities as a spectacle are still flabbergasting. Take the bridge itself: 425 foot long, 50 feet above the water, built by half a thousand laborers and supervised by the late Keith Best, OBE, of the Sheffield engineering firm Husband and Company. (Ironically, Best had been a prisoner of war himself.) Beset by the false fire of pixels, you can sometimes forget how much drama an explosion can have.
As always, when revisiting a classic of half a century ago, one exclaims at how dark a movie this is, considering its great success: how ambiguous it is, how thoroughly death and folly triumph...and yet how engrossing it is, how mature, how exciting it is to watch, particularly on the big screen as it was meant to be seen. Lastly, one always hears that a big film has to be dumb, as in the case of Avatar: it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator to make its money back. One sees The Bridge on the River Kwai and wonders how much truth there is to that argument...and how much surrender.