In a Japanese POW camp, prisoners are overworked and the death rate is extremely high. We first meet Shears (William Holden) as he’s digging a grave, by the time he’s finished he can’t even remember who he just buried. He has seen so many men arrive and die in this camp his spirit is nearly broken and he’s thinking about trying to escape. There are no fences or barbed wire to hold him back, but the armed guards and jungle have proven too much for all who have tried.
One day a troop of British soldiers come marching and whistling into the camp, still keeping their head up and back straight under their leader Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). At first, Nicholson seems stupidly defiant against his Japanese captors, insisting that they do things by certain codes and that he lead his men on their project; to build a bridge over the Kwai River. This lands Nicholson in “the oven,” a metal box that heats up in the sun, but once the Japanese realize how badly they need someone to lead the men efficiently, Nicholson is put in charge of building the bridge.
Nicholson turns what could be a laborious task and turns it into a moral exercise for his troops. He believes that doing something constructive with their time will help the men cope with their capture and keep them good soldiers. That all sounds perfectly fine, but soon Nicholson takes so much pride in the work he and his men put into the bridge, he believes it to be a testament to British foreign relations. He seems to forget that they are at war with their captors, that the bridge they are building could be seen as treason to his country.
Meanwhile, Shears (who is assumed dead by the whole camp) has narrowly escaped the and is part of a plan to blow up the bridge. This part of the story shows us jungles, cliff sides and beautiful waterfalls to bathe in. These beautiful shots are just a preview for the amazing things director David Lean is capable of showing. As the team journeys to take down the bridge, Nicholson is becoming more attached to his work. Up to the very end, tension is pulled tighter and everything comes down to one moment.
Alec Guinness is so convincing in his portrayal of Colonel Nicholas. He fiercely believes in his principals to near stubbornness and that sort of conviction is what rallies his troops behind him. When he agrees to build the bridge, and build it well, his ideas behind making solid structure he and his men could be proud of is compelling. He believes so much that what he was doing was right that I started to believe as well. And that’s what makes an Oscar winning performance.
One of the things most people remember about The Bridge on the River Kwai is the whistling melody. That played a big role in winning the award for best musical score. Believe me, you’ll recognize it once you hear it and will probably find yourself whistling along within the first fifteen minutes.
I do believe that The Bridge on the River Kwai is a fantastic film that everyone should see. It won a slew of awards including best picture and David Lean’s first win for best director. In the end though, 1957 gave us three amazing films. There is still one left that I’d like to consider at the top, by just a small margin. More tomorrow.
“As I’ve told you before, in a job like yours, even when it’s finished, there’s always one more thing to do.”