The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai

A brutal tale that, ironically, sent thousands of moviegoers on their way whistling a happy tune.


Everett CollectionWilliam Holden, Jack Hawkins, Geoffrey Horne, 1957.

A brutal tale that, ironically, sent thousands of moviegoers on their way whistling a happy tune.

One of the dubious habits a reviewer can fall into is that of tearing hell out of a picture which thoroughly entertained him while he was watching it. This is mean-spirited but not as hypocritical as it may seem. A good movie team can teach mass psychology to an Indian fakir, and the reviewer is not much less gullible than the rest of the audience. Unlike the rest of the audience, however, he has to think about the show after he has gone home. That’s when he may discover that he has been led a merry chase and, red with indignation, begin to pound his typewriter. I don’t see how this can be avoided, but I resolve that hereafter when a picture has amused or excited me I shall say so before carving it up.

The Bridge on the River Kwai amused and excited me. Its enormous jungle setting, its spectacular feats, its deadpan heroism offer irresistible and, I should think, almost universal entertainment. And yet, on second thought, it is a very odd story.

Take, for a start, the personality of the villain. The Japanese commandant of a prison camp deep in Burma (Sessue Hayakawa) is described by the older inhabitants as a sadistic and homicidal brute, and they can point to a considerable graveyard to back their opinion. Yet when Major Alec Guinness shows up and decides to make a stand on the letter of the Hague Convention the terrible Hayakawa turns as sheepish as a high school valedictorian. I got a kick out of watching Guinness sass the beast of Burma, but it strikes me now as a good deal less than plausible.

Then there is the bridge itself. The Japanese are using prisoners to construct it and the men sabotage the job, as they certainly should. But Major Guinness feels that gold-bricking is bad for morale and, once he has beaten the commandant on the principle that British officers cannot be ordered to perform manual labor, he organizes his expert staff and throws up an elegant twin-cantilever span in record time. Only the battalion medical officer asks whether the major’s enthusiasm for discipline is leading him into uncomfortable collaboration with the enemy, and he is cut down by the famous Guinness sniff. Even when the cripples are bullied out of hospital to make the job go faster, no one notices that poor old Guinness has slipped his pulley, and when the job is finished officers and men celebrate with an evening of jollification. It’s a rum business.

Meanwhile, three saboteurs led by Jack Hawkins are beating their way through leach-infested swamps toward that fancy piece of engineering on the Kwai. This intrepid trio is supported by a baggage train of a dozen or so Burmese maidens recruited in a remote jungle village. Not knowing Burma, I was astonished by the delicate beauty of these girl porters. Not only are they lovely of face and figure but they wear a uniform of well-cut sarong and lampshade bonnet with Parisian dash and contempt for the cosmetic hazards of a tropical rain forest. Having been for some time deprived of male company by the Japanese manpower draft, they are soon on excellent terms with their employers. The lingering, yearning caresses with which they apply camouflage grease-paint to their heroes’ flanks is a tropical daydream of very high voltage. It takes good men to fight under these conditions and my hat is off to Hawkins’ commandos. Also to David Lean, a director who serves the very best hokum.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy