The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson
Directed by David Lean
Of all David Lean’s films, this remains my absolute favorite and rewatching it many years since the last viewing, I saw so much more than I ever have before. I think The Bridge on the River Kwai actually serves as a perfect allegory for the incoming Biden presidency and the unity message of Liberals towards Leftists and Progressives in America. While the film is set during World War II, we aren’t in the middle of the action. Instead, the narrative has two prominent locations: a Japanese POW camp and the Club Med-like hospital and Allied base of operations in Ceylon. We never see massive battleships or armed soldiers moving en masse across hills and fields. These are people broken by war, yet some are still unable to see the madness in their actions and cling to the procedures.
US Navy Lt. Com. Shears (William Holden) is a prisoner of war in a jungle camp run by the brutal Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Shears has found ways to charm the guards as he lives out the months contemplating how to go about an escape. One day, a trainload of British POWs arrive, under the command of Lt. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), and the new prisoners are informed by Saito they will be the construction crew for a bridge to help create a supply route for the Japanese across Southeast Asia.
Nicholson doesn’t object to his men being used as slave labor; instead, he cites the Geneva Convention (he has a pocket copy in his jacket) that officers cannot be used in manual labor. Saito knows he is so far from anyone who could enforce such rules he goes about attempting to break Nicholson. It doesn’t seem to work; in fact, Nicholson makes himself the foreman of the project and becomes obsessed with constructing the most remarkable bridge possible so that the great legacy of the British will be remembered for generations to come. Meanwhile, Shears manages to escape but gets roped into a secret operation to go back to the camp and blow up the bridge before supplies can reach the enemy.
The metaphor for American politics at the moment feels profoundly resonate in this movie. The story is essentially about a man (Nicholson) clinging to the idea of rules, procedure, and decorum while dealing with an enemy with no respect for that. The opposition is singularly minded of keeping hold of and expanding their power. They don’t care about fairness or doing what is proper, and in fact, they used Nicholson’s psychological dependency on those things to achieve their goals. They didn’t count on Nicholson being too good and too fervent on accomplishing the goals of his enemy.
Throughout the film, several characters look at Nicholson with complete shock when he focuses his energies on achieving his enemy’s goals. Nicholson believes he can win some imaginary moral victory by showing the British’s hard work and craftsmanship. Major Clipton, Nicholson’s own medical officer, is frequently confused by his superior’s decisions. Nicholson draws his first line in the sand to discourage his men from trying to escape. Saito tells stories of tiger and snake-infested jungles around them and how they don’t need to build a fence; nature will take care of them should they leave.
Nicholson’s second non-negotiable becomes his officers being kept exempt from the labor his enlisted men are forced to toil in. The colonel allows himself to be placed in a solitary confinement box and slowly starve and dehydrate simply because he won’t let his officers labor. What we see here is the dissolution of solidarity. Because the military has a class-structured hierarchy, there can never be real solidarity amongst soldiers. Instead, what we have is a top-down fear centered system. You obey because you have either been brainwashed during basic training or, if that didn’t take, there is the fear of reprisal.
By the end, the hierarchy of power is in question. Nicholson has done a better job of completing the bridge than Saito was. This leads to a great deal of turmoil in Saito as his honor-based culture judges him as a failure. We see him writing his suicide note, making sure he has his tantō, the traditional blade used in the ritual suicide seppuku. While Saito’s immediate goal of constructing the bridge has been completed, how it happened condemns him. He was not the great leader he imagined himself to be but was overshadowed by a man who all rights should have hindered the construction the entire time. Saito is framed as the villain in the film’s opening act, but by the end, it’s clear Nicholson is the real antagonist of the picture.
Nicholson is the American Liberal establishment, fixated on long-standing procedures and devoted to class hierarchies. He is also privileged enough to fixate on the concept of legacy, how will he be remembered. To us, Clifton, Shears, and even Saito, this is madness. Nicholson and his men are all prisoners in the same camps; they are all mortal and under the threat of death. But the British officer intends to work towards a goal without contemplating the long-term adverse effects of that goal.
Building a finely constructed bridge doesn’t exist in a vacuum in this instance; the bridge’s completion is a way to strengthen his enemies, but Nicholson is blind to that until the final scene of the movie. Shears and the team sneaking in to demolish the bridge are Leftists who comprehend the destructive material ramifications of the bridge. This helps connect the Japanese to the frontlines and, as a result, will allow them to kill even more. You have to blow that bridge up, and you have to keep demolishing the structures that are in place that allow for the hegemony of the privileged to continue inflicting pain on the vulnerable. So, no, Joe, we can’t have unity with these people.