1 Year, 100 Movies: #36 The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

3 BridgeOntheRiverKwai_poster

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” takes place during WWII and the conflict in the Pacific, but at its heart is not a story about war. This film is about three men, their commitment to etiquette and protocol, even when these commitments become a kind of insanity.

Col. Nicholson (Alec Guiness) and the British soldiers march into the prison camp, whistling their battalion song. They lack proper clothing, but march in with pride, Shears (William Holden), an American prisoner already at the camp looks on shaking his head at the absurdity of the display. Nicholson quickly runs afoul of Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the camp’s commander. The two men are in a battle of wills over the issue of Nicholson working with his men on the bridge that is to span the nearby River Kwai. Nicholson insists on strict adherence to the Geneva Conventions, which states that officers cannot be forced to perform manual labor. Saito insists that he will anyway, and throws Nicholson and his officers into ‘The Oven’- a small metal box on the edge of camp. Shears attempts an escape with a few fellow prisoners and is the only one to make it out alive.

In the end, Nicholson’s will prevails and Saito allows Nicholson’s officers to work on the bridge in an administrative capacity. For awhile we are led to believe that Nicholson’s penchant for abiding rules may not be madness after all. Shears makes his way to a nearby village and finally finds a British military hospital where he recovers. The British command in the area have a plan to attack the proposed bridge over the Kwai and want Shears to join him, as he has inside knowledge. He tries to get out of the mission led by Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkins)-  (why would he want to go back?), but ends up agreeing in the end. As Warden is assembling his team, meanwhile Nicholson has taken over the bridge building operations. He believes that work can restore order to his battalion and give his men a sense of purpose, but he has it pointed out to him that they are building a bridge for the enemy- and might reconsider doing as good as a job as they are.

Warden, Shears and Lt. Joyce (Geoffrey Home) set out to destroy the bridge. After their tense journey we have come to look up to Shears- he will forego rules for the people around him- never mind the mission. Eventually they arrive at the bridge and plant the explosives, but (in a really great scene), Nicholson discovers them, and his fervor for the bridge causes him to turn on his own men and defy the will of the British military. At the end, after the bridge blows up, Nicholson just proclaims the word ‘madness’- whether the meaning behind it is the needless loss of life, or the pointless fervor that led to the destruction isn’t clear. I think the word covers it all.

In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns:

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