Since Off Colfax posted his encomium to Pump Up the Volume, I’ve been thinking about a similar post on A Bridge on the River Kwai, which I recently saw on DVD. If I ever saw it as a kid, the only lasting impression was of the prisoners marching in columns whistling Col. Bogey’s March (a famous tune most everyone knows even if not by name).
After I got over wondering why Obi-Wan Kenobi was a prisoner of war during WWII, it struck me what a wonderful film it is, full of well-developed character archetypes. The story isn’t especially engaging: British POWs in Japan build a railroad bridge only for it to be blown up on its inaugural crossing. But the way the characters exhibit their particular worldviews and how they interact are the soul of the film.
The Japanese POW camp commander uses force and intimidation to achieve his goals, which doesn’t really work out for him. Although he mentions the Japanese warrior code, Bushido, which is based on determination, honor, loyalty, and dedication, his approach to running the camp is really more fascist. It’s also convenient for the narrative that his staff is mostly incompetent, which ultimately puts the Japanese commander in a bind when he is unable to succeed at building the bridge using his preferred methods.
The British commander, played by Alec Guinness (more familiar to most of us as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars), exemplifies quintessential British reserve through his principled resistance to force and his impassive and bureaucratic professional management skills. His efficiency and success at building the bridge stand in stark contrast to his utter lack of savvy at the end of the film with respect to military stratagems.
Two other major characters provide contrast to the apparent battle of wills between the two commanders: an American POW (played by William Holden) and a British commando in charge of blowing up the bridge. The American, whose dishonorable behavior is particularly unflattering, is heavily reminiscent of absurd characters from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. The British commando (hard to believe such a thing existed), like the other British characters, is unflappable and ultimately unwavering in his dedication to duty. One particularly ironic scene occurs when the British commando compels the American to join the raid on the bridge. In most stories, springing such a well-laid trap would be milked for its drama, but the British officer is almost apologetic (though persistent) in responding to each of the American’s weaselly maneuvers.
The voice of reason through all of this is a British military physician, whose main function is to repeatedly call the entire charade into question as madness. It’s madness for the Japanese commander to mistreat POWs as a means of coercion. It’s madness for the British officers to suffer needlessly out of adherence to principle (The Geneva Conventions, interestingly). It’s madness for the British commander to consent to aiding the enemy by building the bridge. (British soldiers had lollygagged until the British officers were released from the sweatbox and set the men about building the bridge as a means of demonstrating British superiority, raising morale, and maintaining British military command structure.) And it’s madness that the British commandos blew up the bridge upon its completion. All in all, a very entertaining window into mid-20th-century warfare and military practice. The contrasts revealed between the characters and the stark irony of the ultimate destruction of the newly built bridge led me to the realization that the objects and practices of war do in fact add up to a strange sort of insanity, something not altogether different from what a circumspect review of our current wars would undoubtedly also reveal.