Note: This is #34 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
Of all the wartime movies I’ve seen so far in this experiment, I think The Bridge On the River Kwai comes in pretty high on the list, if not at the top. It’s got some great characters, some psychological heft, some moral quandaries, and explosions. In addition to all that, it’s got one of the most tense and riveting climax scenes that I’ve seen in a long time –I was literally leaning towards my TV with my hands balled up in my lap until it was over.
The story, based on a novel of the same name, follows characters that all start off as prisoners in the same Taiwanese labor camp during World War II, but which soon branch off. The first group is a large group of British soldiers whose leader Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Alec Guinness and for some reason constantly referred to as “Colonel Nicholson”) sees it as their duty to help the camp’s Japanese commander build a bridge over the River Kwai. This has the troublesome effect of allowing the Japanese railroad to traverse the bridge and thus aid the enemy’s war effort, but Nicholson’s warped sense of duty compels him to lead his men in giving their utmost effort anyway.
The story’s second group of characters starts with U.S. Navy Commander Shears (played by William Holden), who escapes the labor camp only to be forced into a small commando unit whose mission is to return to the newly constructed bridge and blow it up real good. Accompanying him are Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) from the British Special Forces and a wet behind the ears Canadian Lieutenant.
What I liked about this movie was the tension and relationship that developed between the British Colonel Nicholson and the Japanese camp commander and how Nicholson gets it into his head that it’s actually his duty to help the Japanese. There’s some great contortion of morals and ideals going on there, and it’s interesting to see the viewpoints of all three groups ironically juxtaposed. The movie does a great job of capturing and communicating this kind of dramatic tension that the audience can see clearly even if none of the individual characters can until the final seconds of the film.