After settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.
The film deals with the situation of British prisoners of war during World War II who are ordered to build a bridge to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway. Their instinct is to sabotage the bridge but, under the leadership of Colonel Nicholson, they are persuaded that the bridge should be constructed as a symbol of British morale, spirit and dignity in adverse circumstances. At first, the prisoners admire Nicholson when he bravely endures torture rather than compromise his principles for the benefit of the Japanese commandant Saito. He is an honorable but arrogant man, who is slowly revealed to be a deluded obsessive. He convinces himself that the bridge is a monument to British character, but actually is a monument to himself, and his insistence on its construction becomes a subtle form of collaboration with the enemy. Unknown to him, the Allies have sent a mission into the jungle, led by Warden and an American, Shears, to blow up the bridge. Written by
(at around 37 minutes) The calendar on Colonel Saito's office is correct for February 1943. However the pinup on that calendar was not drawn until 1955 by Gil Elvgren entitled "Waiting for You". See more »
Reeves, if this were your bridge, how would you get it underway?
Get it underway, sir? Well, first of all, I wouldn't build it here.
Oh? Why not?
As I was trying to tell you a while ago, sir, the Japanese couldn't have picked a worse location. There's no bottom. You see those piles? They're sinking. Our chaps could drive those piles 'til doomsday and they wouldn't hold.
*Where* would you build it?
Why, further downstream, sir. Across those narrows. Then we'd have solid bedrock on both...
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Have no illusions, Nicholson is every bit the robot that Saito was. Notice, how each thinks the other is insane. What would you call a man who almost kills all his fellow officers standing up to Saito and then after conquering him, orders his men to do the very things that he, and all his officers, almost died fighting over? Insane, yes they both are. Saito lives by Bushido just as rigidly as Nicholson does by his code. The humor of the film comes from watching Nicholson agree to all the enemies' demands: officers work, sick work, extra shifts, etc. When one of the more bold subordinates dares to suggest to the fool that he is collaborating by building them a better bridge than they could have ever made themselves, watch the colonel have a baby. How dare he? Why, following the rulebook blindly can only lead to total victory. While Saito appears defeated, he quietly plans his revenge. There was a reason he wants Nicholson to stay behind. Notice, we see him writing his last wishes, preparing to commit seppuku. He intended to shoot Guiness on that bridge when he was prattling away like he was in summer camp. Notice Saito covertly reaching for his gun. It was only Nicholson seeing the wires that saved him momentarily.
When Shears escapes we see the same insanity on display. He has never parachuted before and their rulebook says well no use practicing. When Shears tries to joke with them it is taken as a great jest; imagine, with or without a parachute, jolly good show, pip, pip? Shears makes a great mistake not leaving Hawkins behind when he gets wounded for he ends up killing everybody in the group later, according to the book you know. Yes, as many reviewers, have said the theme is madness. It is deeper than that, Lean wants you to see two fools who have lost themselves so far into the rule book that human lives are destroyed because these nitwits cannot adapt their code to situational contingencies. Saito is going to kill himself because his code was violated. The core of Lean's film is a study of mindless martinets that are oblivious to all the suffering and havoc they cause by following their stupid codes. Nicholson ends up being the best soldier in the Japanese army building them a great bridge to bring supplies to kill his fellow soldiers with.
It is a special kind of insanity. Immersion within a role never to return to reality. I will not lie to you I am not a David Lean fan. This is the only film of his I own. If it says directed by David Lean, get ready to be bored. This film is no exception to the rule. It is still like lightning compared to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or PASSAGE TO COMA. Those two films are excruciatingly boring especially the latter. I had to take one star off for the boring drifting and rescue of Shears. I was so enthralled by which woman, at the English base, he was dating. Why is this extraneous crap in the film? Lean is infamous for putting scenes in you will yell: why do I give a crap about this? Get back to the movie. It still is his best film; it has much to teach about moron martinets oblivious that any code requires situational evaluation. Watch what happens when you just obey it blindly.
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