“Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” –Francois Truffaut
He’s right. War movies force you to root for one side or another. There’s a good side and a bad side. And the movies make it seem like all the sacrifice to help the good side win might be worthwhile.
How the heck do you make a war movie that doesn’t lead the audience to root for one country over another?
British director David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago”) solved the puzzle! “Bridge Over the River Kwai” is an entertaining anti-war film in which there are no good guys and no one to root for. It’s an extraordinary story-telling achievement.
Alec Guinness is mesmerizing as Colonel Nicholson. It is Burma, 1943, and Nicholson’s regiment has surrendered to the Japanese. The British POWs are now stuck building a railroad bridge for cruel Colonel Saito.
When the Brits arrive, Saito demands that every single prisoner must work on the railroad under Japanese supervision. Colonel Nicholson disagrees. He calmly informs Saito that the Geneva Convention prohibits imprisoned officers from performing manual labor. Nicholson serenely states that the British officers will manage the project while the enlisted men build the bridge.
Colonel Saito has Colonel Nicholson beaten and all of the British officers are locked in small metal cages that get tortuously hot in the tropical sun.
After weeks of suffering, he gives in to all the demands … Colonel Saito, that is.
Angry young people say “fight the power.” Col. Nicholson has a completely different attitude. In his mind, even when he is being tortured, he IS the power. He believes that if you have the will, the resolve, and other people’s respect, eventually you will be in control. And that’s exactly how it turns out.
And what does Col. Nicholson do with his hard-earned power over the prison labor camp? He has his men build the best darn bridge that they can!
Alec Guinness’s Nicholson is an enigmatic anti-hero.
Nicholson is everything great and frightening about a military commander. He is as brave, tough, and principled as they come. But he doesn’t have any respect for life or empathy for suffering.
Nicholson is a timeless warrior like General Patton. Except Patton was fighting to liberate Europe. Nicholson is fighting a trade war against a colonial foe to decide who gets to economically exploit Burma for the next few decades.
While most war movies are too humorless and solemn, “Bridge Over the River Kwai” gets deliciously irreverent in the final act.
British Commando Major Warden leads a dangerous mission through the thick Burmese jungle. His goal is to blow up the bridge on the first day that it is operational.
These two plots lead us masterfully into the dramatic but absurd finale. We are totally emotionally invested but we have nothing to root for. Two British officers have single-mindedly sacrificed themselves and their men: one to build a bridge and the other to destroy it.
“Bridge Over the River Kwai” is the high-water mark of mainstream cinema. It was #1 at the box office that year. It won the Oscar for Best Picture. It was a grand spectacle but didn’t skimp on characterization.
And it is the most pure anti-war film. Every war movie exposes the suffering of conflict. Only this one exposes the pointlessness and meaninglessness.