The 1950s means different things to different people, but it seems to suggest a time of conformity, shared values, and stability, a time when people could speak confidently of the American character. It was during this decade that consensus history was in vogue. Needless to say, those days, if they ever really existed, are long gone.
I say this because The Bridge on the River Kwai seems to be based on ideas of what it means to be an American as opposed to being British, ideas that may have been valid when this movie was made, but might readily be called into question today. Whether this movie expresses the ideology I suggest is one thing; whether it represented a realistic difference between American and British attitudes is another thing; and whether any of this is still relevant sixty-five years later is still one more thing.
In an opening scene of this movie, we see crosses marking graves alongside some railroad tracks, giving us a sense of the price paid by Allied prisoners of war, forced by the Japanese to work on a railroad in Burma during World War II. Then we see the men that are working on that railroad. They appear to be poorly nourished, yet forced to do hard labor, barely able to swing the hammers that drive spikes into the ties that hold the rails together.
The scene shifts to William Holden, who plays US Navy Commander Shears. Along with an Australian soldier, Corporal Weaver, he is just finishing burying a soldier that recently died of beriberi. Unlike the frail prisoners of war we just saw, Shears looks to be in good physical shape. At first, we might suppose that this is just one of those things we are supposed to overlook in a movie. There have been actors who gained weight for a role, but I don’t think any actor ever starved himself so as to look malnourished. On the other hand, we soon find out that Shears routinely steals stuff from the soldiers he is assigned to bury so that he can bribe the Japanese captain, with whom he has become friendly. This allows him and Weaver to get admitted to the hospital, where they do not have to exert themselves. After the Japanese guard leaves, Shears makes some sarcastic remarks over the grave they just dug, saying the man died for “the greater glory of…. What did he die for?”
Well, this is certainly no John Wayne movie. I mean, John Wayne would have been too old for this part anyway, but that aside, it would have been unthinkable for him to express that kind of antiwar cynicism. In fact, it would be unthinkable for him to be a prisoner of war in any event, because that would mean he would have had to surrender. John Wayne might get killed in a movie, but never surrender. Holden, on the other hand, is suited to this role. He was similarly cynical in Stalag 17 (1953), where he was a German prisoner of war, dealing in various schemes to make his life comfortable, often wagering that his fellow prisoners will get killed trying to escape. That proved to be short-sighted, to say the least, since he incurred the wrath of his fellow Americans, getting himself beaten up as a result. In this movie, his egoism is more enlightened.
The contrast with John Wayne movies raises the question as to whether cynicism was thought to be an American trait in the 1950s, since John Wayne could often be heard mouthing a lot of sentimental stuff in his war movies. I have read that during World War I, the doughboys sang songs; during World War II, the American GIs made wisecracks. So, if it was an American trait back then, it might have been a recent one. In any event, Shears is the only American in this movie, and he is the only one who is cynical as well.
We might wonder how a man with the attitude of Shears ever became an officer, but we later find out that he is really an enlisted man. He was on the USS Houston, which was sunk early in the war, but he and an officer became separated from the rest of the crew. The officer ended up getting killed, so Shears helped himself to the fellow’s uniform, figuring that as an officer, he would receive better treatment at the hands of the Japanese, and not be expected to do any manual labor. This brings out another character trait of his, which is his contempt for the distinction between officers and enlisted men. This is not unexpected coming from an American, steeped in the idea that all men are created equal. The distinction between officers and enlisted men, as far as Americans are concerned, is artificial, a fiction necessitated by the needs of war.
As he and Weaver make their way to the hospital, a battalion of British soldiers is arriving, led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness). They are whistling the “Colonel Bogey March,” which is indicative of a camaraderie among the British soldiers, their esprit de corps. We cannot imagine Shears participating in such whistling, or singing a song with other soldiers. The fact that he is the only American in the camp emphasizes his individualism, another trait Americans were known for, as opposed to the British soldiers and their sense of the collective.
Colonel Saito, the commanding officer of the camp, asserts that the British officers will help build a bridge over the River Kwai, right alongside the enlisted men, something Shears found out to his chagrin, his scheme to avoid such work by pretending to be an officer having been in vain. Nicholson, however, takes the distinction between officers and enlisted men as having profound significance, which is not surprising, considering that England is a country where class distinctions are fundamental, where being a duke, baron, lord, etc. is a matter of birth. When Saito insists that the British officers also do manual labor, Nicholson refuses to allow his officers to comply, willing to endure being beaten and tortured rather than yield on this matter. He prevails in the end because Saito is behind schedule in getting the title bridge built, and he needs Nicholson’s cooperation.
Not surprisingly, we find out that Colonel Nicholson was ordered to surrender by his superiors. Otherwise, we can easily imagine that a man of his sort would have preferred to fight to the end. Shears refers to him as having the kind of guts British officers had in 1914, when they went “over the top with nothing but a swagger stick,” the kind of guts, he says, that “can get us all killed.” Shears, we have no doubt, had he been in Nicholson’s position, would have preferred surrendering to being killed. However, the conditions in the camp are so harsh that Shears and Weaver have been planning an escape. Nicholson, however, figures that his orders to surrender require that neither he nor any of his men make such an attempt. He believes that one must obey the law, or else there is no civilization. Shears says there is no civilization in the jungle, so the law is irrelevant. In short, Shears regards the law as having value only as long as it is useful; Nicholson sees the law as transcending mere practical considerations.
But then, halfway through the movie, everything goes into reverse, and the difference between American and British attitudes begins to collapse when it comes to the distinction between officers and enlisted men. Shears escapes from the camp and winds up in a British hospital, where he pushes his luck by continuing to pretend that he is an officer in order to get better treatment. Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), a British officer, finds out about this and coerces Shears into agreeing to go back into the jungle with him so they can sabotage the bridge, which will allow Shears to avoid being prosecuted for impersonating an officer. Since two other officers will be going along, including a Lieutenant Joyce, Warden says he will give Shears a “simulated rank of major” for the purpose of the mission, so that the rigid distinction between officers and enlisted men will not have to be observed.
Meanwhile, back in the jungle, Nicholson is anxious to get the bridge built, and to build it as an example of British engineering excellence. The other officers are in favor of surreptitiously delaying the building of the bridge and making sure that it is inferior, so as to minimize their assistance to the enemy; but Nicholson thinks that building a bridge that will redound to British glory for hundreds of years is more important than its effect on the war, dismissing the suggestion that what he is doing could be construed as collaboration with the enemy, even treason. Furthermore, when he realizes that they are behind schedule, he violates the very code he fought for, and gets the officers to work alongside the enlisted men. He even asks men in the camp hospital to get out of their beds and pitch in, men so sick that not even Colonel Saito would have ordered them to work.
Shears is a womanizer. The main reason he continued to pretend to be an officer when he got to the British hospital was so that he would be able to fool around with the nurses, who are officers themselves and off limits to enlisted men. We even see one of those nurses doing the walk of shame one morning, after leaving his room. Then, when he joins Warden and the others in the trip back through the jungle to the prisoner-of-war camp, he seems to be making progress with one of the Asian female bearers that have come along. I don’t know if he got himself some of that on the way, but had he survived, it is certain he would have gotten some on the way back.
Meanwhile, the British soldiers decide to celebrate the completion of the bridge by putting on a show. The first part of the show consists of men dressed up like women, singing and dancing like the Rockets. Then, Grogan (Percy Herbert), who is a big man, is dressed like a woman. He sings a duet with a small man, the only one who in the show who is dressed like a man, at the end of which, Grogan picks him up in his arms and carries him off the stage. After the show is over, it is time for Colonel Nicholson to make a speech. Apparently, Grogan was in no hurry to get out of his short skirt and crop top, since we see him in the audience, still dressed up like a girl, while Nicholson is speaking.
Needless to say, there is no way Shears would have participated in a show like that. And if I may be permitted to bring up John Wayne again, we can’t imagine him in drag either.
Another trait thought to be characteristic of Americans back when this movie was made was their reluctance to get involved in foreign conflicts. It was the basis for American isolationism, which is as old as George Washington’s farewell address, warning of entanglements in European affairs, and John Quincy Adam’s speech saying America does not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Shears represents this attitude at the level of the individual. He knew he would eventually get caught impersonating an officer, and his plan was to apply for a medical discharge, saying, “I impersonated an officer because I went off my rocker in the jungle.” We may easily infer from this that Shears would have avoided the whole war by dodging the draft, had he been able to do so. Failing that, he probably joined the Navy to avoid ending up in the Army as cannon fodder. But his plan didn’t work, and he wound up being blackmailed into a commando mission to destroy the bridge.
During an incident where they come across some Japanese soldiers, Warden gets shot in the foot. He tries to press on, but he eventually gives up and tells the rest of them to go on without him. Joyce says they may not be able to come back that way after the mission is over, to which Warden replies, “If you were in my shoes, you know I wouldn’t hesitate to leave you here.” This leads to the following exchange:
Shears: He doesn’t know it, but I do. You’d leave your own mother here if the rules called for it.
Warden: You’ll go on without me. That’s an order. You’re in command, Shears.
Shears: I won’t obey that order. You make me sick with your heroics. There’s a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and [suicide] pills go well together. With you, it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This war is just a game. You and that Colonel Nicholson are two of a kind. Crazy with courage! For what? How to die like a gentleman. How to die by the rules. The only important thing is how to live like a human being! I’m not gonna leave you here to die, Warden, because I don’t care about your bridge and your rules. If we go on, we go on together.
And so, in spite of himself, Shears ends up being the commanding officer in charge of the mission, risking his life trying to destroy a bridge he cares nothing about, in a war he cares nothing about.
Shears and Joyce manage to attach explosives to the bridge, and then set up a plunger at a distance for Joyce to use when an expected train with Japanese dignitaries will be crossing that bridge. But in the morning, the river has gone down, and Nicholson spots the wire. Suspecting sabotage, he gets Saito to help him find where the wire leads. It was one thing for Nicholson to build the bridge, telling himself that it was good for his men to have work to do, but trying to prevent that bridge from being destroyed is undeniably collaboration with the enemy. Even after Joyce uses his knife to kill Saito, and tells Nicholson he is operating under British orders to destroy the bridge, Nicholson restrains him, calling for help from the Japanese soldiers on the bridge. A bullet hits Joyce, killing him.
Shears swims the river, intent on killing Nicholson, but he is shot before he can do it, cursing Nicholson with his last, dying breath. When Nicholson sees who it is, he suddenly realizes the enormity of what he has done. A mortar fired by Warden stuns him, and he falls on the plunger, causing the bridge to be blown up, just as the train has started to cross, thereby plunging it into the river. The scene is ambiguous, but I think we can cut the colonel some slack, allowing that he intended to push the plunger anyway, as a way of redeeming himself.
Although we naturally have identified with Shears throughout the movie, there is a doctor who, though British, also allows for audience identification, since he represents common sense. At the end of the movie, as he beholds the spectacle, he says, “Madness!” a sentiment with which Shears would have been in complete agreement.
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