A few years ago Quentin Tarantino excited many with the announcement of his new film, Inglourious Basterds. While many were excited on the basis that he was returning to a more grand-scale form of cinema, or merely escaping the past decade of Kill Bill and Grindhouse, I was more drawn to the concept that he presented: a war film that was a throwback to the old-fashioned “men on a mission” style film. He cited specifically The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean’s 1957 masterpiece is definately a “men on a mission” film, but it also marked a turning point in Lean’s career (a turn towards epics) and is alarmingly dark, even ironically injected with black humor. This is perhaps why Tarantino singled out The Bridge on the River Kwai amongst the many others of similar vain. It is not merely an adventurous war film. It is psychological, humorous, epic, and damn near career defining.
The Bridge on the River Kwai opens with the escape of a solider named ShearsÂ from a prison camp in Japan (William Holden). His character is separated from the action for much of the film, but is central to the film’s inherent theme of “Madness!” HeÂ understands the insanity of the war camp and the jungle it occupies, but he is also willing to assist his former prisonmates. The Japanese at the camp are required to build a bridge at a nearby river.Â One of the higher ranking Japanese men named Saito is well-read enough to know that the British imprisoned soldiers are capable of producingÂ a better bridge than the Japanese officers. He is deeply ashamed of this but succumbs to the logic of utilizing the better skilled.
Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) is the American prisoner who is contacted by Saito and arranges to have the bridge properly constructed. He takes it on with passion, as if it were for his own nation, even as if it were his own child. As the film progresses, Shears must head back into the jungle to the camp he so desired to escape, like Saito, succumbing to the logic of what is right and for the best. Nicholson and his team work dilligently, even happily at their bridge. And Saito seems almost as trapped as the prisoners by the psychological warfare in his head between his intellect and his pride.
As previously stated, Saito and Shears successfully overcome their pride and do what is best for their respective spheres of influence. Nicholson goes off the deep end. When one piece of the puzzle snaps, the picture is destroyed. This is a war film in the sense that it takes place in a war setting and the characters are all involved in the international crisis. But it all feels second hand. The film is really about the psychology of prison and the moral choices of a few individuals in a relatively small situation.
The film deeply analyzes this specific camp in great detail while ignoring much of the larger implications in the actual conflict. This implies the disorientation of war and the potential effects of it. While The Bridge on the River Kwai is largely a “men on a mission” war film, it also possesses the sociological perspective ofÂ later war films such as The Deer Hunter and Platoon. Content-wise the film does still feel tonally different; but it still is rather progressive compared to many of the other films Tarantino could have chosen as his frame of reference. It even shows the evolution of Lean as his early film In Which We Serve is everything that this film is not (other than the shared multiple-perspective narrative).
Despite the fact that the film is tightly focused on a small scale event that does not occupy a particularly large amount of time and even focuses on the psychology of individual characters, it still is at heart an epic. And despite the fact that it almost completely ignores the outside war (which would seemingly be the epic side of the story), the story it does tell is almost emblematic of the war at as a whole. The construct of the narrative is classic melodrama (most specifically the Shears plot) and the film reaches the grand-scale of its sociological implications in the famous final scene in which the tightly wound society we have come to sympathize with are forced to destroy their creation. Insanity prevails over pride. The final line of the film is “Madness! Madness! Madness!”
The Bridge on the River Kwai is revelatory both in terms of Lean’s career and the war genre. Lean continued his auteurism making a movie that is his through and through while challenging the norms of buddy war films with the sickly ironic conclusion. The film went on to winÂ seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. It is Lean’s first epic, one of his most respected film,s and one that has aged greatly. In 1998 AFI declared it the thirteenth greatest film of all time.