The Bridge on the River Kwai is a war movie that is not about warfare at all. In fact, scenes of combat are kept to a bare minimum. That’s because this is a war film that essentially has a message of peace. It is the main reason I’m giving it very high marks. I decided to check out The Bridge on the River Kwai while in the mood for a great war epic. I saw this title mentioned in several sources, so I figured it would be a masterpiece. Sure enough, it is, but in a way that I did not expect at all.
In the beginning, the movie does look somewhat like a serious war drama, because it focuses on wartime captivity. Here, the prisoners of war are a crowd of British soldiers in World War II who have been captured by the Japanese. You would think that they would be suffering horrendously in their captive state. To a certain extent, that’s true. Their captor, Colonel Saito (played by Sessue Hayakawa), makes the wise decision to use the prisoners as slave labor for the benefit of the Japanese, by having them build a railway bridge across the River Kwai. Saito promises to treat them well if they work hard, but will punish them if they don’t. He also warns that escape is impossible, given that they’re all on an island.
Sessue Hayakawa is brilliant as a colonel who is tough, yet doesn’t step over the line into brutality and ruthlessness, especially when she shows brief signs of humanity. You also have to praise the actor playing the counterpart British leader: Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, who is defiant when Saito orders sick prisoners to work. There’s a great scene where Saito and Nicholson are having a discussion of matters over dinner. This is where you get to see the tension between the two men alternating with a positive connection forming between them. The underlying message of peace becomes more clear.
Regarding the construction of the bridge itself, another interesting thing happens. Given that the British prisoners want to be free, you would think that they could purposefully sabotage the bridge in some way. But no. Colonel Nicholson, despite being in captivity, decides to do the honorable thing: build a good bridge for the Japanese. In fact, once he learns that the current bridge in progress is built in a bad spot along the river, Nicholson suggests to Saito a new bridge location, plus alterations to the work regimen for both the British and the Japanese. The result is a new construction plan that would require more work per day but involve the British and Japanese equally. Obviously, there are plenty of benefits of this plan, like bringing the sides closer together and showing that the British take pride in their work.
As wonderful as this sounds, there’s a problem. Elsewhere, the British are plotting to destroy the bridge on the River Kwai. This is pretty unsettling given the good that could come out of the bridge. I should mention, before I forget, an earlier scene in which one of the prisoners manages to escape. He is now asked to help with the bridge destruction operation since he’s the only one who has knowledge of the local geography. But having escaped with his life, he’s reluctant to go back.
So what you have in the last part of the movie is the formation of peace versus the threat of war. You can think of the bridge across the river as a metaphor for a bridge of peace between enemies and the operation to blow up the bridge as symbolizing disturbance to peace. Interestingly, there is suspense near the end of the film. All you can do is wonder which side will win: the constructiveness of peace or the destructiveness of war. Regardless of what the ultimate outcome is, it’s clear that the premise of a cooperative bridge-building effort works so well in a war movie.
Let me wrap up this review by quickly going over the other great aspects of the film. I already mentioned two actors who give great performances. I can say the same for the rest of the cast. I also admire how everything on screen is beautifully shot. It goes quite well with the film’s inspiring message of peace. Basically, if you love movies with a great story, characters, and themes, definitely check this one out. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a war movie worth seeing, because it is ultimately a peace movie.
Anthony’s Rating: 10/10