A squad of British soldiers arrive at a Japanese POW camp in the Burmese jungle, and after some conflict between their respective leaders, they are co-opted into building a railway bridge across the River Kwai. Meanwhile, the Allies plan a mission to blow-up the bridge before it can be used.
The first in David Lean’s epic phase, this proud and accomplished war movie boasts all the qualities that made the British director a true great: lavish cinematography, meaty performances, and a psychologically complex script. It went on to soak up all the major Oscars, which has often skewed popular opinion into thinking of it as a grand, old-school opera of the British at war. However, this is to downplay the daring structure, the near absence of out-and-out warfare, and the fierce investigation of cultural divides be they Japanese, British or American, as personified by William Holden’s brashly heroic Shears who will become the true enemy of Alec Guinness, in one of his most legendary roles as the indefatigable Colonel Nicholson.
Beyond the rash of subplots and beachside longeurs that take the story away from the POW camp, it is Nicholson’s gradual breakdown into madness that occupies Lean’s closest attentions. Guinness fills him with an absurdist stridency that is at once utterly heroic, masochistic and damn near demented, standing up to the speculative cruelty meted out by Hayakawa’s irate camp commander Sessue. That they generate a form of respect is down to a kind mutual understanding of military bearing. A contest at which Lean nags and tests, contending that war is not a clean matter of following the rules. When Sessue demands the British prisoners partake in the building of a bridge, Nicholson sees this as a chance to keep his men in order, to show-off a British pride in work. What he so glaringly loses sight of, is that he is abetting the enemy.
When Shears, who has escaped from the camp, returns to destroy the bridge, giving the film a burst of lively adventure, the extent of Nicholson’s madness becomes clear. The messiness of war has destroyed the order of his mind, even to point of abusing his own men. His realisation of the bridge’s doom, and his own with it, is as powerful a rendition of the unbidden, psychological damage of war than any amount of coughed up T.S. Eliot by a hairless Brando.
Possibly Lean's most complicated movie, Kwai is a towering work.