For about half the picture, the hero of The Bridge on the River Kwai is a British Colonel (Alec Guinness) whose depth of courage and sense of duty is at once touching, magnificent, and comic. Part of the success of The Bridge is that its courageous hero is shown from all angles, in all kinds of mirrors. He is strong, stubborn, fallible, maniacal, silly, and wise; and in the end he is pathetic, noble, and foolish.
It is as the picture progresses that you become increasingly aware of the complexity—the pathos, the foolishness, the nobility—of the Colonel’s actions. At the beginning, when he and his men have been captured in Thailand by the Japanese he seems merely conscientious. But when he does not submit to the brutality and degradation heaped upon him by the Japanese commander (Sessue Hayakawa), when finally he wins and forces the commander to accept the British officers as officers, then the force and depth of his character begin to appear. He takes over the building of the bridge and the direction of his men; the bridge becomes his Moby Dick.
That the bridge will finally be a strategic link in the Japanese railroad system from Bangkok to Rangoon does not, cannot, concern him. He is obsessed, first, with constructing a monument to British ingenuity and determination; then with keeping his men well-disciplined and spirited; and finally with remaining a model officer.
From the first stirring scene in which the British troops are led into the Japanese camp whistling an old marching song, until the scenes where the Colonel has the bridge halfway across the Kwai, the film moves swiftly. When another line of action is introduced and we are removed from the drama of the prison camp, the picture begins to lose pace. The second line of action has to do with the adventures of an American (William Holden) who, after escaping from the prison camp on the Kwai, winds up at a lush R&R camp on Ceylon.
In recounting his stay on Ceylon a bucketful of simple-minded pleasantries and heavy-handed ironies gets sloshed around; as you may know, sloshed irony is particularly unsavory. When, eventually, the American is shanghaied into returning to the prison camp with a commando unit whose mission is to blow up the bridge, he howls and balks. Now had he not balked he would hardly have been credible; and yet the style of his balking seems finally false to me, as though at bottom it were a kind of comic posture to make him seem a regular guy. He remains for me only the idea of a person.
When, in the end, the bridge is wired to be blown up, the British Colonel discovers the wire, and, maniacally, attempts to prevent the explosion. The result of his intervention is death for almost everyone involved; the bridge is destroyed only when the Colonel’s wounded body falls across the dynamite switch. The Colonel, then, does not appear to have actually chosen to blow up his bridge, nor does he live to see it destroyed. And thus he is robbed of that final agony and awakening that might have made of him a tragic figure. He does, of course, have an awakening: “What have I done?” he finally asks. But what kind of question is that? What must I do now?—that is what the tragic hero asks, that is the painful question. He must do something. To have the hero fall across a dynamite switch because he is wounded permits the final destruction to arise not out of the agony of choice but out of mere physical circumstance. What had begun as a drama of character ends unsatisfactorily with some misty melodramatic statement about Chance and the Ironies of Life.
And yet despite the thinness of the final gesture, The Bridge remains an engrossing and stirring movie. Amazingly, it allows an American to feel patriotic about the British, and that is because it is not, thank God, patriotic about patriotism. Rather it represents the limitations of moral and national passion as well as its glories, and consequently makes patriotism, courage, and pride human possibilities.