The Wars On Film: The Bridge Over The River Kwai, A Cinema Time Capsule

A fascinating case study in how cinema has changed.

The Wars On Film is a Bi-Weekly series dedicated to films and television mini-series set within the war genre. Once every two weeks I’ll dive into a classic of the genre, performing a retrospective on it, digging into the storytelling, production design, and depictions of military combat within these works and examining how they tackle the various  tropes of the genre as well as any attributes unique to the specific works. If you have any suggestions for films or mini-series that you would like to see me tackle, feel free to mention it in the comments.

It’s always interesting when you watch a film from several decades ago, to try and dissect how it differs from similar films in the modern era. Factors such as editing, action, cinematography, and music have changed wildly over the history of cinema. The film The Bridge On The River Kwai is a perfect embodiment of these types of changes. Released in 1957, the film serves as a time capsule into an entirely different era of cinema, feeling worlds apart from the war films of today. How different you ask? Well, let’s jump dive in and take a look.

Before we get started it’s important to dig into the the story of the film so as to be able to appropriately discuss the impact on the various film making decisions that were made on the product as a whole (as usual, spoilers abound). The Bridge On The River Kwai tells the story of two soldiers, one British Colonel Nicholson played by Alec Guiness (that’s right folks Obi-Wan Kenobi himself) and an American named Sheers played by William Holden. As the story begins we find both of them in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, Sheers having been there for some time, and Nicholson and his men having just been brought there after surrendering. The head of the camp Colonel Saito is using the prisoners to build the titular bridge and is demanding that the officers in Nicholson’s company take part in the labor. Nicholson refuses citing the Geneva Convention, and does not back down despite forceful tactics by Saito and his men. Eventually an agreement is reached and Nicholson and his men begin to assist in the construction of this bridge with the expertise of the British soldiers being leveraged to make the best bridge possible, because Nicholson’s pride demands nothing less. During this period Sheers escapes and eventually is found and paired with an allied commando unit that is tasked with destroying the bridge. Eventually the divergent threads of the story pull back together in a tragic finale.

It is important to first note the narrative structure of this film. It features two protagonists, and no clear antagonists (even Saito is humanized over the course of the film). This results in a narrative in which it is hard to pin point a desired end point. For either to be successful the other must fail, yet the film goes out of it’s way to insure that neither option is clearly preferable. This is an extremely unique narrative approach as it results in a level of ambiguity not common in modern mainstream films. The film deliberately chooses to pose questions that it has no intent to answer, instead allowing the audience to ponder them long after the film is over.

The editing style of the film is also worthy of note when contrasted against modern film making. Just as main stream modern film often chooses to eschew moral and narrative ambiguity, it often does away with ambiguity in what it shows it’s audience as well. Subtlety is often quite obviously lacking in modern war films, who when pondering the horrors of war choose to do so visually with gore and carnage. The Bridge On The River Kwai uses a much more subtle approach as it allows it’s story to unfold visually. Sudden cuts to new sequences and a lack of exposition require the audience to constantly be scanning the screen in order to pick up as much information as they can. The combat sequences, like most of the era, rely on the imagination of the audience as much or more than they do visual bombast. Explosions are contained, blood is left at a minimum, and potentially gruesome sequences are almost entirely implied by focusing instead on the reactions of the characters as opposed to the violence itself. It features a level of restraint that truly feels of the era.

We now arrive on what is most likely to be the most controversial section of this article: the use and effectiveness (or lack thereof) of music in The Bridge On The River Kwai.  I should preface this paragraph by saying that I have studied and performed music for the majority of my life, thus music is one of the key elements that I tend to lock in on when analyzing a film. This is one area in which I feel that the style of the era may have undercut the film. While modern films use music to heighten emotion, and provide a quick dramatic shorthand for the audience, in this film and in many of it’s era, that was not the case. Music had not yet taken on the massively important role in the process that it does today, and as a result this at times leads to potential narrative confusion. Many scenes feel sterile due to the lack of an ever present score, and many of the music choices that are present in the film, feel counter-intuitive to the narrative purpose of the scene in question. Like many war films of it’s era The Bridge On The River Kwai features more than it’s share of jaunty marches, unfortunately in this film, they often feel out of place, or at times, wildly inappropriate to the narrative. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the final scene of the film (WARNING MASSIVE SPOILER AHEAD), in which Nicholson discovers the plot to destroy the bridge merely seconds before it is to be enacted, and in his attempt to stop it gets himself, Sheers, and many of the soldiers involved killed, while still managing to accidentally detonate the explosives attached to the bridge anyways. As one of Nicholson’s officers looks on at the death and destruction around him, asking why this has happened, the jauntiest march you’ve ever heard drops in as the credits start to roll, completely undercutting the emotion of the moment and neutralizing a powerful ending. It’s a stunning choice and one that I cannot see the narrative purpose behind, other than that it was the way that war films of the era typically ended.

The Bridge On The River Kwai is regarded as a classic of military cinema, and rightly so. It pushed the boundaries of storytelling in the genre further out than they were typically pushed, and asked questions about war that the popcorn military films of the era rarely asked. It does however feel at times as if the film came maybe a decade too early as the conventions of the era do at times seem to be restraining a film that was viciously fighting to shatter the traditional mold. Nonetheless it is absolutely a film that merits your attention, as it’s significance and message cannot be ignored.