If The Bridge on the River Kwai is an inflection point in the bifurcated career of the most quintessentially British of all directors, David Lean, it is no victim of a split-decision. Emblazoned with both the staunchly intimate character focus of Lean’s earlier inspections of British life and the bellowing grandeur of his boldface later pictures, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a meeting of minds with a sweep that not only contrasts but amalgamates the luxuriant and the domestic. It lacks the fiercely enigmatic streak of Lean’s later Lawrence of Arabia – where delusions of self-immolating grandeur, imperialist mystique, and hot-headed rebellion conspire to denounce the essential vision of prodigious orientalism that sticks to Western cinema like a fly to excrement. But such concerns are valueless amidst Bridge’s vigorous cinematic workout and its scorching exegesis of the essential social codebook of Twentieth Century British life.
Ostensibly a war picture, The Bridge on the River Kwai bears testament to the writers’ socialist leanings as it bears testimony to the ossified classism in British culture and the deluded machinations of national efficiency embodied in Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness). Commander of the British POWs stationed in a Japanese work camp in Burma, Nicholson’s mettle as a British officer and personification of national willpower is tested when Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) forces the British troops to erect a perilous bridge for the Japanese war effort. The initially recalcitrant Colonel eventually cooperates for reasons that seem less and less fueled by duress and more entwined in the mental prison of British honor and Western efficiency; without questioning the practical effect of the bridge on the war effort, Nicholson, possibly tyrannically, inscribes all of British traditionalism and cultural superiority in what becomes a demented, dictatorial personal need to finish the bridge to verify, both to himself and the world, his cherished notions of British superiority.
A quest that puts him at odds, without either of them knowing, with working-class escaped prisoner Shears (William Holden), who is on a mission to envelop the bridge in his own fire-and-brimstone cloud of sulfurous ash. The rough-and-tumble, perpetually in-flux adventure story of the Shears sections serve as a more free-wheeling counterpoint to the immutable rigidity of the unbending Nicholson, whose ironclad cultural regulation extends into his nerves and bones. The architecture of Nicholson’s soul are written in the slightest of cinematic twitches and moments; in a famous moment, after nearly being felled by an explosion, he makes sure to redress the chaos of his now disorganized uniform – a reminder of his dogmatic commitment to social order – by fixing himself up British style rather than avoiding the other perpetual harbingers of death flying through the air. For him, being caught without his uniform in tip-top shape would be a fate worse than death.
Which makes Bridge the rarest of beasts: a psychological portrait without any churlish, smarmy psychology. Rather than burrowing into Nicholson’s head with questions of trauma and lived experience, the film wisely characterizes the staunchly dogmatic British officer through his surface-level gestures, his steely glare, and his persistent, stone-faced territorial concern for national and class pride. All totalitarian features of his particular brand of aristocratic, British madness encapsulated precisely in his class’ and nation’s preference for stolid, stultifying emotional silence. The film’s external, surface-level attitude toward Nicholson is a mimic of his conscience, a window into a mind expending every ounce of mental perspiration in its arsenal to not admit the reality of emotion that, for him, suggests the more expressive, haphazard life of the working class.
What Lean and screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson attune to is that explanation only ruptures the distress, turning a lively, contextualized exercise in face-reading, sweat-bead-feeling contradiction and conflagration into a dreary, derelict fleet of faux-psychoanalysis and too-pat resolutions about causation. The more external reading, in contrast, asks us to be aware of our senses and perceptions to read characters, to explore the visual economy of the screen to divine truths about individuals as we do in everyday life: tentatively reading, feeling out, reorienting our assumptions, gazing at wood behemoths and totems and trying to siphon out the individual fibers of their construction.
Nicholson is a haywire character, one of the most fallible, indifferently self-righteous, and ultimately pitiful, pathetic figures in all of cinema, shrouded in a mist of his own social order and living a life in a film that both enjoins us to adventure and interrogates the notion of adventure in a grubby, maniacal hell of omnivorous, omnipresent jungle. While the sweeping majesty of the sheer size of the picture might threaten the intimacy of the character-punches, the suggestion of the absurd persistence of British order in a landscape that obviously wants nothing to do with Western value structures links Bridge with another classic of the prickly icicles of British life stabbing the fluid, thermal passions lurking underneath: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. That national gentility would dare survive in a jungle world that has no use for it only speaks further to Lean’s caustic rejoinder to the surrealistic lengths a worldview would go to in order to persist in unwelcome places.
Lean’s capacity for Technicolor discretion is also nearly unmatched, but unlike with some of his more baroque later efforts, he never allows his vistas to get the better of him. He maintains a jurisdiction over the human consequences of his shots, using environment as divergence from human flesh rather than a sweeping palette-cleanser in and of itself. Lean’s virulent sound design, courtesy of John W. Mitchell, restrains the visuals from floating off the planet, always emphasizing sound as a discomfiting, trickling disruption of silence rather than a blathering, incessant waterfall. The score is surprisingly judicious and even enervated for one, but the crunching, tympanic footsteps – threatening the bridge’s virility, and Nicholson’s, as they walk over the bridge and implicitly question his mission’s success – are the sublimely coiled masterstroke here. Elsewhere, the deep canvas utilization of sound effects as entrails for this echoey, cavernous jungle mindscape pay huge dividends when the warbles and flickers of unglimpsed life skulk into your skin. Their lingering, malarial threats ensure that The Bridge on the River Kwai is always a film of furious feelings, senses, and moments rather than untethered ideas and paralyzing analytics.