Based on a true story and novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai seeks to give the audience an understanding of the conditions of WWII POW camps and the consequences of being captured. With this focus in mind, it is remarkable to note that this film isn’t about war. The Bridge on the River Kwai is about madness, obsession, understanding, and respect. To translate these themes in a war movie that’s not about war is an incredible feat, one that director David Lean was able to do through the relationship between three men: Shears, Colonel Nicholson, and Colonel Saito. Their beats and moments together throughout the entire movie shift the dynamics of the characters and keep the audience wondering whether or not this movie is promoting patriotism, anti-war, or just complete chaos.
Not only does The Bridge have an incredible progression of characters throughout the film, it also does a wonderful job keeping away from the terrible habit of making Colonel Saito into a two-dimensional bad guy who’s distanced from the plot because he’s not white. Even more amazing is that Saito has such human moments that provide an incredible look into the pain he feels at losing his power incrementally over the camp, such as when we see him privately weeping in his office after Nicholson basically takes over the building of the bridge. The emotional toll over the characters is especially emphasized in Saito and Nicholson’s strange relationship. They both torture each other in their own ways until each of them have been broken (Nicholson in the metal box and Saito’s losing power). Shears is the foil, allowing the audience to compare the mental breakdown happening in the POW camp to Shear’s luxury time spent at the hospital that found him when he escaped.
The bridge is the proof of the madness erupting in the camp. Colonel Nicholson takes on its construction as if it were his own project, nailing a sign to the finished project declaring that it was built and designed by British soldiers. He claims that it is a sign of the efficiency and undying morale of the British army, and yet the bridge becomes a sign of Nicholson’s growing insanity and obsession. After all, he is still a prisoner who is forced to work for the enemy. Strangely enough, by the end of the film, it would seem that Nicholson has made his enemy, Colonel Saito, his friend. He even goes to the point of crying out for help when Saito is killed by one of the Allies in an attempt to destroy the bridge.
The last fifteen minutes of the film consist of the only time when the illusion is broken and war comes crashing in with the sound of a train whistle. All this time, Nicholson and his men have been working diligently and efficiently to build this bridge, a bridge that is helping to further Japan’s attack on the Allies, something they have entirely lost sight of. When Nicholson finally realizes his mistake and collapses on the detonator, destroying the bridge he poured his heart and soul into, we hear the last line of the play cried out: “Madness, madness…madness.”
Truly, it is madness that is captured in this film, providing a lasting impact on audiences who find that the line between sanity and madness has everything to do with who is holding the power.