top of page
Vintage English
It is foretold! The torrential flow of inexorable destiny!

The Film - The Bridge on River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a wonderful film. In many ways, the author of the story may have tried to delineate a marked characteristic feature of the English. For persons who love British themes, there is much in this film that can give them joy. Those with an uncanny understanding of the deeper emotions that gave hue to English colonial character, there are singular issues to debate upon. This film was described as ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’ by the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry, and selected for preservation.

It is possible that almost all the readers of this article may have seen this film. So, there is actually no need to retell the story. This film was made based on the novel by the same name (over instead of on) written by Pierre Boulle. The film and its theme really has a lot of very interesting features about them.

First of all Pierre Boulle wrote this novel in French, based on his own experiences in the wartime. He had negligible command over English. He himself had a very picturesque and highly eventful life. As a writer, he lived in poverty until this novel led him to fortune. His next major work was Planet of the Apes, which also became popular all around the world.

The fabled unbending posture and resilience of the English-speaking race that the colonial world bore witness to is possibly the undercurrent that runs throughout the film. However, another theme that was also witnessed by the colonies rings all over the film. That is the innate necessity to display the legendary British efficiency to get a work done with thorough perfection; even if it is for competing groups.

As the film moves forward, the British are involved in two occupations, which are antagonistic to each other. Both are being pursued with perfect sincerity and plausible logic. This paradox of contradiction in many ways symbolises the British colonial experience. This sentence may need qualifying.

Now, it may be required to tell the tale in as little words as possible. British prisoners of war arrive in a Japanese prison camp in Burma. There is a pose of defiance in their posture. They come whistling the Colonel Bogey March. Their leader is Colonel Nicholson.

The Japanese prison administrator Colonel Saito informs them the rules of the camp. There is a railway bridge that has to be build urgently on River Kwai. This is needed to move the war materials over the railways. Now, what is irking is that the commander wants everyone to do manual labour. British military ranks shall not be taken into consideration in this work. They will all work under the instructions of Japanese construction managers. (Well, naturally, the language of instruction will be the feudal Japanese language; it can really contort English individualism).

Colonel Nicholson refuses to abide by these instructions. He insists that by the Geneva Conventions, officers who are prisoners of war cannot be made to do manual labour. The Japanese commander doesn’t like this attitude. There is real mental confrontation between British resilience and Japanese arrogance. Colonel Nicholson is physically attacked. However, he refuses to budge from his position, and his officers also stand by him. There are memorable and scintillating scenes in the film around this issue.

The Japanese commander goes ahead with the bridge construction using the British soldiers, but they more or less, deliberately wreck the work, with seeming unintelligent leaderless-ness. The work is urgent, for the grand war machinery of Japan is awaiting its completion. The Japanese commander is in a quandary, for any failing on his part shall be of disastrous results to him personally. He accepts Colonel Nicholson’s conditions. Colonel Nicholson is given charge to build the bridge.

Now, the hereditary trait of the British comes into play. He wants to show what the British can do. The aim is to build a fantastic bridge, using British ingenuity. A bridge that Colonel Nicholson hopes shall stand for a long time as a memoriam of British endeavour. He invests his complete intelligence and capacity in this direction. The end product is a wonderful bridge that can withstand the onslaught of time, as testimony to British capacity.

Now, there is another British endeavour going on in the other side of the globe. There is information of this strategic bridge being constructed. It should be destroyed, at all costs. For, it is the powerful link that can deliver Japanese military hardware to the warfront. A commando team is dispatched to destroy the bridge. The aim is to blow it up as the military train approaches it.

There is confusion and fiasco as the two different British teams work at cross-purposes. Colonel Nicholson is killed in a shoot out with the British commando team, but the bridge is blown up just as the train gets on it.

British efforts on both sides are successful! The cost is terrible, most of it foolhardy. It is madness, in many ways.

Now, before going ahead with the discussion, it may be pointed out that many British colonial areas do have wonderful bridges that do stand as proof of a time when civic administration was efficient and honest.

Now, why did Pierre Boulle write a novel wherein British traits are celebrated? It is possible that he had some exposure to these stubborn traits, in his wartime experience. However, these traits might come noticeable only in the ravaging environments of non-English social systems. Beyond that, it is the person from the non-English social systems who discern something different in the English speaker. It may not really be an individual quality, but something that generates from the higher potential in personal individuality that springs from an elevated communication system. It may also be due to the dislike to go under or even be equal in personal quality to persons who are discerned by the English to be from inferior social systems. A need to stand above and be different!

Then there is a general feature of the English-speaking race, which has been described as pure gullibility, by persons who have appraised their endeavours in colonial nations. For example, the general attitude to provide very good education to the citizens of the colonial nations. Even the teaching of English in these nations, was a things no other group in their right sense, would have done. In almost all postcolonial nations, the prevailing mood would be to block access to English education to the majority people and to teach English only to a minor group. It is a known thing that command over English more or less changes the mental demeanour of a person. To have this phenomenon happen in a person of the lowly class is unbearable to the upper classes.

The issue at stake was what would happen when the citizens of the colonies become armed with superior English. Even Lord Macaulay does contemplate on this issue, even as he fought with native leaders who said that their people should not be taught English. However, the English in the colonies were in a state of supreme satisfaction, but then the uninformed or misinformed persons in their own home nation would be doing things that would lead to the spoiling of all their efforts.

Then again on Pierre Boulle’s attitude? Was he infected with some sort of an ‘anglophilia’, which was a common disease among many intellectual celebrities of his nation, including Voltaire?

There is need to discuss another facet of the film. The prisoner of war feel. The British prisoners are in a Japanese prison. Everywhere in the world, prisoners are not allowed much space for exhibiting individuality, even if they have it in abundance inside themselves. More so in feudal language nations. It will be like being a prisoner in India and such nations. Once made to submit, or surrender, the language doesn’t allow any individuality for the subjugated person. Words change, both of address as well as of reference. It is a very diabolical world, not conceivable in English. So, the display of individuality by the British prisoners are beyond the realm of reality. The reality would be much more tragic. Actually, they would not even have the physical appearance shown; individuality simply vaporises.

I believe that this was also the reality. In the actual prison, actually an immensity of English prisoners did rot and die. Such rotting is not possible to accomplish in an English prison.

It was a wonderful film, acclaimed all over the world. Alec Guinness acted as Colonel Nicholson. The Japanese prison commander Colonel Saito was Sessue Hayakawa. There were many others also, who also gave sterling performance.

There has been discussion about the character of Colonel Nicholson, as to whether he was being a stupid anti-British collaborator. Well, he does seem so, but then this is an attitude much understandable to those who have studied English personal behaviour in the midst of alien social systems.

As to the historical accuracy of the tale, it is true that a similar bridge building project did take place in a place called Tha Ma Kham in Thailand. Around a hundred thousand Asian labourers and tens of thousand of prisoners of war died working in this project. However, it has been said the conditions in this camp was much worse than shown in the film. Moreover, the senior allied officer in this camp was British Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. In all features, he has been described as totally the opposite of Colonel Nicholson. In fact, it has been said that to compare Colonel Nicholson to Colonel Toosey is an insult to the latter. However, this observation might be a very immature one; for whatever his faults, Colonel Nicholson does display qualities, which are fascinating. It can’t be said that he was being a sissy, more than one can say the Lord Macaulay and the immense other English men who strived to bring in infrastructural and intelluctual improvement in colonial areas were such. To say that it was time of war belies the understanding that even the colonial period was a time of international competition, spread over centuries.

There are other interesting things about this film. For example, it was Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson who did the screenplay of the film. However, their names were not in the title list, for they were on the Hollywood Blacklist. The reason for this was that they had an earlier history of communist sympathy. Even though, they outgrew it, they were unwilling to reveal the names of their earlier collaborators.

Sam Spiegal was the producer. He gave the directorship to David Lean, after considering many others. Lean did have sharp verbal exchanges with the British actors, Alen Guinness and James Donald. However, Guinness did remark about a scene in this film as the “finest work I’d ever done”. Alen Guinness portrays Colonel Nicholson in the film.

David Lean himself was a great English filmmaker, producer and screenwriter. His great films include the Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, A passage to India etc. apart from A Bridge on River Kwai.

As to the production, it was a collaborative effort of British and American (US) film companies. The filming was mostly done in Ceylon (currently called Sri Lanka).

Book profile



Author: Somerset Maugham

The Story

Folk songs:

On the banks of Allen Water,

On the banks of Clyde

Excerpt: Magnus in The Apple Cart

English Colonial History:

Emancipation of slaves

Scientist: Sir. Isaac Newton

Geo discoverers: Captain James Cook

Film: The bridge on River Kwai

Actress: Vivien Leigh

Battle: Jameson Raid

Incidence: Nelson’s death



Popular songs: Jingle Bells

Place: Rocks of Gibraltar

bottom of page