I first saw Bridge on the River Kwai when I was a little boy, maybe five or six. I was sick and sleeping in bed with my mother. The movie was playing on the 13″ black and white TV on her dresser. It was the late movie, the one that used to come on after the local news, and I was sick, but I stayed up, “glued to the TV” as my mom liked to say. I has been one of my favorite films ever since. It’s a great story, yes, and I’ve read the book by Pierre Boulle (the same author who wrote Planet of the Apes). BUt it has become for me an insight on how different those British blokes are from us Americans.
At the point in the film when William Holden’s character, an American navel officer who escaped from the Japanese concentration camp, is being being asked by a British officer, played by Jack Hawkins, to return with him and his team to blow up the bridge being built at the camp.
Holden says, “Do your intelligence people have any idea what happened to (British) Colonel Nicholson? He had the guts of a maniac. They were about to shoot him, and he didn’t bat an eye.”
And Hawkins responds, “I suppose if you’re about to be shot, there isn’t a great deal you can do.”
Not an American response. We are John Wayne. We are going to fight the dying of the light. The scene below shows that British character even more vividly, and it is the one scene I will still stay up to watch.
VIEW of Colonel Saito pacing in his quarters
and Colonel Nicholson being escorted inside.
Good evening, Colonel.
Do you mind sitting over here?
I am having rather a late supper.
(Walking to table)
English corned beef.
No, thank you.
Produce of Scotland.
I prefer it to saki.
I spent three years in London, you know.
I studied at the London Polytechnic.
(Passing a drink to Colonel Nicholson)
I was not a good artist.
My father disapproved.
He felt I belonged in the army,
so I changed from art to engineering.
I must tell you, Colonel Saito,
I intend to make a full report
of your activities in this camp.
I do not think
you quite realize my position.
I must carry out my orders.
Oh, quite, quite.
My orders are to complete the bridge
by the 12th day of May.
Time is short.
I only have 12 weeks.
Therefore, I am compelled
to use all available personnel.
But no officers, except
in an administrative capacity.
But officers are working
along the entire railway.
You know it! I know it!
I’m not responsible for the actions
of other commanding officers.
Personally, I’m appalled.
Let us not get excited.
Will you have a cigar?
No, thank you.
When I said all officers must work,
naturally I never meant you,
the commanding officer.
My orders were only intended
for officers below–
None of my officers
will do manual labor.
I was about to say, I have been
thinking the matter over,
and decided to put majors and above
on administrative duties,
leaving only the junior officers
to lend a hand.
I’m afraid not.
The Convention’s clear on that point.
Do you know what will happen to me
if the bridge is not ready in time?
I haven’t the foggiest.
I’ll have to kill myself.
What would you do if you are me?
I suppose if I were you,
I’d have to kill myself.
(Taking the drink from the table.)
(Rising from the table.)
I warn you, Colonel.
If I am to die,
others will die before me.
Do you understand that?
Major Clipton did mention
something to that effect.
That won’t solve your problem.
But I’m sure we can arrive
at a proper solution.
Please sit down.
(Colonel Saito sits back down.)
Now, tell me, Colonel,
do you or do you not agree that the
first job of an officer is command?
Take this bridge of yours.
It’s quite an enormous undertaking.
And to be frank, I have grave doubts
whether your lieutenant, uh,
What’s his name?
Is capable of tackling a job
of such importance.
On the other hand,
I have officers,
Reeves and Hughes for instance,
who’ve built bridges
all over India.
The men respect them.
It’s essential for an officer
to have that respect, I’m sure you agree.
If he loses it, he ceases to command.
And what happens then?
Demoralization and chaos.
A pretty poor commander I would be
if I allowed that to happen to my men.
(Taking another drink)
Perhaps you are not aware
that the bridge is now
under my personal command.
And may I ask,
are you satisfied with the work?
I am not!
You’ve proved my point.
I hate the British!
You are defeated,
but you have no shame.
You are stubborn,
but have no pride.
but you have no courage.
I hate the British!
It’s pointless going on like this.
VIEW of Japanese officer entering room with
guards and removing Colonel Nicholson.
Major Shears : You make me sick with your heroics! There’s a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills – they go well together, don’t they? And with you it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman… how to die by the rules – when the only important thing is how to live like a human being.