One of the most well-known war adventures in cinematic history, David Lean’s epic has captivated audiences for more than fifty years. Much of the attention the film has received has no doubt been due to its high profile, studio backing, and well-known cast. But we’ve seen multiple examples of similarly constructed films sputter and fade away. Yet, Bridge endures. Why?
First, the film offers a compelling account of WWII prisoners of war. With a deft mix of adventure and even comedy, the film recounts a fundamentally tragic tale of the futility of war, particularly through the lens of failed leadership. Throughout the film, the leaders of the prison camp, Saito, and of the British prisoners, Nicholson, are described as mad. Saito seeks to rule with an iron fist, but lacks the wherewithal (or retains some inkling of his humanity) to enforce his rule, even if it means blood. Nicholson, for his part, relies purely on military laws and standards to govern his behavior, eventually to the point of going out of his way to help his enemies build the best bridge possible. In this standoff, Lean effectively humanizes the “enemy” in Saito, even as the director critiques him, while playing up the oppositional pride of the “ally,” Nicholson. This complexity, combined with the magnificent ending, creates a gripping tale of war’s futility.
Beyond the story, Lean’s directorial skills find him effectively walking a fine line between over-sentimentalized parody on the one hand, and an engaging albeit tragic drama on the other. While he occasionally loses the edge—I think of the shot of Saito sobbing after he has lost the battle of wills with Nicholson—more often he makes good choices that heighten the experience by drawing on the viewers’ imaginations, drawing us into the action through specifically formal means.
One example occurs early in the film, when the men have arrived and Nicholson will not allow he or his officers to engage in manual labor, the officers are left to wither in the heat while the men go off to work. At the end of the day, the officers—all except for Nicholson—are shuffled off to their punishment hut, while Nicholson is taken into the main house for a beating. Rather than show the beating, Lean communicates its force through an abrupt edit: as Nicholson disappears inside for his beating, the film cuts to a wide shot of the house in the evening light with the loud cries of the men in frustrated support of their leader. The effect here is jarring. We have not witnessed the beating, but we feel like we have, always an impressive feat for a director.
Moments like these take Bridge from a solid epic into something more special—maybe not quite a masterpiece, but an eminently watchable tragedy on a grand scale.