Another classic down, and another lost opportunity to discuss a great film with my late grandfather, who pushed this on me 15 years ago and I didn’t get around to it in timely enough fashion.
This was great, especially as a World War 2 film that features almost no fighting. It’s not interested in being the typical kind of war story, choosing instead to dive deep into deeper issues of human behavior, duty, honor, and the greater social order. The script takes care to truly examine what it means to be a soldier and what it means to be a commanding officer, the similarities and differences between the two perhaps not running as deep as one might think. Quality leadership is a main focal point, as we realize that not all wars are won on the battlefield and not all prison camp situations have to be hopeless and destitute. And then there is an issue that truly resonates, even after more than sixty years. Now, seemingly more than ever, people are reluctant to engage their enemies beyond the surface. They avoid any attempts at deeper understanding or sympathy for their situations. “Know your enemy” is an age-old adage, but many fall far short of the notion, opting instead for assumptions, blind loyalty and jingoism. But here, we see Colonel Nicholson (a wonderful performance from Alec Guiness) truly seek to understand his enemy’s position and situation, and takes a chance on helping him achieve his goal in the name of not only reclaiming his own unit’s civility and demeanor, but also a general sense of humanity. They may be enemies, but they don’t need to be. Not here, not now.
As Shears, the American who escapes the prison camp and returns with British soldiers intent to blow up the bridge being built, William Holden displays the exact type of machismo one expects in a role like this. He may look a bit too much like a movie star for the role he plays, but he turns up his abilities late in the film and helps delivery a powerful climax. Elsewhere, Sessue Hayakawa is excellent as Colonel Saito, playing a bit of a cat-and-mouse negotiation with Nicholson and playing a perfect balance between the Japanese code of honor and the terror of a man faced with the consequences of potential failure. He doesn’t want to give into Nicholson or give up the reins on the bridge project, but failure to do so will likely cost him his life. Saito is in a vice grip and Hayakawa nails it.
The film is lush with color and broad in scope, and not just in terms of its implications. Director David Lean makes great use of his surroundings, cast and crew and turns in an all-time classic. It’s the kind of film that can be studied far beyond its wartime settings, and deserves all the accolades it has received since its release.