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The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War

The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War


The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


Famous for...

  • The bridge in Siam (now Thailand) built by Japanese prisoners of war in 1943.
  • Its catchy whistling tune, the Colonel Bogey March.


Why was the bridge important?

The Japanese wanted it to transport troops and supplies.The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War

In reality two bridges were built (one wooden and a steel bridge that is still used today).

The leader of their construction, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey, pictured right, was totally anti-Japanese unlike his counterpart in the film, Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness).

 The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War

Based on...

Le Pont de la Riviére Kwai, a French novel by Pierre Boulle (pictured right).



David Lean (pictured right), also director of:The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War

  • Lawrence of Arabia.



Seven including;

  • best film.
  • best actor (Alec Guinness).
  • best director.


Key characters

Colonel Nicholson ( Alec Guinness), leader of the British prisoners of war - pictured right below.The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War

Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), prison camp commandant.

Commander Shears (William Holden), American naval officer and prisoner.

Major Clipton (James Donald), British medical officer.

Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), British army officer.

Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne), Canadian army officer.The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War


The story

Some British soldiers (led by Colonel Nicholson) join the American Commander Shears (pictured right) in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Siam (now Thailand).

The camp commandant Colonel Saito tells the British to start manual work to build a railway bridge over the River Kwai. But Nicholson:

  • says the officers can’t do this (under the Geneva Convention). The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War
  • tells them not to work.

He is imprisoned alone in a boiling hot tin box, but he refuses to give in.

Saito reluctantly agrees to his demands, and a triumphant Nicholson (pictured right being released) decides to build the bridge better and faster than the Japanese would have done.

Meanwhile Shears has managed to escape to Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He reluctantly agrees to join in a commando mission to blow up the Kwai bridge with two officersThe Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War:

  • Major Warden (the British leader).
  • Lieutenant Joyce (Canadian)

(Sears,left, and Warden, middle, and Joyce are pictured right)

Major Clipton, the British medical officer, is bewildered by Nicholson’s:

  • maniacal determination to finish the bridge on time.
  • volunteering his junior officers and sick soldiers for manual work.

Meanwhile the commandos have reached the bridge. While the prisoners are celebrating its completion in the camp, Shears and Joyce wire explosives on to it under cover of darkness.

The next day a Japanese train, full of soldiers and important officials, will cross the bridge, and Warden wants to blow them up, too.The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War

At dawn Nicholson makes a proud final inspection of the bridge. The river has receded, and he notices the detonator wire (pictured right). Accompanied by Saito, he pulls it up towards Joyce who stabs Saito to death.

Nicholson yells for help and then tries to stop Joyce getting to the detonator.

Joyce is shot and Shears is also killed just before he reaches Nicholson who then realizes his crime of collaborating with the enemy. Mortally wounded, he falls on the detonator just in time to destroy the bridge and the train.

Clipton sees the destruction and, in disbelief, says one of the most famous final lines in cinema history: “Madness!...Madness! Madness!”


Lessons for ethics and war

 The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War

1. Do your duty

Nicholson is a man of principle who fights for his officers’ right not to do manual work, even after beatings from the Japanese and gruelling solitary confinement.

The Japanese camp commandant, Saito (pictured right), is also a man of honour who is prepared to commit suicide, if he fails to build the bridge on time.

Shears learns to do his duty, despite his reluctance to join the mission to destroy the bridge. Early in the film he is only interested in self-preservation, but he ends up sacrificing his life.


2. People and purpose

The British are happiest when they are building the bridge, because they take pride in their work. On its completion (pictured right below), Nicholson congratulates them for having:The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War

  • “survived with honour”.
  • “turned defeat into victory”.

The bridge has given him the greatest sense of achievement in a 28 year army career during which, he says, he has “hardly made any difference at all”.

Major Warden’s mission is also successful, because it is totally focused on the aim of destroying the bridge.


3. Work out what is rightThe Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War

Nicholson gets so carried away with the bridge that he forgets that building it so well is collaborating with the enemy, as Clipton (pictured right) rightly tells him. He even encourages the wounded to work.

Only at the end of the film does Nicholson realize what he has done.

He is a stickler for the law (even saying that his men shouldn’t escape because they were ordered to surrender).

But Shears tells him that law and civilization don’t apply in war. For example, Joyce (like anybody else) feels a natural revulsion to killing, but he steels himself to kill Saito.

 The Bridge on the River Kwai - Ethics and War

4. War is wicked but sometimes necessary

Clipton is appalled by the bridge’s destruction, but he also criticizes Nicholson’s collaboration with the Japanese whose military aggression has made war sadly necessary.

But war musn't destroy people's humanity. Shears tells Warden:

“The only important thing is how to live like a human being”


Key quotes on war

Madness!...Madness! Madness!, Major Clipton on seeing the bridge’s destruction.

Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!, Saito


Key quote on law

Without law, Commander, there is no civilization, Nicholson (to Shears).


Key quote on success and happiness

The only important thing is how to live like a human being, Shears


Key quote on death

But there are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning, Nicholson (commenting on his life to Saito after completing the bridge).


Key quote on leadership

It is essential for an officer to have that respect...If he loses it, he ceases to command. And what happens then? Demoralization and chaos , Nicholson (to Saito).


Key quote on motivation

Be happy in your work, Saito (his motto for the prisoners)


Key quote on careers

And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything, Nicholson


Two film websites to recommend

1. filmsite.org (run by Tim Dirks).

2. aveleyman.com (run by Tony Sullivan)

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