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I start with Rambo only because I’m sure he’d feel right at home messing stuff up on the titular bridge. David Lean’s film often almost slides into First Blood (1982) style melodrama and sentimentality. I’m thinking, for example, of the delayed exchange of a single word, ‘lovely’, between a local woman and an English soldier. At first misunderstood, the word becomes the last thing said to the officer before he begins his destruction of the bridge. Equally, we see quickly that the English officers are wonderfully English, often armed with cups of tea and always demonstrating the bravery that comes from stiff upper lips.
If, though, Sly Stallone every so often threatens to run out of the jungle and singlehandedly destroy The Bridge, he, equipped with his black-and-white (and it must be said entertaining) moral code, is never more than a shadowy figure in the background: Lean’s picture more consistently problematises a conception of war as simply the good guys verses the bad. As the film crescendos, we find ourselves identifying with both the builders and the destroyers. Seemingly clear distinctions in the opening section disintegrate in a mix of parallel shots and scenes. Yes, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is ruthless, threatening to make the sick and the dying help in the construction of the bridge; but we also see him crying in a private moment of weakness and emotion; and, furthermore, we later witness Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) actually sending his own injured men back to work. The bridge becomes not only an act of English defiance but also a point for Nicholson’s life: as he leans over its edge, looking in the river below, he admits that ‘you ask yourself what the sum total of your life represents? What difference your being there at any time made to anything?’
And if, even in the specifics of the ending, such fortuitous and almost heavy-handed symbolism appears again (‘What have I done?’ Nicholson asks), it is kept in check by more ambiguous and moving motifs that recur throughout the film. For example, the diegetic whistling of the Colonel Bogey March, often combined with Malcolm Arnold’s non-diegetic counter-melody of The River Kwai March, is a charged reference point that bookends the picture. As a general emblem of the soldiers’ fortitude, the music looks forward to the whistling of the Mickey Mouse Club Marching Song that brings Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) to a close; taken as a specific melody, Colonel Bogey looks back to British defiance against Hitler (who, we’re led to believe, only had one ball).
But even if the picture is loaded with the potential for broader social and martial comment, much of its power lies in the specifics of two individuals: Colonel Nichelson and Colonel Saito. To witness the partial expression of the motivation that drives their actions is both moving and engaging. (Complete revelation is stilted by Japanese notions of ‘honour’ or British conceptions of ‘military behaviour’.) To return to the moment when Nichelson is hanging over bridge, trying to reveal to a silent Saito his feelings at having finished the job, we see this gesture cut short. Just as he approaches a moment of real expression, he drops his stick into the Kwai, leaving Saito and the viewer with just a single word that is almost comic in its retrospective dramatic irony: ‘Blast!’, he says simply.