Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

The next evening, under cover of darkness in the middle of the night, Nicholson is brought into Saito's quarters from the sweatbox. In one of the most dramatic scenes in the film, the power struggle between the two men resumes. Seated directly across the table from the nearly-starving Nicholson, Saito offers him a late supper of fine food (English corned beef) and Johnny Walker Scotch whiskey ("produce of Scotland...I prefer it to sake"). Congenially carrying on a conversation during the gourmet meal, Saito explains how he spent three years in London, studying at the London Polytechnic: "I was not a good artist. My father disapproved. He felt I belonged in the army, so I changed from art to engineering." Nicholson deliriously and adamantly refuses to eat and drink, although he is trembling with hunger. And he stolidly refuses to budge on any of his principles, even when offered a compromise. Saito is circuitously stymied by the ever-maddening Nicholson, who repeats his stock response ("I haven't the foggiest") during the discussion when questioned:

Saito: I do not think you quite realize my position. I must carry out my orders...My orders are to complete the bridge by the twelfth day of May. Time is short. I only have twelve weeks more...Therefore, I am compelled to use all available personnel.
Nicholson: But no officers except in an administrative capacity.
Saito: But officers ARE working along the entire railway. You know it. I know it.
Nicholson: I'm not responsible for the actions of other commanding officers. Personally, I'm appalled.
Saito: Let's not get excited. Would you have a cigar?
Nicholson: No thank you.
Saito: When I said: 'All officers must work,' naturally I never meant you - the commanding officer. My orders were only intended for officers below...
Nicholson: None of my officers will do manual labor!
Saito: PLEASE. I was about to say, I've been thinking the matter over and have decided to put majors and above in administrative duties, leaving only the duty officers to lend a hand.
Nicholson: I'm afraid not. The convention's quite clear on that point.
Saito: Do you know what will happen to me if the bridge is not built on time?
Nicholson: I haven't the foggiest.
Saito: I'll have to kill myself. What would you do if you were me?
Nicholson: I suppose if I were you, I'd have to kill myself. Cheers! (He drinks the glass of Scotch.)
Saito: I warn you, colonel. If I am to die, others will die before me. Do you understand that?
Nicholson: Major Clipton did mention something to that effect...That won't solve your problem. I'm sure we can arrive at the proper solution. (He ironically orders Saito to be seated at his own dinner table.) Please sit down. Now, tell me, uh, colonel. Do you or do you not agree that the first job of an officer is command?
Saito: Of course.
Nicholson (standing and assuming superiority): This bridge of yours, it's quite an enormous undertaking, and to be frank, I have grave doubts whether your Lieutenant, what's his name?...Miura, 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.
Saito: Perhaps you are not aware that the bridge is now under my personal command.
Nicholson: Really? May I ask: 'Are you satisfied with the work?'
Saito: I AM NOT!
Nicholson: Proves my point.
Saito (as he plunges the dinner knife into the tabletop): I hate the British. You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn, but have no pride. You endure, but you have no courage. Leave this place!
Nicholson: It's pointless going on like this. (Saito calls for his men and orders Nicholson back into the sweatbox.)

After being cared for and honored in the local village, Shears leaves his paradise and rows downriver, but then collapses. He drifts out into the open ocean (where he is later picked up by the British).

Back at the camp, Saito finally breaks. In a triumphant scene, an exhausted but composed Nicholson is released and walks under his own power to Saito's quarters. In honor of the anniversary of the Japanese defeat of the Russians in 1905, Saito gives the men a day of rest and declares a "general amnesty," accepting Nicholson's terms:

You and your officers may return to your quarters. As part of this amnesty, it will not be necessary for officers to do manual labor.

Nicholson smiles proudly, buttons his disheveled uniform and then strides onto the porch when leaving Saito's quarters. Someone jubilantly shouts: "He's done it!" and the men cheer, surrounding their commander. The other officers are released from their punishment hut, personally greeted by the victorious Nicholson. Inside Saito's quarters, the Japanese commander has saved face, but he cries - his honor has been shamed.

Then, in an about-face, Nicholson becomes obsessed and determined to build the best, most perfect bridge possible. He surveys and inspects the work being done, not tolerating soldiers feigning sickness or shoddy workmanship. Nicholson learns from one of his officers, Capt. Reeves (Peter Williams) that the bridge over the River Kwai has some fatal flaws: "The Japanese couldn't have picked a worse location. There's no bottom. You see those piles - they're sinking." Reeves suggests that a bridge further downstream would rest on firmer bedrock. Another officer Major Hughes (John Boxer) thinks that the men could be better organized and disciplined: "It's utter chaos as you can see at a glance. It's a lot of uncoordinated activity. No team work." Nicholson agrees with their assessments, proposing to build a bridge that will prove superior British capability, as the officers ride across the river on a raft during the inspection:

I tell you, gentlemen, we have a problem on our hands. Thanks to the Japanese, we now command a rabble. There's no order, no discipline. Our task is to rebuild the battalion. It isn't going to be easy, but fortunately, we have the means at hand, the bridge...We can teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame. We'll show them what the British soldier is capable of doing...It's going to be a proper bridge. Now here again, I know the men. It's essential that they should take a pride in their job.

A presentational conference to review new engineering design plans and procedures with Saito (with a secondary purpose to "set him straight") is held. With Nicholson totally in-charge, a new bridge location is proposed (four hundred yards further downstream) and accepted, as well as a revised plan for the organization of the workers to increase productivity. Saito asks one concluding question, receiving a veiled insult from Nicholson:

Saito: Can you finish the bridge in time?
Nicholson: Frankly, the consensus of opinion is that it's impossible. But we'll certainly give it a go. After all, we mustn't forget that we've wasted over a month through an unfortunate disagreement for which I was not to blame.

With strong elm tree lumber, Nicholson is convinced that the bridge they build might last "six hundred years." He envisions an architectural miracle and achievement: "That would be quite something." The bridge is to be built at top speed, to restore his men's morale and prove British superiority. However, Nicholson loses all perspective and overlooks the fact that the bridge aids and abets his enemy.

Shears successfully reaches British intelligence headquarters, and is treated in Mount Lavinia Hospital (Ceylon). However, he is found cavorting on the beach of the British base with a pretty blonde nurse (Ann Sears) in a revealing black, one-piece bathing suit. He proposes to her and then kisses her:

You give me powders, pills, baths, injections, enemas - when all I need is love.

Shears hopes for a medical discharge to live life again as a civilian. As he sips a martini from a thermos and the blonde goes for a swim, he is introduced to Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), a British officer in charge of Force 316, a group of guerrilla commandos. Warden is interested in intelligence information regarding the railway at the prison camp, wanting Shears' aid "in a very special sense."

The next morning, Shears meets at Warden's headquarters in the Botanical Gardens, a "commando school" to train special forces in "sabotage and demolition" and the use of PE ("plastic explosives"). As Shears enters the gardens, he is mistakenly attacked by one of the trainees.

Inside, while Shears is shown where he was held prisoner on a map of Siam, he describes the "maniac" British commander:

He had the guts of a maniac. They were about to shoot him and he didn't bat an eye.

Warden knows the Japanese plan is to open up the Bangkok-Rangoon railway by the middle of May (to ultimately provide a route all the way to British-dominated India), and plans a sabotage raid to destroy the crucial link - the Kwai Bridge. Shears' local knowledge would be invaluable, but the war-weary cynic Shears is not interested in returning to the jungle after being reassigned to the British Force 316. He calmly explains to Warden how he should be disqualified. He was actually a private who exchanged his clothes with a dead officer, falsely impersonating him to obtain the extra privileges of rank. Further, he describes his additional "foolproof" plan to obtain a medical discharge from the American Navy for delusional thinking and craziness ("because I went off my rocker in the jungle")

Warden: The Japanese aim to open the Bangkok-Rangoon section by the middle of May. Naturally, we're gonna try and prevent them. It's too far for bombers to carry an adequate load, so we shall have to go in and smash it up on the ground.
Shears: How are you going to get there?
Warden: Parachute drop and then march.
Shears: With demolition equipment through that jungle??
Warden: Yes. Our chief problem is lack of first-hand knowledge. You see, none of us have ever been there.
Shears: Well, I don't want to discourage you, Major, but uh...
Warden: It should be interesting. Colonel Green has given me the Kwai Bridge. I'm gonna take a team in and blow it up.
Shears: Lucky you...Look Major, I don't want to be rude, but I've got a luncheon date in Colombo at two and she's beautiful, so if there are any questions...
Warden: ...Well, there is only one question, actually. How would you feel about going back?
Shears: (Pause) Come again?
Warden: I know under the circumstances it's a bit much but, you see, you do have a unique knowledge for our purpose, and we'd love to have you with us.
Shears: You mean to tell me that's why you brought me here? To ask me this?
Warden: Oh frankly, yes.
Shears: Major, I just got out of there. My escape was a miracle. Even your people said so, and now you want me to go back. Don't be ridiculous.
Warden: All this is very embarrassing, I...
Shears: Oh let's stop kiddin' around. I can't go back. I don't belong to you. I belong to the American Navy.
Warden: Yes, of course. Actually, Colonel Green has already taken the matter up with your people.
Shears: With my people?
Warden: Yes. Your Navy's turned you over to us. The signal arrived yesterday morning from your C in C Pacific, authorizing your temporary transfer of duty to Force 316.
Shears: They can't do this to me.
Warden: I'm afraid they have. It was awfully difficult. I didn't know how to break it to you.
Shears: No, but they can't do this to me. I really mean it. My Navy's made a mistake...Look, I'm not a Navy Commander, I'm, I'm not even an Officer...No, the whole thing's a fake. I'm just an ordinary swab jockey second class...When the Houston sunk, I made it ashore with an officer, a real commander. Later on, we ran into a Japanese patrol and he was killed. I figured it was just a matter of time before I was captured so...
Warden: you changed uniforms with a dead man.
Shears: I thought officers would get better treatment in prison camps.
Warden: Very sensible.
Shears: Not that it did me any good because at Saito's camp, the officers work along with the rest.
Warden: Yes, there's always the unexpected, isn't there?
Shears: I kinda got used to being a commander and so when I arrived here at the hospital, I took a look at the enlisted men's ward and I took a look at the officer's ward and I said to myself, 'Well, let's let it ride along for a while.' There were certain definite advantages.
Warden: Yes, I saw one of them on the beach.
Shears: Anyway, that's the whole story. And the point of it is that you can't use me. You want an officer for your team - an American Commander named Shears and he doesn't exist. When the Navy Brass learns the truth about me, they'll say: 'Send him home in irons for impersonating an officer,' or something like that. Once that happens, I've got it made.
Warden: Got it what?
Shears: Made...I'll apply for a medical discharge. I'll tell 'em that I impersonated an officer because I went off my rocker in the jungle. I'm getting worse, you know. Sometimes, I think I'm Admiral Halsey.
Warden: Well, it's quite a clever plan.
Shears: It's not only clever, it's foolproof. When my Navy finds out who I am, those temporary orders you got won't be worth the paper they're written on.

At this point, Warden reveals a copy of Shears' service record containing his photograph, fingerprints, and everything that they have obtained ("Naturally, your people couldn't identify you at first. But finally, your C in C Pacific sent us a copy of your service record. The photographs, the fingerprints, everything"). He admits that the British already know the "truth" about him and his true service record ("We've known about your actual rank for nearly a week") - and that he improperly impersonated an officer. Shears' temporary transfer to the British has already been arranged with the US military, and he has already been 'handed over'. The reluctant Shears realizes he is trapped in "an awkward position" - and has no choice but to accept an assignment to return to the camp to destroy the Kwai Bridge:

Warden: Your Navy's in an awkward position. In one sense, you're a blasted hero for making an escape through the jungle. But at the same time, they can't very well bring you home and give you the Navy Cross for impersonating an officer, can they? I suppose that's why they were so happy to hand you over to us. You see?
Shears: Hot potato.
Warden: As far as your present rank is concerned, we're fairly informal about those things in Force 316. So you'll have a simulated rank of Major.
Shears: Simulated Major. That figures. Well, as long as I'm hooked, I might as well volunteer.

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