Monday, March 15, 2010

"The Bridge Over the River Kwai" by Pierre Boulle

As a young boy I saw the film version of this book with Alec Guiness playing the part of the British Colonel Nicholson. It was an exciting movie but I was a little bit puzzled at the time as to why a British soldier would so eagerly build a bridge for the Japanese. As I said, I was a young boy and my understanding of some things was not yet well formed.

The book, written by Pierre Boulle, who by the way also wrote "Planet Of the Apes",sets the record straight on the first page. He describes the mentality of the Japanese Colonel Saito as being the same as that of British Colonel Nicholson. They are both obsessed with "saving face". Having "spilled the beans" of the message on the first page does nothing to detract from the book. Rather it compels you to keep reading in order to justify this assertion.

The story is of two men and their clash of wills, even as they begin to realize that the gulf that seperates them only undercores their similarities. They are both the end products of false pride. They are both stubbornly rooted in their own beliefs of superiority over the other.

The main thrust of the plot concerns the building of a bridge over the River Kwai. This bridge will carry trainloads of war materials to the Japenese in the isolated areas of Burma. Colonel Saito is under tremendous pressure to get the job completed. Construction on the bridge has begun with almost no progress being made as the prisoners do everything in their power to sabotage the project. It appears that they are happily succeeding in their efforts.

At this point Colonel Nicholson and his men are taken prisoner and marched into camp. They are then tasked with completion of the bridge. As a Japanese, Colonel Saito is determined to bend the prisoners to his will and get the bridge built. To do less would be a loss of face. Colonel Nicholson, on the other hand, is hell bent on showing Colonel Saito that the Japanese are not capable of building a bridge without the British engineering and supervising the work. And although it is against the Geneva Convention to have prisoners work on military projects, Colonel Nicholsons' pride makes him an unwitting accomplice to the Japanese goal. His men are less than pleased. Some think him outright insane.

Unknown to Colonel Nicholson is that word has reached the British Command of his actions. A Commando team is dispatched to destroy the bridge. By this time construction is going well and the bridge is almost complete. The first train is headed towards the River Kwai and Colonel Nicholson is ready to celebrate his "victory" over the Japanese with the sucessful opening of the bridge. He is flush with pride over this accomplishment.

While all this has been going on, the Commandos have infiltrated the area and have wired the bridge, planning to destroy it even as the first train crosses. As Colonel Nicholson inspects the bridge he notices the wire and races to save his beloved bridge. In a gripping climax the Commandos are forced to kill some of the prisoners as one of the Commandos races to stop Colonel Nicholson from disarming the explosives. When the Commando is killed Colonel Nicholson returns to reality and with the sounds of the locomotive crossing the bridge overhead he sets off the charge himself while exclaiming, "What have I done?"

A pulse pounding story based on fact, both the book and the movie keep you on the edge of your seat. The book underscores one of the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins- Pride.

An interesting afternote to this book is the historical aspect. In real life this story actually happened- with one notable exception. The British never did destroy the bridge and it not only served the Japanese for the duration of the war, but parts of it are still in use today.

The movie was released in 1957 and garnered 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture. With flawless direction by David Lean and a cast including Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito and Alec Guiness as Colonel Nicholson, the movie,as well as the book, are both excellent and have long been favorites of mine.

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