“You and that Colonel Nicholson are two of a kind—crazy with courage! For what? How to die ‘like a gentleman.’ How to die ‘by the rules.’ The only important thing is how to live like a human being! I don’t care about your bridge and I don’t care about your rules.”
That’s a quote from Shears, the American naval commander played by William Holden in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which I just watched for the first time this week. It’s a hugely entertaining film as well as a fascinating cultural product: a Hollywood film made for Columbia Pictures by one of Britain’s most renowned auteurs, co-starring Holden and Alec Guinness. I was struck by the film’s intricate thematization of the very issue of Americanness versus Britishness; the conflict here is not so much that between the English Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) and the Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) as it is between the opposed sensibilities of Nicholson and the American Shears, who has been reluctantly drafted into a plot to blow up the bridge that represents the very code by which the obsessive, perfectionist Nicholson lives. (The bridge is Nicholson, and they both eventually go down together, as it were.) Nicholson—the very embodiment of British decorum—understands himself and the world through a system of codified rules; one of his first acts of rebellion after arriving as a POW in Colonel Saito’s camp is to refuse to condone the subjection of his officers to manual labor. He reads from a copy of the Geneva Convention, only to have Saito throw it aside (see images below)—an act tantamount to a slap in the face, which, not coincidentally, Nicholson also receives.
The entire movie is a slap in the face to Britishness: to its emphasis on decorum, rules, codes. Through Nicholson, the film dramatizes the extension of that sensibility to the point of absurdity and mania: Nicholson’s pride in his work drives him to help build his Japanese captors “a better bridge than they would have built themselves.” Nicholson’s British pride is shared by the other Brit in the film, Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), whose behavior incites the Holden character to deliver the above speech. Holden’s disgust with British rule-following becomes the sign of his Americanness, where “being American” means precisely thumbing one’s nose at the rules, especially the rules of war, for the sake of some larger cause. The film sets up Nicholson as a straw man—the British martinet whose personal code becomes a lunatic obsession and a gateway to treason—for the all-American, no-nonsense Holden to come in and tear down/blow up. And the men’s national sensibilities are even written on their bodies: Guinness’ impeccable, prim, sly, feminized Nicholson versus Holden’s lusty, virile, sexually aggressive, athletic, “natural” Shears. (Bosley Crowther described Nicholson as a “dangerously stupid, inbred snob” and called Holden—along with his character, one feels—“delightfully gallant”.) Going further: can this movie be read in terms of Lean’s own coming into conflict with Americans in trying to make a mainstream Hollywood movie that is the equivalent (as a friend pointed out) of the well-constructed bridge itself?