Review: The Bridge over the River Kwai

by Tom Ingram

This book has been out for a little while now, but as far as I’m concerned there’s no time limit for reviews. The Bridge Over The River Kwai is a novella by classic French author Pierre Boulle (translated by Xan Fielding), and was the basis for the award-winning movie starring Sir Alec Guinness. The book follows a battalion of captured British soldiers who are forced to build a bridge for the Japanese in Burma. Colonel Nicholson, the senior British officer, decides to devote all his effort to building the bridge properly in order to keep his men disciplined and follow his strict code of honour. Meanwhile, back in India, a British commando unit sends out a team to destroy the bridge.

At first it seemed like the book was profoundly racist, no doubt a product of its time. But then I realized that the racism was only present when certain characters had the point of view, and the level-headed Major Clipton and Captain Warden take surprisingly complex views of the Japanese and Siamese characters. Once you realize this, it becomes a scathing criticism of a certain kind of mind, best summed up by the quote:

These people, the Japanese, have only just emerged from a state of barbarism, and prematurely at that.

It appears that Boulle was slightly ahead of his time, because this kind of thinking is depressingly common even today.

Colonel Nicholson is the kind of obsessive bureaucrat that is rightly looked down upon by most people, but it’s hard not to respect him given the sheer lengths he’s willing to go to in order to uphold the rules. When Nicholson was in the forefront of a scene, I was convinced despite myself that building the bridge was a good and just thing to do, even if it helped the enemy. His authority is so strong that you want to follow his orders regardless of the fact that he’s (a) a villain, and (b) fictional.

One on level, this book is a fun, pulpy military adventure. Its excellent pacing leads to an exhilarating, explosive climax immediately at the end. The stealthy creeping of the Force 316 operatives, Colonel Nicholson’s bold defiance of his captors, and the brutality of the occupying Japanese soldiers all make for a tight army thriller. But it also examines racism, British colonial attitudes, and a psychotic devotion to honour and “the rules”. These two layers combine to make a story that’s both deep and engaging. This is the way literature should be.

You can find The Bridge over the River Kwai online at Chapters, McNally, or Amazon if you’re internationally inclined.

Incidentally, I’ve also seen the movie. It is a classic work of cinema, but it’s seriously dumbed down and they pulled that stupid move where they replace a British character with an American one because American audiences will never watch it unless they have a red-blooded Eaglelander to root for. It’s insulting to the intelligence of everyone watching it, especially Americans. I would give it a Respectable grade.