Director David Lean’s war epic (and precursor to “Lawrence of Arabia”) is chiefly about the twilight of the British Empire, personified by a magnificent Alec Guiness, whose film this is. Guiness is Col. Nicholson, the senior officer in a group of British prisoners held in a Japanese prison camp in occupied Burma. Nicholson is a 19th century, old school officer who defers to honor, nobility, and a respect for military rigor. His brutal Japanese captors cleverly seduce this lunatic chivalry.
After enduring torture to make a point with camp commander Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), Nicholson is conned — or cons himself — into building a railroad bridge that Saito needs to ensure supply lines. For Nicholson, completing the project on time represents a test of British skill and mettle, ironic empire-building. The ailing prisoners gradually see Nicholson’s obsessive misguidance for what it is, aiding and abetting the enemy. Even Saito, who once studied in London and speaks English, is dumbstruck by Nicholson’s verve.
Though both prisoners and the Japanese perform well — with Jack Hawkins and William Holden doing yeoman’s work as a team of escaped prisoners tasked with destroying the bridge — Lean’s sleeper mega-hit hinges on Nicholson, a Conrad-like character who realizes the horror too late (“What have I done!”, he exclaims).
Few mainstream epics have taken up the blurring of patriotism and madness so astutely. Mitch Miller’s whistled march, a hit in its own right, made the movie internationally famous for decades. Guiness won a best actor Oscar.