Don’t Lose Sight of the Forest For the Trees.
A reformulation of the philosophical debate of what is morally right and lesson to be flexible in our approaches.
American Film Institute’s Ranking: #13/100
Awards: Nominated for 8 winning 7 including Best Picture, Director, and Actor.
This movie is an odd one, but I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much — it’s a war movie that almost has nothing to do with war!
The movie uses the backdrop of a POW camp during WWII along with stereotypical cultural caricatures to make a commentary on virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. Outside of one clandestine operation, there is no other action. The thrill is the interaction between the wills of the irreverent American (William Holden), the proper Englishman (Alec Guinness), and the stoic Japanese (Sessue Hayakawa).
A new delivery of British POW arrive at a camp in Burma. The overseer, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) informs that everyone is going to work on building a bridge over the River Kwai, including those of higher rank. Lt. Colonol Nicholson (Alec Guinness) refuses and informs Colonol Saito that this is a violation of Geneva Conventions. In protest Nicholson stands all day in the heat and is eventually placed in an iron box due to his insubordination. Commander Shears (William Holden) escapes the camp during this and is able to return to the main forces.
The British prisoners intentionally sabotage their work efforts, and Colonel Saito decides to release Nicholson in hopes that he will be able to help him assist in building the bridge. When Nicholson sees the awful work his troops are doing, he commands them to build the bridge with excellence. Meanwhile, Shears is now going to return to try and blow up the bridge to ensure the Japanese cannot use it.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BRIDGE.
This movie takes some unpacking because the storyline is quite farcical: the idea that a British POW would so adamantly assist the enemy in building a bridge to further their operations is asinine. If you are able to suspend disbelief about this, I think then you will see the greater purpose this movie was trying to push.
Col. Nicholson’s values lead to behaviors that we would want to emulate early in the movie. In the face of punishment from Col. Saito, he still stands up for what is right for himself and his men. We applaud this exemplary attitude for his troops and cheered his release from confinement as a victory for the good.
However, his commitment to these same values somehow lead to very deranged behavior as the movie progresses; he starts to use his discipline and commitment to excellence to abide the enemy in progressing its military operations. We become appalled at his actions wondering if he has lost his mind. How did someone so righteous become so quickly morally confused?
Here are a few quotes from Col. Nicholson explaining his reasoning:
“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.”
“One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity.”
Found here are the same commitments that lead to his earlier triumphs: pride in work, thrive under hardship, excellence. The only problem is that Col. Nicholson has forgotten to take the next step and see what the consequences of his actions are going to be. This is a classic reformulation of the classic debate between virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology.
There are many ways to look at whether something is morally right and it involves analyzing either the person, the act, or the outcome. Depending on which one you hold most important determines which camp you are in, and this is historically how they have been divided:
- Virtue Ethics: Look at the person.
- Deontology: Look at the act.
- Consequentialism: Look at the outcome.
One could say that Col. Nicholson had many solid virtues supporting his actions (outside of his boastfulness and vanity to prove that the West is superior to the East). Like aforementioned, he acted virtuously in the face of the wrong conditions being put on the British POW earlier in the movie. He also acted deontologically appropriately as he was fulfilling his duty that was put upon him as a prisoner. However, he failed quite brilliantly in a consequential matter, ignoring what the outcome of his actions would be.
As the ending of the movie coalesces around him, the events unfolding due to his adherence to virtue ethics and deontology, Col. Nicholson lets out a sheepish cry:
“What have I done?”
Of course, every approach has to begin with a belief. Virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism all have one presupposition embedded within their framework. Because of this, they can’t all be right all the time which is what makes philosophy so interesting.
The reason that Nicholson’s actions are so confusing is that he completely ignores the outcome, something that is very easy for us, the viewer, to pick up on. Unpacking the reason for his actions is where the challenge is, and upon doing so we find that we must always keep our head on a swivel: too much dedication to the person, the act or the outcome can lead to disaster.
Other People’s Takes:
- Ms. M’s Bookshelf: “There’s no question that Bridge on the River Kwai was an amazing movie (1958).”
- The Soul of the Plot: “Not only does it have awesome scope and power, but it tells an individual story at the same time. In short, David Lean delivers on exactly what he does best.”
- Bored and Dangerous: “The Bridge on the River Kwai is almost 60 years old, but watching it, you’d never think that. It has a vibrancy and style and energy that make it feel anything but stodgy, or dated, or old fashioned. “