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Was Colonel Nicholson justified or not?

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In Bridge on the River Kwai, Colonel Nicholson is shown as a bit of a traitor for helping the Japanese Col. Saito and even mutters "what have I done?" at the end of the film but I don't really think he was a traitor. He only did what he was instructed to by building the bridge and was even told the train would help take ill prisoners to hospitals where they could be cared for. He followed the rules of the Geneva Convention and did what he had to help his own men. If anything, the headquarters at the beginning who told him to just surrender were to blame for him even getting captured. Was he justified with building the bridge or should he have sabotaged it like some of his men had wanted?

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Also, I must say this was another great performance from Sir Alec Guinness. Probably my favorite alongside his Ealing Comedy performances.

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I believe he stated his purpose in all that early on, as an opportunity to display what he felt was British superiority in military discipline, British integrity and ability to show the Japanese how futile their war efforts will invariably become.  

BTW--- since this site will allow you only ONE emoticon "reply" , I mentally flipped a coin to choose between "thanks" and "like", which if possible, I would have put BOTH!  ;) 

Sepiatone

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I've been a hardcore classic movie fan since I was about 10 years old, but it wasn't until just a few years ago that i finally got around to seeing THE BRIDGE OF THE RIVER KWAI (IRONICALLY, It was when CLORIS LEACHMAN selected the film when she was a TCM guest programmer specifically because SHE had never seen it!)

to badly misquote Shakespeare- it is a tale of sound and fury, told by someone who is not an idiot- but involving one- and in the end, signifying nothing.

that's not a knock on it- it's a very good, VERY well constructed film- but it's a risky venture- a 3 hour highly involving film that kills nearly the entire cast and whose whole point is that- in war- there is no point.

it is all madness and insanity.

i'm sure you all know this, but in the source novel, they FAIL to blow up the bridge- which I think is kind of a great ending for the book, but Jesus, can you imagine the RIOTS in the cinemas if they had ended the movie that way????

I'm glad ALEC GUINESS (aka GENUINE CLASS) won an Oscar for something, but for me, his victory goes under the "the right people always win the Oscar for the wrong performance"- quote of Kate Hepburn's- his Nicholson is interesting, but not as interesting as every other performance i have seen from GUINESS, and he is a SUPPORTING character to boot- I feel like the real lead (and best performance in the movie) is from WILLIAM HOLDEN, who I sometimes find unnatural as an actor (it feels like he's reading lines as opposed to acting in many of his films) but who I here think really gives one of his finest performances.

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(part of me kinda wishes THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI had been done as an EALING COMEDY- it actually has ALL THE RIGHT ELEMENTS- starting with the absurdity of it all)

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Short answer:  No.  "The [Geneva] Convention lists in detail the types of work a prisoner of war may be compelled to perform, “besides work connected with camp administration, installation or maintenance”.[2] This list builds upon the general prohibition found in the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War that “work done by prisoners of war shall have no direct connection with the operations of the war”.[3]https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule95

Not saying POW's were not involved in performing forced labor on war related projects and that their commanders did not resist it.  However, in Bridge Nicholson not only cooperated, but took over construction and made it better and quicker.  That is collaboration.

Nicholson was collaborating with the enemy in order to construct a bridge to be used to support the Japanese war effort.  The part about transporting "his" troops to a hospital was BS and he would have known that.  The Japanese would never have given up space on the trains to transport POW's to a hospital.

The below is form Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bridge_on_the_River_Kwai

Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey of the British Army was the real senior Allied officer at the bridge in question. Toosey was very different from Nicholson and was certainly not a collaborator who felt obliged to work with the Japanese. Toosey in fact did as much as possible to delay the building of the bridge. While Nicholson disapproves of acts of sabotage and other deliberate attempts to delay progress, Toosey encouraged this: termites were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures, and the concrete was badly mixed.[24][25] Some consider the film to be an insulting parody of Toosey.[24] On a BBC Timewatch programme, a former prisoner at the camp states that it is unlikely that a man like the fictional Nicholson could have risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and, if he had, due to his collaboration he would have been "quietly eliminated" by the other prisoners. Julie Summers, in her book The Colonel of Tamarkan, writes that Boulle, who had been a prisoner of war in Thailand, created the fictional Nicholson character as an amalgam of his memories of collaborating French officers.[24] He strongly denied the claim that the book was anti-British, although many involved in the film itself (including Alec Guinness) felt otherwise.[30] Ernest Gordon, a survivor of the railway construction and POW camps described in the novel/film, stated in a 1962 book, Through the Valley of the Kwai: "In Pierre Boulle's book The Bridge over the River Kwai and the film which was based on it, the impression was given that British officers not only took part in building the bridge willingly, but finished in record time to demonstrate to the enemy their superior efficiency. This was an entertaining story. But I am writing a factual account, and in justice to these men—living and dead—who worked on that bridge, I must make it clear that we never did so willingly. We worked at bayonet point and under bamboo lash, taking any risk to sabotage the operation whenever the opportunity arose."[23]

The bridge was destroyed by Allied air raids, not sabotage.

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Boy oh boy, Cid! Is the NEXT thing you're try and tell me here is that there really was never any motorcycle stunts performed by any of the actual POW escapees from that German stalag in another certain movie EITHER???

;)

(...thanks for the above clarifying post regarding this David Lean film...hadn't previously known much of that...and thanks also to Gershwin fan for starting this interesting thread)

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2 hours ago, LornaHansonForbes said:

I'm glad ALEC GUINESS (aka GENUINE CLASS)

And let us never forget JEREMY IRONS (aka JEREMY'S ... IRON).

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Been a while since I've seen this movie. Doesn't Nicholson go on a hunger strike early in it because the Japanese want the officers to perform manual labor, in violation of the Geneva Convention? That always rubbed me the wrong way. He's got the commitment to die just to prove a point, but it also seems kind of elitist.

I think we're meant to have mixed emotions about him. He's an inspiration to his men under extremely challenging conditions, but obviously at the end, he's gotten so wrapped up in the completion of the project, he seems to have momentarily forgotten which side of the war he's on, and (spoiler alert!), Holden and others probably die needlessly because of it. Though he takes advantage of a chance to redeem himself. 

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2 hours ago, TheCid said:

Short answer:  No.  "The [Geneva] Convention lists in detail the types of work a prisoner of war may be compelled to perform, “besides work connected with camp administration, installation or maintenance”.[2] This list builds upon the general prohibition found in the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War that “work done by prisoners of war shall have no direct connection with the operations of the war”.[3]https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule95

Not saying POW's were not involved in performing forced labor on war related projects and that their commanders did not resist it.  However, in Bridge Nicholson not only cooperated, but took over construction and made it better and quicker.  That is collaboration.

Nicholson was collaborating with the enemy in order to construct a bridge to be used to support the Japanese war effort.  The part about transporting "his" troops to a hospital was BS and he would have known that.  The Japanese would never have given up space on the trains to transport POW's to a hospital.

The below is form Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bridge_on_the_River_Kwai

Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey of the British Army was the real senior Allied officer at the bridge in question. Toosey was very different from Nicholson and was certainly not a collaborator who felt obliged to work with the Japanese. Toosey in fact did as much as possible to delay the building of the bridge. While Nicholson disapproves of acts of sabotage and other deliberate attempts to delay progress, Toosey encouraged this: termites were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures, and the concrete was badly mixed.[24][25] Some consider the film to be an insulting parody of Toosey.[24] On a BBC Timewatch programme, a former prisoner at the camp states that it is unlikely that a man like the fictional Nicholson could have risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and, if he had, due to his collaboration he would have been "quietly eliminated" by the other prisoners. Julie Summers, in her book The Colonel of Tamarkan, writes that Boulle, who had been a prisoner of war in Thailand, created the fictional Nicholson character as an amalgam of his memories of collaborating French officers.[24] He strongly denied the claim that the book was anti-British, although many involved in the film itself (including Alec Guinness) felt otherwise.[30] Ernest Gordon, a survivor of the railway construction and POW camps described in the novel/film, stated in a 1962 book, Through the Valley of the Kwai: "In Pierre Boulle's book The Bridge over the River Kwai and the film which was based on it, the impression was given that British officers not only took part in building the bridge willingly, but finished in record time to demonstrate to the enemy their superior efficiency. This was an entertaining story. But I am writing a factual account, and in justice to these men—living and dead—who worked on that bridge, I must make it clear that we never did so willingly. We worked at bayonet point and under bamboo lash, taking any risk to sabotage the operation whenever the opportunity arose."[23]

The bridge was destroyed by Allied air raids, not sabotage.

Thanks for clarifying. From Toosey's page-

Behind the backs of the Japanese, Toosey did everything possible to delay and sabotage the construction without endangering his men. Refusal to work would have meant instant execution. Termites were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures and the concrete was badly mixed. Toosey also helped organise a daring escape, at considerable cost to himself. (In the film the fictional colonel forbids escapes.) The two escaping officers had been given a month's rations and Toosey concealed their escape for 48 hours. After a month the two escapees were recaptured and bayoneted. Toosey was punished for concealing the escape.

I wish they had included this in the film. It's an example of the real person being more heroic than portrayed in the film.

13 minutes ago, sewhite2000 said:

Been a while since I've seen this movie. Doesn't Nicholson go on a hunger strike early in it because the Japanese want the officers to perform manual labor, in violation of the Geneva Convention? That always rubbed me the wrong way. He's got the commitment to die just to prove a point, but it also seems kind of elitist.

I think we're meant to have mixed emotions about him. He's an inspiration to his men under extremely challenging conditions, but obviously at the end, he's gotten so wrapped up in the completion of the project, he seems to have momentarily forgotten which side of the war he's on, and (spoiler alert!), Holden and others probably die needlessly because of it. Though he takes advantage of a chance to redeem himself. 

I felt his desire to build the bridge was half his own pride and sticking it to them and also half to genuinely help his soldiers not perish (like the massive death toll seen at the beginning of the film). By the end of the film, this line is blurred.

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2 hours ago, LornaHansonForbes said:

(part of me kinda wishes THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI had been done as an EALING COMEDY- it actually has ALL THE RIGHT ELEMENTS- starting with the absurdity of it all)

If it had been done as an Ealing comedy, there would be a good opportunity for a close-up of the "this Bridge was completed by British Unit ____" sign as the Colonel blows up the bridge he worked so hard to build. :lol: 

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1 hour ago, Gershwin fan said:

If it had been done as an Ealing comedy, there would be a good opportunity for a close-up of the "this Bridge was completed by British Unit ____" sign as the Colonel blows up the bridge he worked so hard to build. :lol: 

THE NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN MEMORIAL BRIDGE was constructed by British Unit “” is good...

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My mom views the Colonel as a patriot while my dad views him as a traitor.  

But seriously I don't view him as a traitor since what motivated his actions wasn't to assist the enemy.   

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Nicholson was either nuts when he got there after a hot forced march through the jungle or the oven overcooked his cookies.

:D

james Donald sums it up best "madness!"

"my officers will not do manual labor."

"we shall see!"

Image result for colonel saito quotes

 

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I always figured Nicholson was one of those stiff upper lip, sun never sets type of limey who

would do anything to prove that the Brits were better than anyone else, even to the absurd

point of building a bridge that would aid the enemy. Mad dogs, etc.

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7 hours ago, jamesjazzguitar said:

My mom views the Colonel as a patriot while my dad views him as a traitor.  

But seriously I don't view him as a traitor since what motivated his actions wasn't to assist the enemy.   

There's also no telling what Saito would have done to the prisoners if they didn't start making progress. 

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DsiHt3TXQAIwmn3.jpg

The great thing about Kwai is that Lean poses the question in the title of your thread but gives us more than one answer.  Nicholson and his men had not only been captured by the Japanese but bit by bit were becoming living corpses.  Nicholson managed to rally his men by showing the Japanese that they were superior engineers and left to their own devices could make a better job of it as men rather than as indentured slaves.  Moral helped keep them alive and to survive.

The trick here is that Nicholson goes a little potty and loses sight of the fact that elsewhere a bigger war is still going on.  So while he personally battles with Sato he has lost the bigger picture and is in fact helping their war effort.

His "what have I done" is a moment of redemption.  He moves toward the plunger to make amends only to have a motor shell fatally wound him.  On the big screen when Nicholson gets up and leans down to pick up his cap like a good English gentleman you can see the gore on the back of his head.  Fate takes over a that point.

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3.jpg?w=1000

Colonel Sato actually encounters the same dichotomy but almost in reverse.  He gets his bridge built which will please his superiors but loses the personal contest he has going with Nicholson.  He prepares for hara-kiri when the bridge in completed.  But does he come up with a different solution?  Note the shot of Sato putting his hand on the hilt of his scabbard when he and Nicholson are alone on the bridge, the men having been marched on ahead.  Is he planning on killing Nicholson and dumping his body over the edge?  He is interrupted when Nicholson spots the signs of sabotage.  Fate takes over.

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34c6ac_9497a8c76004447699cf201c292bce74.

William Holden's Shears is another kettle of fish.  He is the American who has survival at all costs on his mind.  He views the others as men who like to play at being soldiers while losing sight of the fact that life is meant to be lived.  But when the "big mission" is threatened with failure duty calls and Shears answers.

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jack_hawkins_3.jpg

Jack Hawkins' Major Warden is a big picture soldier who leads the commando raid on the bridge.  He sees Nicholson's effort to save the bridge as treason.  But when he levels his motor at his own men to try to save the mission even the Siamese girls back away from him.  He has lost some level of humanity in fighting this war.

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shears shoulda stayed back at the hospital with the pretty English nurse.

:D

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8 minutes ago, NipkowDisc said:

shears shoulda stayed back at the hospital with the pretty English nurse.

:D

No kidding but impersonating an officer left him with no choice.  He had to go "with or without a parachute."

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When Nicholson is looking over the side of the bridge and talking about his long life in the military and "not even 10 months at home", it actually struck me as a bit suicidal. That may be just my interpretation though.

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18 minutes ago, Gershwin fan said:

When Nicholson is looking over the side of the bridge and talking about his long life in the military and "not even 10 months at home", it actually struck me as a bit suicidal. That may be just my interpretation though.

Well I think it is foreshadowing death.  He loses his stick which symbolizes his command, career, life.  But it is also his moment to let down his guard and be human.  When he turns and sees Sato he snaps out of it.  They are not allowed to be friends, to be human.

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