Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

     Today on “Reel Christianity”, I’m doing things a little differently. I’m starting out with a Scripture reference and then telling you about a movie that relates to it. That’s not something I usually do, but I feel like it will be a better way to start off today’s article. It’s a verse that I’ve reference before on the site (you can look up last year’s article on “Sergeant York” to see it), but there’s another movie that illustrates the same point.

     One day, as Jesus is speaking to his followers, the Pharisees come to him and try to trip him up in his words—which, of course, is a very hard thing to accomplish. They ask Jesus whether or not it is right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar. Jesus, knowing exactly what they were trying to do, asks them to show him the coin used to pay the tax. They do so; it is a denarius with someone’s face on it. Jesus asks them to identify the face, and the Pharisees say it is Caesar’s. “Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’” (Matthew 22:21b)

     I don’t think I understood this story as a child, but now, it makes a little more sense. I believe that what Jesus was saying was that to those who are above us in authority, we must honor their requests and respect them, just as we obey and worship God. For if we respect those above us on an earthly level, perhaps people will see how we love God also. This is just my own view on it, and it could very well be different for each one of us. But seeing the passage in this way, I relate it to one of my favorite movies by one of my favorite filmmakers: David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.

     In the film, a troop of British soldiers are captured in World War Two by Japanese forces and taken as prisoners of war. They are assigned by Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) to build a bridge across… well, the river Kwai, that will support a railway going from Burma to Siam. Saito tells them that officers will work as men, which the British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) knows is against the Geneva Convention and thus will not support. But because Saito has no regard for these rules, he has Nicholson put in solitude for what seems like weeks. His men, meanwhile, have no idea how to properly build a bridge—and it doesn’t help that neither do the Japanese.

     When Saito finally arranges for Nicholson’s release, Nicholson does not fight back and make an even worse bridge. He actually does the opposite: he makes sure that all of his men are working at their top. This sounds highly irregular, but there is a method to Nicholson’s reasoning:

NICHOLSON: Our task is to rebuild the battalion—which isn’t going to be easy, but fortunately, we have the means at hand: the bridge. 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. I realize how difficult it’s going to be in this god-forsaken place where you can’t find what you need. But there’s the challenge.

OFFICER EVANS: I beg your pardon, sir. You mean, you really want them to build the bridge?

NICHOLSON: You’re not usually so slow on the uptake, Evans. I know our men; we’ve got to keep them occupied. The fact is, if there weren’t any work for them to do, we’d invent some… But it’s going to be a proper bridge. Here again, I know the men. It’s essential that they should take a pride in their job.

     I suppose Nicholson’s intentions are more to show off the character of the British soldier rather than to show kindness to the Japanese, but I still feel there’s this idea of respecting the people over you simply because of their authority. Of course, this is definitely not the main theme of “The Bridge on the River Kwai”: it becomes a kind of anti-war film later on, as other British soldiers and an escaped American POW (William Holden) plot to blow up the bridge and succeed.

     However, Colonel Nicholson’s decision to complete the bridge to the best of his ability and his men’s ability speaks volumes about what Jesus tells the Pharisees in Matthew 22. In other words, give to Saito what is Saito’s—and to God what is God’s. I pray that you and I would find opportunities today to bless the people for whom we work, so that they may see an example of Christ working in us.

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