About thirty years ago I read an essay that was so good I pinched the book it was in from my sister. In truth, the book, an anthology of expository writing called the Norton Reader, had been assigned in one of her college courses and when the class was over she abandoned it at home. So I was really only rescuing it from neglect.
The essay was “‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’ as Myth” by Ian Watt and was reprinted from a 1971 issue of the Berkshire Review. I knew nothing about the author except what the endnotes stated—that he was a professor of English at Stanford University and author of The Rise of the Novel. But his unique perspective and analysis impressed me, for as a young British lieutenant he was one of the prisoners of war who worked on the two-hundred-mile stretch of railroad across Thailand and the real bridges over the Kwai (yes, there were actually two).
Watt’s experience enabled him to explain the origins and evolution of the River Kwai “myth.” He begins with a synopsis of the surrender to Japan of more than a hundred thousand British soldiers in Malaya and Singapore in 1942. He describes the Japanese Army’s organizational structure and attitudes toward prisoners, life in the prison camp and on work details, and how the senior British officer, Colonel Philip Toosey, saved lives by organizing the prisoners and by “handling” their Japanese captors, at least as well as a captive officer could in such harsh and demoralizing conditions.
Watt then traces how a Free French officer named Pierre Boulle, who served in Indochina during the war, heard of the British colonel and the building of the bridges. Boulle subsequently wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai, which was published in 1954.
Boulle’s fictional Colonel Nicholson is an infantile egomaniac obsessed with the means of the work and, as a result, he becomes an unwitting collaborator. According to Watt, he is much more a representation of French officers who called Boulle a traitor when they switched their allegiance to Vichy France than he is of the real Colonel Toosey.
As Watt states, the novel thematically explores “how the vast scale and complication of operations which are rendered possible, and are even in one sense required, by modern technology tend finally to destroy human meanings and purposes. The West is the master of its means, but not its ends.”
In David Lean’s 1957 Oscar-winning movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, which achieved great popular success and critical acclaim, the myth expands further and moves still farther from reality. The bridge becomes an engineering marvel, a cantilevered wooden fantasy instead of the real iron-truss bridge built beside a temporary wooden bridge. And, most significantly, it is blown up at the end.
The movie, in contrast to the novel and in contradiction to the real lessons of survival learned by the prisoners, is about the institutional insanity of war and the irony of its senseless outcomes. (For Watt, the movie’s theme is made even more ironic by the facts of its making: the bridge for the movie was built not in Thailand, which didn’t look the part, but in Ceylon, at the cost of a quarter-million dollars, only to be destroyed along with a real train in that final audience-pleasing scene.)
For Watt, the further preposterousness of the myth-making is the fact that tourists in Thailand go to see the real steel bridge and nearby cemeteries of the prisoners who died building it to feed a fantasy perpetrated by the movie.
Pierre Boulle borrowed a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Victory for the epigraph to his novel: “No, it was not funny; it was rather pathetic; he was so representative of all the past victims of the great Joke. But it is by folly alone that the world moves, and so it is a respectable thing upon the whole. And, besides, he was what one would call a good man.”
Watt provides a plausible reason why Boulle may have made that choice—to emphasize the absurdity of the human condition in this, the dead-end of history. At the end of the essay, however, Watt returns to Conrad to defend the real Colonel Toosey: “a hero of the only kind we could afford then, and there. For he was led not by what he wanted to believe, but by what he knew: he knew that the world would not do his bidding; that he could not beat the Japanese; that on the Kwai—even more obviously than at home—we were for the most part prisoners of coercive circumstance.”
For Watt, the myth of the Kwai denies the reality Colonel Toosey represented, those two Conradian moral imperatives: work and restraint in the face of coercive circumstance.
Note to the reader: The good news is that Ian Watt’s thought-provoking essay is still available, and you don’t have to find a forty-year-old edition of the Norton Reader to read it. It turns out that, until his death in 1999, Watt was one of the leading scholars on the English novel and, in particular, Joseph Conrad. In 2000, Cambridge University Press published his Essays on Conrad (which I will review another time); thankfully the publisher included this remarkable essay as the coda of that collection.