The Danger of Discipline: Bridge on the River Kwai

After a post on Inglorious Bastards, I thought I’d continue the thread of movies that […]

Bryan J. / 5.24.10

After a post on Inglorious Bastards, I thought I’d continue the thread of movies that use WWII as a backdrop to explore some of life’s tougher questions. And since MB contributor Aaron M.G. Zimmerman had my copy of Bridge on the River Kwai for about a month and never got around to watching it, I thought a quick note on the Oscar winner “Best Picture” of ’57 would be fun for him and anybody else burned out from American Evangelical notions of pietism and discipline. [Spoiler Alert!]

Alec Guinness won an Oscar in Kwai for his role as Colonial Nicholson, a British officer whose stiff upper lip and penchant for order were unshakable, even in the context of a Japanese POW camp. No matter what happened to him or his unit during war, two things were non-negotiable: order and discipline. The infamous scene where the ragged soldiers enter the POW camp whistling a march and forming ranks has been parodied and honored in plenty of movies since (see Breakfast Club, Spaceballs, see the trailer below). In his attempts to maintain order and discipline amongst his troops in the POW camp, Nicholson ends up out disciplining, out ordering, and out persevering the Japanese Colonial in charge of the camp. Throughout the first half of the movie, Nicholson becomes a hero of the film.

But by the second half, something goes wrong. The discipline and order of Nicholson become, well, neurotic. In an ironic plot twist, Nicholson volunteers to head the construction of the titular bridge, which the POWs had been haphazardly piecing together and sabotaging for most of the film. He and his unit redesign the bridge, form ranks, and for the good of discipline and order, begin to seriously tackle the construction of the bridge.

Thus, the movie’s chief irony.
These British soldiers, who not long ago were shooting and killing the Japanese, are now helping the Japanese complete a railroad system that will funnel thousands of troops to the front lines to kill more British. In the name of discipline, the Brit POWs are aiding and abetting the enemy. The movie’s climax erupts when Colonial Nicholson finds explosives strapped to his beloved bridge by British commandoes and is confronted head-on with the implications of his actions, and you’re just going to have to watch the movie to see the end.

Here, the gospel and Kwai ask a similar question: is discipline really all that it’s cracked up to be? Is it possible that discipline can go so far that, instead of bringing order and restraint, it brings about pride and blindness? Could one’s discipline go so far as to aide and abet the enemy?

I have been found guilty on both sides of the discipline coin. At one point in my late teens, I needed to prove how good a Christian I was compared to the rest of my youth group, and for about a year I strutted about like a rooster because I had reigned in a few particular outward behaviors. When I got to college, I met Christians who were so much more disciplined than I was to the point where I despaired and knew that God was not pleased with what I was becoming.

Thanks be to God, then, that discipline is not the paradigm of the Christian Gospel or the Christian Life. Our paradigm is grace, devoid of the rigors of discipline for attaining or maintaining salvation. The trick then with discipline is to not make it the goal of the spiritual life. If we do that, we’ll end up like Colonial Nicholson, confronting the monsters we’ve created only after it’s too late to stop them. Instead, the spiritual life becomes wrestling with the implications of grace, and as that happens, we may just find that the implications of grace are the only things that bring the heart change that discipline tried, but never could, achieve.

To think otherwise is: “madness… sheer madness…”