Monday, June 21, 2010

Engineering Ethics In the Movies: The Bridge On the River Kwai

In 1957, World War II was nearly as recent to people living then as the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks are to us today. So when a film was released that year about British and American servicemen working in a Japanese prison camp to build a bridge for important railway supply line through Burma (now Myanmar), the story had an emotional punch simply because it was about a recent war that many viewers fought in personally. But even now, half a century later, "The Bridge On the River Kwai" throws a strong light on a perennial problem in engineering ethics: getting the larger picture of what you as an engineer are doing.

I won't worry about giving you a spoiler alert here, because even if you know how it turns out, it's the kind of story that's good enough to watch anyway. The tale pivots on the personality of Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness), a British officer captured by the Japanese in Burma, along with a couple hundred of his officers and men. The first part of the movie is a test of wills between Saito, the prison-camp commandant, and Nicholson. Saito insists that the officers must do manual labor along with the men; Nicholson and his officers refuse, citing the Geneva Convention prohibiting it. In revenge, Saito claps the officers in a tiny cell and puts Nicholson in a "hot box": an iron shed exposed to the tropical sun for days. Saito, under pressure to build a railway bridge across a nearby river by a deadline only a couple of months away, eventually sees that he's getting nowhere, and uses a Japanese holiday as an excuse to give in to Nicholson's demands. In return, Nicholson seizes on the bridge project as a way to instill order and discipline in his men, and returns to effective command.

The rest of the movie is a penetrating psychological study of how a person (in particular, an engineer, though the point is relevant to anyone engaged on a challenging project) can become captivated by a technical challenge to the exclusion of its wider purpose and effects. Until Nicholson assumes responsibility for the bridge, the Japanese have been fluffing the job. They selected the wrong site where the river bottom is too soft and the uncooperative prisoners have encumbered the work at every opportunity. Nicholson initially justifies tackling the project with a sincere desire to do the best he can as a way to show the Japanese the superiority of British discipline and know-how. And he succeeds. His engineering-trained officers have built bridges like this before, and despite setbacks Nicholson and his men complete the structure the day before a train of dignitaries is scheduled to cross it for the first time. Ironically, Nicholson eventually asks his officers to do manual labor in his rush to finish the bridge—breaking the very same principle he insisted on keeping in his battle with Saito earlier.

In a parallel story, an American sailor who escaped from the camp earlier has joined a British commando team who have made their way through the jungle to place explosives under the river surface in order to blow up the same bridge. After many struggles, they manage to do this on the night before the first train is supposed to arrive, and station a man downstream with a plunger-type detonator to blow it up as the train crosses the bridge.

All is well for this plan until Nature intervenes: overnight, the river level falls, revealing the detonator cable here and there rising from the receding water. Tension among the commandos runs high as that morning, Nicholson strolls out to view "his" bridge, even stopping to admire a commemorative plaque he placed on the bridge that says British troops built the bridge on such-and-such a date. When he spots a suspicious-looking cable sticking up above the water, he calls Saito and they climb down to trace the path of the cable along the bank. Just as they reach the detonator, one of the commandos opens fire and mortally wounds Nicholson. At the very last moment, he realizes with horror that for the last two months he has been aiding the enemy. Gasping, "What have I done?" he falls on the detonator, and the bridge blows just as the train is crossing it.

Now, there are engineers opposed to war of any form, and even they have a spokesman in the movie. One of Nicholson's officers is given the last word of the film: after witnessing the tragic end of the project, he says simply, "Madness," and to that extent you can view the entire movie as a kind of anti-war epic. But given the assumption of most of the characters that the war was a necessary evil, clearly Nicholson allowed his pride in technical accomplishment to overcome his judgment about how a given project (the bridge) fit into the larger scheme of things.

Many engineers eventually become managers, but that doesn't mean they can leave engineering ethics behind. The men under Nicholson's command were basically tools that he could bend to his will. It took the British commando team to remind Nicholson that Japan was the enemy, and the Geneva-convention rules applied to everyone, not just the Japanese. Like many problems in engineering ethics, the film presents a complex situation, though it was simplified for dramatic intensity. While reality is not usually as dramatic as the film portrayed it, the story highlights the kinds of questions that engineers still face today: What am I really doing? What is its real purpose? Am I doing this just because I enjoy the technical challenge, or because it genuinely contributes to the good of society? These are all questions that every engineer should ponder from time to time. And if you have a chance to check out "The Bridge On the River Kwai," do it. It's a great film.

Sources: Besides the DVD of the film, the Internet Movie Database ( has a good detailed plot synopsis which I referred to.

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