The Bridge Over the River Kwai - Page 5

Listen Audio

His natural inclination to generalize led Clipton to identify this combination of two fears, the fear of superiors and of subordinates respectively, as the main source of all calamities. As he put this idea into words, he felt that somewhere or other he had once come across this very psychological maxim. This gave him a certain sense of satisfaction, which helped to allay his anxiety. He developed this train of thought a little further, but was brought to a stop on the threshold of the hospital by the realization that every other calamity, even the worst in the world, could be attributed to men who had neither superiors nor subordinates.

Saito must have thought the matter over. His treatment of the prisoner was more lenient during the following week, at the end of which he went to see him and asked if he had finally decided to behave like a gentleman. He had arrived in a reasonable frame of mind, intending to appeal to the Colonel's common sense, but faced with the latter's refusal to discuss a question which was already cut and dried, he again lost his temper and worked himself up into a state of hysterical frenzy in which he could hardly be taken for a civilized human being. The Colonel was again beaten up, and the gorilla-like Korean received strict orders for the harsh regime of the first few days to be resumed. Saito even struck the guard as well. He was no longer responsible for his actions when seized by these fits, and he accused the man of being too soft-hearted. He rushed about the cell like a raving lunatic, brandishing a pistol and threatening to use it on the guard as well as the prisoner in order to enforce a little discipline.

Clipton, who once more tried to intervene, also came in for a few blows, and his hospital was cleared of all patients who were still capable of standing upright. They were forced to drag themselves to the building yards and shift heavy loads; otherwise they would have been beaten to death. For several days terror reigned over the River Kwai camp. Colonel Nicholson's answer to. his ill-treatment was a stubborn, haughty silence.

Saito's personality seemed to switch from that of a Mister Hyde, capable of every kind of atrocity, to a comparatively humane Doctor Jekyll. Once the period of violence was over, a regime of extraordinary leniency succeeded it. Colonel Nicholson was allowed to draw not only full rations, but also a supplementary scale normally earmarked for the sick list. Clipton was given permission to see him and attend to him, and Saito even warned him that he held him personally responsible for the Colonel's health.

One evening Saito had the prisoner brought into his room and then dismissed the escort. Alone with him, he asked him to sit down, and drew from his stores a tin of American corned beef, some cigarettes, and a bottle of liqueur whisky. He told him that, as a soldier, he felt a deep admiration for his attitude, but war was war even though neither of them was responsible for it. Surely he could understand that he, Saito, was obliged to obey the orders of his superior officers? Now, these orders stated that the bridge across the River Kwai was to be built as quickly as possible. He was therefore compelled to make use of all the personnel available. The Colonel refused the corned beef, the cigarettes, and the whisky, but listened with interest to what he had to say. He calmly replied that Saito had not the vaguest idea of how to tackle a work of such importance.

He had reverted to his original arguments. It looked as though the argument was likely to go on forever. No one on earth could have told whether Saito was going to discuss the matter sensibly or give vent to another hysterical outburst. He was silent for some time, while the question no doubt was being debated on some supernatural plane unknown to mortals. The Colonel took advantage of this and said:

"May I ask you, Colonel Saito, if you're satisfied with the work so far?"

The insidious question might well have tipped the scales on the side of hysteria, for the work was progressing badly —which was one of Colonel Saito's major worries, since his career was at stake as much as his reputation. But this was not the cue for Mister Hyde. He looked foolish, hung his head, and muttered some inaudible reply. Then he put a full glass of whisky into the prisoner's hand, poured a large one out for himself, and said:

"Look, Colonel Nicholson, I don't think you've really understood. There's no need for us to be at loggerheads. When I said all the officers were to work, naturally I never meant you, the commanding officer. My orders only applied to the others . . ."

"Not one of my officers will work," said the Colonel, putting his glass back on the table.

Saito suppressed a gesture of annoyance and concentrated on keeping calm.

"I've been thinking the matter over during the last few days," he went on. "I think I could put majors and above on administrative duties. Only the junior officers would then have to lend a hand . . ."

"None of the officers will do any manual labor," said Colonel Nicholson. "An officer must be in command of his men."

At this, Saito could control himself no longer. But when the Colonel returned to his cell, having successfully stuck to his guns in spite of bribes, threats, blows, and even entreaties, he felt that the situation was well in hand and that it would not be long before the enemy capitulated.


The work was at a standstill. The Colonel had touched Saito on a raw spot when he asked how the task was progressing, and he was proved right in his forecast that the Japanese would eventually have to yield through sheer necessity.

Three weeks had gone by, and not only was the bridge not yet under way, but the preliminary preparations had been handled so ingeniously by the prisoners that it would take considerable time to repair all the damage that had been done.

Infuriated by the treatment meted out to the C.O., whose courage and endurance they had admired, fretting under the torrent of curses and blows which the sentries rained down on them, indignant at being employed like slaves on work which was useful to the enemy, feeling all at sea now that they were separated from their officers and no longer heard the familiar words of command, the British soldiers competed with each other to see who could be the slackest or, better still, who could commit the most elementary blunders under an ostentatious show of willingness.

There was no punishment sufficiently severe to curb their insidious activities, and the little Japanese engineer was sometimes reduced to tears of desperation. The guards were too spread out to superintend all of them, and too stupid to spot the culprits. The layout of the two stretches of line had had to be started all over again at least twenty times. Both the straight sections and the curves, which had been accurately computed and pegged out by the engineer, would relapse as soon as his back was turned into a maze of disconnected lines diverging at sharp angles, at which he would afterward cry out in despair. The two pieces on either side of the river, which the bridge was eventually meant to connect, were palpably at a different level and never ended up directly opposite each other. One of the squads would then start digging furiously and succeed in producing a sort of crater which dipped f

ar lower than the level required, while the fool of a guard would gaze with delight at the sight of such feverish activity. When the engineer turned up he would lose his temper, and beat guards and prisoners indiscriminately. The former, realizing they had been fooled once again, would take their revenge; but the harm had been done, and it took several hours or several days to repair it.

One squad had been ordered to cut down some trees as timber for the bridge. They would make a careful selection and bring back the most twisted and brittle ones they could find; or else devote considerable effort to felling a giant tree, which would subsequently tumble into the river and be lost. Or again, they would choose trunks which were eaten away inside by insects and collapsed under the slightest weight.

Saito, who carried out a daily inspection, gave vent to his fury in increasingly stormy outbursts of temper. He dispensed curses, threats, and blows, swearing even at the engineer, who would answer back with the retort that the fatigue parties were absolutely useless. At which Saito would scream and swear louder than ever and try to think of a new form of punishment to put an end to this sullen resistance. He made the prisoners suffer more than if he had been an embittered jailer left to his own devices and scared stiff of being fired for inefficiency. Those who were caught red-handed in an act of willful damage or sabotage were tied to trees, beaten with thorn branches, and left out in the open for hours, bleeding and naked, exposed to the ants and the tropical sun. Clipton saw the victims as they came back in the evening; they were carried in by their pals, shaking with fever, their backs stripped raw. He was not even allowed to keep them on the sick list for long. Saito did not forget who they were. As soon as they were capable of standing, he sent them back to work and ordered the guards to keep a special eye on them.

The moral fiber shown by these 'badhats' was so moving that Clipton sometimes found himself in tears. He was amazed to see them take such punishment. There was always at least one of them who, when he was alone with him, would find the strength to sit up with a cheerful grin and whisper a few words in a language that was gradually gaining currency among all the prisoners in Burma and Siam:

"The bloody bridge still isn't built. The bloody Emperor's bloody railway still hasn't got across the bloody river in this bloody country. The bloody C.O.'s right; he knows what he's talking about. If you see him, tell him we're all for him. The bloody baboon hasn't heard the last of the bloody British army."

The most brutal forms of punishment had achieved so result at all. The men were used to them. The example set by Colonel Nicholson was a stimulant even stronger than the beer and whisky which they no longer had to drink. If one of them was ever punished beyond the limits of human endurance and could only go on working at the risk of his life, there was always another ready to relieve him. This was a recognized routine.

In Clipton's opinion, they were even more to be praised for refusing to be taken in by the mealy-mouthed promises which Saito made during those fits of depression when he realized he had exhausted every known form of torture and was incapable of inventing others.

One day he made them parade outside his office, having ordered them to stop work earlier than usual—so as not to overtire them, he explained. He issued them all rice cakes and fruit bought from the Siamese peasants in the nearest village—a gift from the Japanese army to spur them on to greater efforts. He abandoned all sense of shame and positively groveled in front of them. He prided himself, he told them, on being one of them, just an ordinary fellow whose only wish was to do his duty with as little fuss as possible. Their officers, he pointed out, were making them all work twice as hard by refusing to work themselves. So he fully understood how resentful they must feel, and did not hold it against them. On the contrary, in order to show his sympathy for them, he had on his own authority reduced the individual quota of work on the embankment. The engineer had fixed this as one and a half cubic yards of earth per man; well, he, Saito, had decided to make it one cubic yard. He was doing this because he felt sorry for them in their present condition, for which he himself was not to blame. He hoped that, in view of this kindly gesture, they would co-operate with him and speed up this easy work, which would help to bring the damn war to an end.

He was almost pleading with them by the time he had finished, but his prayers and entreaties had no more effect than his curses and blows. Next day the quota was fulfilled. Each man conscientiously dug up and carted off his cubic yard of earth; some even more. But the distance they carried it was an insult to the meanest intelligence.

Saito was the first to yield. He was at the end of his rope; the prisoners' sustained resistance had reduced him to a pitiful condition. He spent the days preceding his final downfall prowling about the camp with the same desperate look in his eyes as a beast at bay. He even went so far as to ask the youngest and least experienced lieutenants to choose for themselves what work they wanted to do, promising them special privileges and extra rations. But they all stood firm and, since a high-level Japanese inspection was imminent, he resigned himself to ignominious surrender.

He prepared to make one last desperate bid to "save face" and cover up his defeat, but this pathetic attempt did not even deceive his own men. December 7, 1942, being the anniversary of Japan's entry into the war, he announced that in honor of the occasion he had undertaken to grant a general amnesty. He had an interview with the Colonel and told him he had adopted a measure of extreme benevolence; all officers would henceforth be exempt from manual labor. In return for this, he trusted they would devote themselves to supervising their men's activity so as to ensure the maximum efficiency.

Tags: Pierre Boulle Fiction
Source: Copyright 2016 - 2022