“The Bridge on the River Kwai”: Will David Lean’s Epic Scope Conform to an Enneagram?

Last night’s Amazon Prime selection was the David Lean classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean, of course, is a director known for the epic. Before sitting down to a Lean film you have to assess your energy level: Will you have the endurance to finish what you’ve started? The complexity and cinematic beauty of a Lean film are counterbalanced by the wearying time commitment.

We were brave and chose to watch.

Immediately I am wondering if the Lean sprawl is due to a lack of an Enneagram. Let’s take a look.


The Brits, whistling, enter the Japanese prisoner camp. Actually, we start with American William Holden digging graves in the camp. His sardonic character is always in counterpoint to the British stiff upper lip. I’m not sure I like him representing our national temperament, but his attitude in comparison to the English and Japanese approach to war makes for interesting philosophy. The pull of the movie is its examination of law and honor pitted against survival.


That philosophy is at the heart of the trouble: Obi-Wan refuses to compromise on the Geneva Code. Alec Guiness‘ Col. Nicholson cites the rule book to Japanese  Col. Saito: Officers do not perform manual labor. Saito has little regard for British officers who surrendered; they are dishonorable in his opinion. The commanders square off for a while. Understanding the lengths to which each will go in order to have his way is important, but I believe this section could have been shortened. A lengthy 2 is a burden. The characters are too precious if the director gives them this much time at this point.


Holden’s Shears attempts an escape with two other men. All three men are shot. Shears gets knocked into the river and his body is not recovered; the camp presumes he is dead. Naturally, he is not. Shears’ ride down the river is our 3. The American is removed from camp. Immediately before this Nicholson is put in “the oven”, a tin box large enough for a sitting man that broils in the sun. The movie is ready to move into a new phase of conflict.


Here is where I would argue that the commanders’ conflict should have been developed (rather than the 2). The 4 is amazingly short, disproportionately so. Nicholson basically sits in the “oven” for the entire time. Shears stumbles through the jungle until he finds a village to patch him up. Afterwards he heads downriver in a boat until he runs out of water and comes near death again. Guiness gives a physical performance, as the man stepping out of the “oven”, that defines excellence in acting. The soldiers, at work on Saito’s bridge, sabotage it at every turn. In a way this 4 is about meeting expectations and checking the boxes. The filmmaking is beautiful, but I believe that if the writer had moved some of the 2 conflict between the commanders into the 4 the movie would feel less ponderous.


Saito must build a bridge. This tension causes him to relent when neither force nor persuasion will work. My favorite line of the movie is Saito reaching the frustration point with Nicholson.

[quote]I hate the British! You are defeated but you have no shame. You are stubborn but you have no pride. You endure but you have no courage. I hate the British![/quote]

With that speech, Saito releases Nicholson from the “oven”. Meanwhile, Shears’ skiff floats toward the sea while he lies ravaged from drinking river water.


The next we see Shears he’s recuperating in a tropical paradise of a hospital. Actually, he’s having a lively time with one of the nurses, which would be Shears’ definition of recuperation. Nicholson is consulting with his officers, who happen to be experienced engineers, on a better way to build the bridge. So much humiliation is heaped on Saito that I actually feel sorry for him.

Nicholson completely rejects a slight suggestion that the British should not build a lovely bridge for their enemy’s transport needs. Only the English doctor persists in doubting the wisdom and honor of putting forth their best effort. In true 5 fashion, this part of the movie is about people who had been at loggerheads now working together amicably. What a twist, though! This dilemma is what keeps Bridge fresh over the decades.

Shears is manipulated into joining the British special ops on a mission to return to the bridge and blow it up. What’s great about this character is that, for all his complaining and rebelling, he knows when it’s time to give up and jump on board with the team. He’s slightly unlikable to me, and yet he manages to end up a hero. He’s a That Guy.

This is another Enneagram section that goes on foooorever. I know that cuts in here were possible. Right away I suggest getting rid of the South Pacific drag show. We’re told how impossible it is to build this bridge on time, and yet the men get the chance to construct an entire set, assemble grass skirts, hire a band and rehearse? The Nicholson honor speech could have had a much more modest setting without losing any resonance. This scene screams for the editing room floor.

Also, I could argue that the Canadian team mate and his “can I stab a man in cold blood” dilemma, while interesting, eats up too much screen time. I could find a plausible way to disable Major Warden, a crucial event, without using the oh-so-sensitive dude.

This scene, however . . .

Bridge 6 Waterfall





. . . must stay. (Sorry, I could only find the red-paint death photo. No one wants to upload the beautiful bathing-in-the-water-pool photo? Really?) If I found this location I would put it in the film and make up a reason to be there. The plot moves forward here, but I don’t even care. Turn the movie into a travelogue for 10 minutes. Totally justified.


Floating downriver is the mirror moment from the 3. This time Shears is pushing a raft as a means of sneaking under the bridge in order to set explosives. Lean gives visual time to both moments, though, and the conflict changes going forward. I’ve always focused on the “bridge” in the title, but “river” is important too. Although I’ve seen this movie many times I would not have been able to tell you the 3/6 off the top of my head. At last night’s viewing I found these moments to be subtle and well-done.


And here is another beautiful use of the Enneagram. The decision must be: Do we blow the bridge early, before the VIP train crosses, because our entire endeavor is in danger? We in the audience see the decision coming when the river level has dropped by morning. We see Nicholson realize that the bridge pilings have been tampered with. We watch him climb down onto the river bank to follow the charge line. Finally, amidst this tension, Warden (who can be heard by no one at the plunger) yells to blow the bridge. Wonderfully, the decision to blow early doesn’t even exist because the Canadian baby is incapable of deciding to blow the bridge early. It’s a 7 moment realizing that it has no 7.

Did that make sense?


The granddaddy moment of the movie is when Nicholson realizes that his countrymen have come to blow the bridge because to leave it intact would aid the enemy. When you want a moment on film when a man understands that he’s unconsciously committed treason, you want Alec Guiness playing the part. He is sublime.

And then pretty much every character with a name dies. That would probably be your 9.

But you’re left with a charming ear worm.

So, most definitely this epic has an Enneagram. The bones on this film are strong. In my opinion, though, this movie has some fat. Director David Lean was not lean.

You knew that pun was coming.

I thank you for your time and patience.


  1. You’re right in saying the movie keeps fresh over the decades — I was honestly going to walk out last night, but the movie managed to hook me early, and it only got better from there.

    I’m surprised at the Enneagram you found — it seems a little too subtle to me, but like you said, when dealing with epic movies like these you have to sift through some of the sprawling vistas and rising action. I wonder how Lord of the Rings fares under such scrutiny?

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