Reel Dad: 'Bridge on the River Kwai' airs on PBS this weekend

"The Bridge on the River Kwai" will air on PBS on Saturday, Nov. 14.

"The Bridge on the River Kwai" will air on PBS on Saturday, Nov. 14.

IMDb / Contributed photo

None of us can predict how we might react to cruelty, harsh living conditions and the fundamental gravity of military conflict.

We have no idea, if we were taken as prisoners of war, how we might react to what we are expected to do and how we are forced to live. All we can hope is that we would have enough fundamental belief in our own strength, and determination to survive, that we would be able to overcome an experience so harrowing.

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” — showing Saturday, Nov. 14, on PBS — can help your family imagine what soldiers must endure, if captured by an enemy, and forced to live in a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. The film takes you to the middle of a jungle in Asia where, during World War II, American and British soldiers are held captive in a Japanese prison camp.

This happened to many soldiers during the War and the story, while fiction, is based on actual events. In real life, the construction of the bridge used about 100,000 laborers; an estimated 12,000 POWs died on the project. In the film, the prisoners react in different ways when ordered by their Japanese captors to build a bridge over a river to complete a crucial transportation line for the enemy.

When we talk about movies we often describe the narrative “arc” of change that a character may experience. Among all the films your family may share, you may never see an “arc” as dramatic as what we observe from Colonel Nicholson in this film. At the start, he is an outspoken man who dares to defy the order of the Japanese prison camp where he finds himself. He rebels and rejects — in his stoic manner — suggestions of how he could make his life at the camp easier. And he openly objects to the prison leadership and willingly suffers the consequences.

But time without freedom takes a toll and, eventually, Nicholson agrees to help the Japanese with the construction of the bridge. How he justifies that decision — and feels he must justify, to himself, to his fellow prisoners — is part of what makes the film so fascinating. This is a complex and caring man who chooses to change in order to survive. But no one can predict how such a decision can ultimately impact any man’s will to live.

David Lean, a master director of film epics, creates an incredible world for the story. By making life in the camp so vivid and detailed, Lean brings to life the challenges that such brave men confronted. The film will inspire you, as you consider your own challenges, to be persistent and strong no matter the obstacles you face. But what makes the film so essential is how it delivers these important lessons in such an entertaining way. While this is a serious film, it is also very absorbing, and you will be at the edge of your seat from start to finish.

Today, the events of World War II seem very long ago, and each year fewer veterans remain. This film will help you understand, even more than you already do, why we owe these men and women so very much.

“The Bridge of the River Kwai” from 1957, runs 2 hours, 47 minutes, and will be broadcast Saturday, Nov. 14, at 9 p.m. on PBS.