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The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 British World War II film by David Lean based on the novel The Bridge over the River Kwai by French writer Pierre Boulle. The film is a work of fiction but borrows the construction of the Burma Railwaymarker in 1942–43 for its historical setting. It stars Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, and William Holden.

In 1997, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congressmarker National Film Registry.


Two prisoners of war are burying a corpse in the graveyard of a Japanesemarker World War II prison camp in western Thailandmarker. They are American Navy Commander Shears (William Holden) and Australian Army Corporal Weaver, who have only survived in the camp this long because they bribe guards to get sick duty and avoid hard labour. A large contingent of British prisoners arrives, marching in defiantly whistling the "Colonel Bogey March" under the leadership of Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness).

The Japanese camp commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), addresses them, informing them of his rules. He insists that all prisoners, regardless of rank, work on the construction of a bridge over a branch of the Kwae River (which he called the Kwai River), part of a railway line that is to link Bangkokmarker, Thailandmarker and Rangoonmarker, Burmamarker.

The next morning, when Saito orders everyone to work, Nicholson commands his officers to stand fast. He points out that the Geneva Conventions state that captured officers are exempt from manual labour. Saito is infuriated, but Nicholson refuses to back down, even after Saito has a machine gun set up and threatens to have the officers shot. Saito is dissuaded by Major Clipton (James Donald), a British medical officer, who warns of an inquiry and scandal should Saito carry through with his threat. Instead, Saito leaves Nicholson and his officers standing in the intense heat. As the day wears on, one of them collapses, but Nicholson and the rest are standing defiantly at attention when the men return from the day's work. The British officers are then placed in a punishment cage, while Nicholson is locked into his own box to suffer in the heat. Nicholson, however, refuses to budge.

Construction falls far behind schedule, due in part to "accidents" arranged by the prisoners. Saito discloses to Nicholson that should he fail to meet his deadline, he would be obliged to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Finally, he reluctantly releases Nicholson, using the anniversary of Japan's great victory in the Russo-Japanese War as an excuse to exempt the officers from work. Nicholson and his officers triumphantly walk through a jubilant reception. Saito privately breaks down in tears.

Nicholson conducts an inspection and is shocked by what he finds. He decides to have his men work in earnest to maintain morale. He orders Captain Reeves (Peter Williams) and Major Hughes (John Boxer) to come up with designs for a proper bridge, ignoring its military value to the Japanese.

Meanwhile, Shears, Weaver, and an English officer attempt to escape. Weaver and the English officer are killed, but Shears falls into the river and is presumed dead. After many days, he stumbles into a Siamese village, whose people help him reach the British. He recovers in a hospital in Colombomarker, Ceylonmarker.

Shears recuperates after his escape.
Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), a member of the British Special Forces, blackmails Shears into joining his mission to destroy the bridge. Warden knows that Shears is not an officer, but a navy enlisted man. He and the officer had survived the sinking of their ship. When the officer was killed by a Japanese patrol, Shears switched uniforms, hoping to get better treatment in captivity. He then had no choice but to continue the impersonation. In return for helping Warden, Shears will not be charged with impersonating an officer. A Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) and a Captain Chapman make up the rest of the team.

Meanwhile, the obsessed Nicholson drives his men to complete the project on time. He even volunteers his junior officers for physical labour—provided their Japanese counterparts join in as well. The Japanese engineers had chosen a poor site, and the original bridge is abandoned; construction of a new bridge is begun 400 yards downstream.

The commandos parachute in, but Chapman is killed in a bad landing. The others reach the river, assisted by Thai women porters and their village chief, Khun Yai. In an encounter with a Japanese patrol, Joyce freezes and Warden gets wounded in the foot as a result. Nonetheless, the trio get to the bridge in time.

Shears and Joyce wire explosives to it under cover of darkness. The next day, a Japanese train full of soldiers and important officials is scheduled to be the first to use the bridge; Warden wants to blow it up just as the train passes over.

Nicholson beside a plaque commemorating the completion of the bridge.
As dawn approaches, the trio are horrified to see that the wire to the explosives has been exposed by the receding river. Making a final inspection, Nicholson spots the wire and brings it to Saito's attention. As the train is heard approaching, the two men frantically hurry down to the riverbank, pulling up and following the wire towards Joyce, who is waiting by the detonator. When they get too close, Joyce breaks cover and stabs Saito to death. Nicholson yells for help and tries to stop Joyce (who cannot bring himself to kill Nicholson) from getting to the detonator. A firefight erupts. When Joyce is hit, Shears swims across the river, but he too is shot, just before he reaches Nicholson.

Recognizing the dying Shears, Nicholson suddenly comes to his senses and exclaims, "What have I done?" Warden desperately fires his mortar, mortally wounding Nicholson. The colonel stumbles over to the detonator plunger and falls on it as he dies, just in time to blow up the bridge and send the train hurtling into the river. Major Clipton has witnessed the carnage unfold. He shakes his head incredulously and utters, "Madness! ... Madness!"


Historical accuracy

The largely fictitious film plot is based on the building in 1943 of one of the railway bridges over the Mae Klong—renamed Khwae Yai in the 1960s—at a place called Tha Ma Kham, five kilometres from the Thaimarker town of Kanchanaburimarker.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission:
"The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar). Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre."

The incidents portrayed in the film are mostly fictional, and though it depicts bad conditions and suffering caused by the building of the Burma Railway and its bridges, to depict the reality would have been too appalling for filmgoers. Historically the conditions were much worse than depicted. The real senior Allied officer at the bridge was British Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. Some consider the film to be an insulting parody of Toosey. On a BBC Timewatch programme, a former prisoner at the camp states that it is unlikely that a man like the fictional Nicholson could have risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel; and if he had, he would have been "quietly eliminated" by the other prisoners. Julie Summers, in her book The Colonel of Tamarkan, writes that Pierre Boulle, who had been a prisoner of war in Thailand, created the fictional Nicholson character as an amalgam of his memories of collaborating French officers.

Toosey was very different from Nicholson and was certainly not a collaborator who felt obliged to work with the Japanese. Toosey in fact did as much to delay the building of the bridge as possible. Whereas Nicholson disapproves of acts of sabotage and other deliberate attempts to delay progress, Toosey encouraged this: white ants were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures, and the concrete was badly mixed.

Some of the characters in the film have the names of real people who were involved in the Burma Railway. Neither their roles nor their characters appear to be portrayed accurately. For example, historically a Sergeant-Major Risaburo Saito was second in command at the camp. In the film a colonel of the same name is camp commandant. In reality, Saito was respected by his prisoners for being comparatively merciful and fair towards them; Toosey later defended him in his war crimes trial after the war, and the two became friends.

The destruction of the bridge as depicted in the film is entirely fictional. In fact, two bridges were built: a temporary wooden bridge and a permanent steel/concrete bridge a few months later. Both bridges were used for two years, until they were destroyed by Allied aerial bombing. The steel bridge was repaired and is still in use today.



The screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, were on the Hollywood blacklist and could only work on the film in secret. The two did not collaborate on the script; Wilson took over after Lean was dissatisfied with Foreman's work. The official credit was given to Pierre Boulle (who did not speak English), and the resulting Oscar for Best Screenplay (Adaptation) was awarded to him. Only in 1984 did the Academy rectify the situation by retroactively awarding the Oscar to Foreman and Wilson, posthumously in both cases. At about the same time, a new release of the film finally gave them proper screen credit.

Reportedly, Sessue Hayakawa edited his copy of the script so that it only contained his own lines of dialogue; thus, he did not know that his character was to be killed off at the end of the film.

The film was relatively faithful to the novel, with two major exceptions. Shears, who is a British commando officer like Warden in the novel, became an American sailor who escapes from the POW camp. Also, in the novel, the bridge is not destroyed: the train plummets into the river from a secondary charge placed by Warden, but Nicholson (never realizing "what have I done?") does not fall onto the plunger, and the bridge suffers only minor damage. Boulle nonetheless enjoyed the film version though he disagreed with its climax.


Many directors were considered for the project, among them John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Fred Zinnemann, and Orson Welles. Producer Sam Spiegel later said that David Lean, then virtually unknown outside of the United Kingdom, was chosen "in absence of anyone else."

Lean clashed with his cast members on multiple occasions, particularly Alec Guinness and James Donald, who thought the novel was anti-British. Lean had a lengthy row with Guinness over how to play the role of Nicholson; Guinness wanted to play the part with a sense of humour and sympathy, while Lean thought Nicholson should be "a bore". On another occasion, Lean and Guinness argued over the scene where Nicholson reflects on his career in the army. Lean filmed the scene from behind Guinness, and exploded in anger when Guinness asked him why he was doing this. After Guinness was done with the scene, Lean said "Now you can all fuck off and go home, you English actors. Thank God that I'm starting work tomorrow with an American actor (William Holden)".

Alec Guinness later said that he subconsciously based his walk while emerging from "the Oven" on that of his son Matthew when he was recovering from polio. He called his walk from the Oven to Saito's hut while being saluted by his men the "finest work I'd ever done".

Lean nearly drowned when he was swept away by a river current during a break from filming; Geoffrey Horne saved his life.

The film was an international co-production between companies in the UKmarker and the United Statesmarker. It is set in Thailandmarker, but was filmed mostly near Kitulgalamarker, Ceylonmarker (now Sri Lankamarker), with a few scenes shot in Englandmarker.

The filming of the bridge explosion was to be done on March 10, 1957, in the presence of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister of Ceylon, and a team of government dignitaries. However, cameraman Freddy Ford was unable to get out of the way of the explosion in time, and Lean had to stop filming. The train crashed into a generator on the other side of the bridge and was wrecked. It was repaired in time to be blown up the next morning, with Bandaranaike and his entourage present.

According to Turner Classic Movies, the producers nearly suffered a catastrophe following the filming of the bridge explosion. To ensure they captured the one-time event, multiple cameras from several angles were used. The film was shipped to London by air freight for processing. When the shipment failed to arrive, a world-wide search for the film was undertaken. To the producers' horror the film containers were found a week later on an airport tarmac in Cairomarker, sitting in the broiling Egyptian sun. Though it was not exposed to sunlight, the heat-sensitive color film stock should have been hopelessly ruined. However, when processed the shots were perfect and appeared in the film.


A memorable feature of the film is the tune that is whistled by the POWs—the "Colonel Bogey March"—when they enter the camp. The piece was originally written in 1914 by Kenneth Alford. It was accompanied by a counter-melody (known as "The River Kwai March") written by the film's composer, Malcolm Arnold, and played by the off-screen orchestra taking over from the whistlers. Mitch Miller had a hit with a recording of both marches.

Besides serving as an example of British fortitude and dignity in the face of privation, the "Colonel Bogey March" suggested a specific symbol of defiance to British film-goers, as its melody was tied to a vulgar verse about Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany and Japan's principal ally during the war. Although the mocking lyrics were not used in the film, British audience members of the time knew them well enough to mentally sing along when the tune was heard.

The soundtrack of the film is largely diegetic; background music is not widely used. In many tense, dramatic scenes, only the sounds of nature are used. An example of this is when commandos Warden and Joyce hunt a fleeing Japanese soldier through the jungle, desperate to prevent him from alerting other troops.

Arnold won an Academy Award for the movie's score.

Lean would later use another Allford march, "The Voice of the Guns", in Lawrence of Arabia.


Academy Awards

The Bridge on the River Kwai won seven Oscars It was nominated for

BAFTA Awards

Winner of 3 BAFTA Awards

Golden Globe Awards

Winner of 3 Golden Globes Recipient of one nomination

Other awards

Other nominations


The film has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

British TV channel Channel 4 held a poll to find the 100 Greatest War Movies in 2005. The Bridge on the River Kwai came in at #10, behind Black Hawk Down and in front of The Dam Busters.

The British Film Institute placed The Bridge on the River Kwai as the eleventh greatest British film.

American Film Institute recognition

Box office performance

Variety reported that this film was the #1 moneymaker of 1958, with domestic rentals of $18,000,000. The second highest moneymaker of 1958 was Peyton Place at $12,000,000; in third place was Sayonara at $10,500,000.


There are some prints of the film in which Alec Guinness's name is misspelled "Guiness" in the credits.

In all the early prints Guinness's name was misspelled in the opening credits but correctly spelled in the closing credits. This was finally corrected when Columbia issued an anniversary video of the film with the blacklisted writers (Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman) credited in place of novelist Pierre Boulle for the Academy Award-winning screenplay.


  • The comedy team of Wayne and Shuster performed a sketch titled "Kwai Me a River" on their March 27, 1967 TV show, in which an officer in the British Dental Corps is captured by the Japanese and forced to build the commander of the POW camp a (dental) 'bridge on the river Kwai'.

See also


  1. Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
  2. links for research, Allied POWs under the Japanese
  3. (Piers Paul Read, Alec Guinness, 293)
  4. The Colonel Bogey March MIDI file
  5. When a film is released late in a calendar year (October to December), its income is reported in the following year's compendium, unless the film made a particularly fast impact. Figures are domestic earnings (United States and Canada) as reported each year in Variety (p. 17).

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