The Bridge on the River Kwai
1957 British World War II
film by David Lean
based on the novel The Bridge over the River
by French writer Pierre
. The film is a work of fiction but borrows the
construction of the Burma
Railway in 1942–43 for its historical setting.
stars Alec Guinness
, Sessue Hayakawa
, Jack Hawkins
, and William Holden
this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically
significant" and selected for preservation in the United States
Congress National Film
prisoners of war are burying a corpse in the graveyard of a
Japanese World War II
prison camp in western Thailand.
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
" 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 Bangkok, Thailand and Rangoon, Burma.
The next morning, when Saito orders everyone to work, Nicholson
commands his officers to stand fast. He points out that the
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
), 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
(ritual suicide). Finally,
he reluctantly releases Nicholson, using the anniversary of Japan's
great victory in the Russo-Japanese
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.
recovers in a hospital in Colombo, Ceylon.
Shears recuperates after his
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
) 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
, 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!"
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
Thai town of
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
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
depicted. The real senior Allied officer at the bridge was British
Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey
consider the film to be an insulting parody of Toosey. On a BBC
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
, 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:
were collected in large
numbers to eat the wooden structures, and the concrete was badly
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
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
, were on the
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
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
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
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
Many directors were considered for the project, among them John Ford
, 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
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
. He called his walk from the Oven to
Saito's hut while being saluted by his men the "finest work I'd
Lean nearly drowned when he was swept away by a river current
during a break from filming; Geoffrey
saved his life.
was an international
co-production between companies in the UK and the
States. It is set in Thailand, but was
filmed mostly near Kitulgala, Ceylon (now
Lanka), with a few scenes shot in England.
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
According to Turner Classic
, 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 Cairo, 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
"—when they enter the camp. The piece was originally
written in 1914 by Kenneth Alford
was accompanied by a counter-melody
(known as "The River Kwai
") 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
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
, the leader of Nazi
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
The Bridge on the River Kwai
won seven Oscars
It was nominated for
Winner of 3 BAFTA Awards
Golden Globe Awards
Winner of 3 Golden Globes
Recipient of one nomination
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
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.
Box office performance
this film was the #1 moneymaker of 1958, with domestic rentals of
18,000,000. The second highest
moneymaker of 1958 was Peyton
in third place was Sayonara
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'.
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Kanchanaburi
- links for research, Allied POWs under the
- (Piers Paul Read, Alec Guinness, 293)
- The Colonel Bogey March MIDI file
- 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).