The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai is an epic World War II film directed by David Lean and based on the novel by Pierre Boulle.

The film is set in 1943, as the forces of Imperial Japan are tightening their hold on South East Asia. The Japanese military strategy for the region involves building a railway from Burma to Siam (modern day Thailand), using the forced labour of captured civilians and Allied prisoners of war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai focuses on the building of one particular rail bridge over the River Kwai. The bridge is being constructed by the mainly British inmates of a prison camp commanded by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). The film arrives in the camp at roughly the same time as a new influx of British prisoners. The new men are led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who will soon come into conflict with Colonel Saito.

Saito expects all the Allied prisoners to work on the railway and on the bridge, including the officers, something that is against the stipulations of the Geneva Convention. But Colonel Nicholson holds firm to the principle that officers should be exempted from manual labour. Despite enduring torture and forced confinement by the Japanese, Nicholson is able to prevail and Saito eventually relents. On the pretext that this amnesty is part of the celebrations of Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Saito releases Nicholson from his solitary confinement and declares that British officers will carry out administrative duties only, and will not be required to work on the bridge.

British prisoners in The Bridge on the River Kwai
The British prisoners, led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) head to their new camp

Having won this conflict, Colonel Nicholson turns his attention to the loss of morale of his men in captivity. Instead of allowing them to work slowly and sloppily and to make attempts to sabotage the bridge, Nicholson decides that they will build it properly. Working on the bridge will keep up his men's morale and give them a valuable sense of purpose. It will also show to Saito and the other Japanese the superiority of British soldiers, something that it's implied has been denied them by their orders to surrender. Fortunately, Nicholson has a couple of expert engineers and experienced bridge builders among his officers.

Gradually, Nicholson takes control of the bridge project and Saito acquiesces in order to meet the deadline and to avoid the ignominy of failure. But the British medical officer, Major Clipton (James Donald), starts to worry that this morale-boosting project might be seen as crossing the line into collaboration with the enemy.

Meanwhile, an American naval officer, Commander Shears (William Holden), manages to make a daring escape from the prison camp. After days struggling through the jungle he is rescued by some friendly native villagers. In the conclusion to his miraculous escape, he eventually makes it out to sea in a small boat and is picked up by the British.

While recuperating in hospital, Shears is very reluctantly recruited by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), into a British special forces unit, Force 316, to join them on a commando raid. They will be heading back to the River Kwai, where Shears's knowledge of the area and the prison camp will prove invaluable. Their mission? To destroy that bridge.

William Holden, Jack Hawkins and Geoffrey Horne holding machine guns
Allied soldiers William Holden, Jack Hawkins and Geoffrey Horne on their mission to destroy the bridge

The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of those famous films that suffers a little from over-familiarity, from repeated television showings, rip-offs and parodies. But like all great films, and most of David Lean's work, it's a film that's worth returning to again and again. Because it's a thematically rich and layered film that offers compelling human drama to match its visual spectacle.

David Lean was one of Britain's foremost film makers of the 1940s and 1950s. And unlike similarly feted contemporaries in the British film industry, like Carol Reed (Odd Man Out, The Third Man) or Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes), there wasn't a sense that Lean had peaked creatively at the end of the 1940s.

While there was a slight wobble as the 1940s turned into the 1950s, with two generally unpopular films, The Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeleine (1950), Lean seemed to be re-energised by the ending of the studio era and the move to widespread location filming. In fact, although The Bridge on the River Kwai is almost always seen as the beginning of his "epic" period, Lean already seemed eager to escape the confines of the studio and to film internationally and on location, as in The Passionate Friends (in Switzerland) and 1955's Summertime (in Italy).

The Bridge on the River Kwai was the first of two films that David Lean would make for the Polish-born producer Sam Spiegel, the second being 1962's Lawrence of Arabia. Spiegel had been producing films since the 1930s, mostly as "S.P. Eagle.", before using his own name from the early 1950s onwards.

Spiegel was an independent producer who already had his own New York-based production company, Horizon Pictures, but set up a new one in Britain, Horizon Pictures (GB) Ltd to make The Bridge on the River Kwai. It was through this company that he would make many of his most famous later films, including his second and last collaboration with David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia.

Spiegel had already dabbled in ambitious location filming in his 1951 adventure film The African Queen, shot on location in Uganda and the Congo. That film also marked his first post-war foray into the British film industry, producing the film in co-production with the British company Romulus, and filming its studio scenes at Isleworth Studios in London.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, however, would be a more ambitious undertaking than even The African Queen, with a budget estimated at $2 million. Although it ultimately overshot that by another $800,000, partly due to the difficulties of filming in its remote jungle locations.

WIlliam Holden, Andre Morell and Jack Hawkins in army uniforms
Holden, Andre Morell and Jack Hawkins discuss the sabotage plan

The source novel for The Bridge on the River Kwai was by French author Pierre Boulle, who also wrote the novel Planet of the Apes. Originally titled Ponte de la riviere Kwai on its publication in France in 1952, the book was translated into English in 1954 as The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

The book was picked up by Carl Foreman, an American writer (and later producer) who had settled in England after being blacklisted in Hollywood. Foreman optioned it for Alexander Korda of London Films, but Korda rejected its story of a British officer collaborating with the Japanese as anti-British. It was then brought to the attention of Sam Spiegel, who was promoting his latest film, On the Waterfront (1954), in Europe. Spiegel approached various big names to direct, including Carol Reed, Fred Zinnemann and William Wyler, before settling on David Lean.

At the time, Lean was in Venice making the romantic drama Summertime (1955) with Katharine Hepburn. Lean was in serious need of funds, having just been through a costly divorce from the actress Ann Todd, and was facing a huge tax bill in Britain. Filming in South East Asia appealed to him, but so did the fact that the film would take him away from Britain for much of the year, and so reduce his tax liabilities.

The screenwriting credits for The Bridge on the River Kwai are a little complicated. Spiegel presented a treatment by Carl Foreman to David Lean, but the director was unimpressed. Lean disliked the inclusion of what he saw as irrelevant action sequences, including an opening scene set on a British submarine under attack. He was also unhappy with the treatment of the character of Colonel Nicholson, and wanted to give the character a more "sympathetic and heroic dimension".

Calder Willingham, who also scripted the 1957 WWI drama Paths of Glory for Stanley Kubrick, was brought in to replace Foreman, but Lean and Willingham didn't get along either. So after a couple of weeks, Willingham was replaced by Michael Wilson, who had written films including A Place in the Sun (1951) and the wartime spy thriller Five Fingers (1952). Lean and Wilson got along a lot better, but like Foreman, Wilson was on the Hollywood blacklist, meaning that neither writer was credited on the finished film. Instead, the screenplay was originally credited to the book's author Pierre Boulle, who neither wrote nor spoke English.

It's claimed in various places that Charles Laughton was sought for the role of Colonel Nicholson. It seems improbable, given Laughton's massive bulk, that he would ever be considered to play a front line British officer and especially a prisoner of war. David Lean denied that he was ever seriously considered, as did Lean's production associate Norman Spencer. However, there is some evidence that Lean did consider Laughton and that he hoped the actor could slim down to play the part, but that the actor's poor health and insurance problems prevented his casting.

Allied prisoners in The Bridge on the River Kwai
The prisoners line up on the parade ground

Many other actors were considered to play Nicholson before Alec Guinness was cast, including Ralph Richardson and Ronald Colman. Lean was particularly interested in Colman, but it was decided that he was too old for the role. Norman Spencer has said that Sam Spiegel originally wanted Lean's former collaborator Noel Coward to play Nicholson.

David Lean was apparently concerned that Alec Guinness's image had changed too much since he had cast him in character roles in his two Charles Dickens adaptations, and that he was now primarily associated with comedies, especially his films for Ealing Studios, including Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955).

Guinness was very reluctant to play the role of Colonel Nicholson anyway, and had to take much persuading from Sam Spiegel to make the film. Partly this was because he didn't like the original Carl Foreman version of the script he was sent, which was more of an action-adventure narrative, but also because he had heard about Lean wanting Laughton for the part.

Despite Guinness not being Lean's first choice, the casting in the finished film is extremely good, and one of its distinguishing features is its fine characterisations and performances. Alec Guinness was only third billed (after William Holden and Jack Hawkins), but his is the film's most important character. Regardless of Guinness's misgivings about the role, he gives a terrific and subtle performance and portrays his character beautifully.

Guinness's Colonel Nicholson isn't simply stubborn in his initial conflict with Colonel Saito, nor is he defending an abstract principle. He is afraid that giving in so easily will lead to worse treatment for his men in the future. This is implied quite subtly, but I think that Nicholson is also smarting at the orders he was given to surrender to the enemy, to the extent that he initially welcomes confrontation with the Japanese and would even prefer to die a martyr. He almost looks pleased when it seems as if Saito is going to have him and his fellow officers machine gunned. Nicholson also suggests that his officers and men may be disobeying orders if they attempt to escape, since they were ordered to surrender by their superiors. Nicholson's flaw is that he follows the letter of the law while disregarding the bigger picture.

At times Nicholson seems to really believe that he is building the bridge for the benefit of his men and their morale, but it becomes increasingly obvious that the real purpose is for his own misguided sense of glory. As a later scene makes clear, Nicholson is looking for a legacy, something he can leave behind. Does he have a family, children? Did they die in the war? It isn't clear, but, for whatever reason, Nicholson wants to leave his mark and the bridge seems to be the ideal way to do it. After all, as one of his engineers says, the trees nearby are similar to those used to build London Bridge, and that stood for 600 years. 600 years! A legacy indeed.

William Holden in army uniform in the jungle
William Holden as Shears

Alec Guinness is very unusual among film stars, in that he always remained a character actor, even when he was top billed. There was no such thing as "an Alec Guinness film" because you didn't know what kind of characterisation Guinness would bring next or what type of role he would be playing.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was the third film Guinness had made with David Lean, following his two Charles Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). He would also appear in Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dr Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1984).

The awards and acclaim that Guinness received for The Bridge on the River Kwai might give the impression to the uninitiated that the film is therefore the Alec Guinness show, with the other actors merely supporting him. That's very far from the truth though. In fact, all of the principles in The Bridge on the River Kwai are pretty great.

Since this was going to be a very expensive production, it was decided to add an American character, to allow the film to cast a Hollywood star. So the character of Shears was turned from a British soldier in the book into an American sailor in the film. Sam Spiegel was interested in Cary Grant for the role, but settled instead on William Holden, then a big box office draw.

Holden gives one of his I Might Look Like a Hero But Really I'm a Coward performances and manages to make the cynical Shears, who is really only out for himself, into a sympathetic and even vaguely heroic figure. Unlike most of the other characters, Shears is not interested in any grand schemes, his only purpose is survival. There's no warrior code that makes sense to a dead man. He goes back to the River Kwai, very reluctantly, but only because he seems to have been given little choice in the matter.

Holden was the biggest of the film's stars at the time and was top billed. He was also an Oscar winner for 1953's Stalag 17, directed by Billy Wilder. Unusually for the time, as well as a huge salary Holden was given a share of the profits on The Bridge on the River Kwai, something that effectively set him up for life.

Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai
Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito

Sessue Hayakawa was almost 70 years old at the time The Bridge on the River Kwai was made and so was in reality a little too old for the part of Colonel Saito. But he brings dignity and sympathy to his role as the initially unyielding Japanese commandant.

Like Nicholson, Colonel Saito has his own code and views the surrender of the Allied prisoners as unfathomable. Only when several try to escape and are shot does he show any grudging admiration. Gradually, though, Saito is sidelined in his own camp, having failed in his battle of wills with Nicholson. Saito may get the bridge built, and avoid the opprobrium of his superiors, but only with the knowledge that the British succeeded where he failed and that Nicholson has won their personal battle.

According to Norman Spencer, Hayakawa's performance was assisted by clever editing and dubbing, as his English was rusty and his accent strong, and some of his lines had to be delivered phonetically. Hayakawa had only learned his own lines in the script and disregarded the rest, seemingly unaware that his character would have some important scenes where he wouldn't have any dialogue. As a result, Hayakawa only learned his character's fate during filming, and David Lean had to prompt him to take part in the final scenes.

Sessue Hayakawa had been a major star of Hollywood films in the silent era, including Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 film The Cheat, and he had later worked internationally. He was towards the end of his film career when he made The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. One of his last film roles was spoofing his part in this film in the Jerry Lewis comedy The Geisha Boy in 1958.

Jack Hawkins plays his character, the special forces officer Major Warden, with a dry sense of humour and a permanently amused expression. He is the only one of the main characters who doesn't take the war very seriously. For him, it's a welcome opportunity for danger and adventure. Warden is a former academic who, like many other men, has found a greater sense of purpose and excitement in wartime than he ever did in his old civilian life. But he also turns out to have a ruthless streak and will do anything to complete the mission.

William Holden and Jack Hawkins
William Holden as Shears, with Major Warden (Jack Hawkins)

Hawkins was a popular British film star of the 1950s, but was on the cusp of a transition into major co-star roles in big international ensembles, in the likes of Ben Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Zulu (1964). He was particularly associated with the WWII film, especially The Cruel Sea (1953), but had also starred in Angels One Five (1952), The Intruder (1953) and Malta Story (1953), the latter with Alec Guinness. Perhaps this is why Lean chose him to play Major Warden, to underline this more jaded portrait of wartime heroism and derring-do.

The most sympathetic character of all is James Donald as the British medical officer, Major Clipton. Clipton cares about his men and puts great effort into looking after them. But he is also the only character who keeps his sense of perspective. He knows that something is very wrong here, but isn't quite sure if he's the problem or if it's everyone else. His face at the planning meeting, when the British officers explain to the Japanese the best way to build the bridge, is a picture. It's fitting that Clipton literally has the film's last word.

Unlike the other principals, James Donald was always a character actor, although he was occasionally top billed, as in Hammer's Quatermass and the Pit (1967). He had recently had a major supporting role in the Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life (1956), as Van Gogh's brother, and would appear in another major prisoner of war film, playing the Senior British Officer in The Great Escape in 1963.

But while Clipton is presented as the most sympathetic character, you get the feeling that Lean has a sneaky admiration for the others, especially Nicholson and Warden, and to a lesser extent Shears. He admires the adventurers, the mould-breakers, even the chancers. He especially admires the men who get things done, regardless of their flaws. Perhaps he saw himself in that way. It's a characteristic that's present in the lead characters in some of his other films, like The Sound Barrier and Lawrence of Arabia.

Because the distributors of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Columbia Pictures, were nervous about such an expensive film having no roles for women, some female characters were created for the film. Ann Sears was cast as the nurse Shears is canoodling with at the British base, and the native bearers for the commando party were changed to women, maybe a little implausibly.

Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa
Nicholson and Saito discuss the bridge

The narrative of The Bridge on the River Kwai could easily become lumpy and uneven, but Lean's careful and assured direction and Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman's script manoeuvre the different characters, plot elements and narrative transitions surprisingly successfully. From its early clash between Nicholson and Saito, to Nicholson's volte face over the bridge and his taking over of the project, to the parallel narrative of Shears and his recruitment into the commando mission and its trek through the jungle back to the prison camp. The film develops quite slowly and deliberately in its final section as the major characters are brought together at the bridge, the builders who are celebrating its construction and the commandos who are making preparations to destroy it.

One of the film's defining characteristics is its sense of irony. It's a group of Allied soldiers who are building the bridge, albeit ones held prisoner by the Japanese. And it's another group of Allied soldiers who are being sent to destroy it.

Colonel Nicholson originally stands firm on a point of principle and wins, but in the process he loses sight of the bigger picture and almost loses. He builds a bridge better than the Japanese could have managed, even though it ultimately serves the aims of the enemy's war effort. Nicholson also persuades his own officers to volunteer to work on the bridge, negating his earlier struggle and victory over Saito to make them exempt. And he eventually even raids the camp hospital to encourage his wounded men to work on the bridge too, something he would certainly have opposed if Saito had ordered it.

Shears makes a miraculous one-in-a-million escape from the prison camp, only to find that he has to go back again. And, ironically, it's his own scheme to get himself better treatment, by pretending to be an officer, that leads to this, as it gives Warden a hold over him when the deception is discovered. Shears is the ultimate survivor, but somehow even he gets caught up in the moment and in the shared endeavour of the commando mission, leading him into an almost suicidal act at the end of the film.

In the film's final scenes we see two British officers grappling with each other over the bridge, one trying to destroy it and the other trying to save it, so confused have the characters' loyalties become. And who is it who destroys the bridge at the end? Well I guess that's kind of a spoiler.

In amongst the conflict, human drama and spectacle, the film raises some intriguing questions. Is courage more important or survival? Is it better to die making an almost certainly futile and fatal bid for freedom, or to try and endure the likelihood of a slow and lingering death? Does loyalty to your regiment or your comrades matter more than loyalty to your cause or your country? Is it better to create something lasting for bad reasons or to destroy it for good ones? Is it the principle that matters or the practical? The detail or the bigger picture? Winning the battle or winning the war?

Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai
"What have I done?" The truth dawns on Colonel Nicholson

A repeated theme of the film is the violent intrusion of human conflict into the natural world. In one scene the female bearers for the Allied commando team stop to bathe in the cascading waters of a beautiful waterfall. But they are disturbed by the arrival of a Japanese patrol. The Allied soldiers then attack the Japanese with machine guns and grenades to defend the women. But David Lean doesn't show the actual attack or reward the audience with the visual excitement of combat. Instead we see the Allied soldiers firing and then cut to wildlife scattering and birds and bats rising from the trees in fright. Then we see the bloody aftermath of the gun battle, with dead bodies sprawled across the previously idyllic setting.

Lean also begins and ends the film with similar shots showing a bird of prey, high in the sky overhead, looming ominously over the film's setting. The implications of this repeated motif seem to be that ultimately it will be natural predators who will be the only true winners here, waiting to feast on the bodies of the dead combatants. But there is also the suggestion that these human conflicts matter little in the grander scheme of things. Nature will endure, oblivious to the human dramas being played out on a smaller scale below, no matter how grand that scale appears to be to us.

Another more subtle symbolic touch comes when the bridge is completed and, as Colonel Nicholson inspects the work, he leans over and accidentally drops his swagger stick into the river below. Given that Lean's earlier film Madeleine featured a lot of canes and sticks as symbols of power and authority, it's not too hard to see a symbolic intention in this scene. Does it signify that Nicholson, having built the bridge, has served his purpose for the Japanese and so has now lost the temporary authority that Saito had granted to him? Or does it mean that, by contributing to the Japanese war effort, and building their bridge for them, Nicholson has now forfeited his moral authority?

This scene also contains an exchange between Nicholson and Saito, former enemies who have been made temporary allies by their shared endeavour to build the bridge. Saito looks out at the sunset and declares it to be "beautiful". Nicholson is still admiring his bridge and thinks that Saito is referring to the finished construction and agrees that, yes, it is beautiful. Despite the alliance forged in building the bridge, that alliance is only temporary and the men still don't really understand each other or see things in the same way.

In an earlier scene when the soldiers are questioning the wisdom of them building a "proper" bridge, one of them says approvingly of Nicholson, "Don't worry about old Nic. He knows what he's doing." Old Nick! That of course is an old name for the Devil and there's got to be some meaning there, surely?

Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa
Nicholson and Saito on the completed bridge

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a David Lean film so the technical standards are very high. I assume there is some studio work in the jungle scenes, but it's very well done and certainly convincing enough. The film was shot in Cinemascope and was Lean's first film to be made in a widescreen format, but he displays a remarkably confident use of the new dimensions of the Cinemascope frame.

Unlike (arguably) some of David Lean's later films, there's never a sense that the director is inflating the film or its story for the sake of spectacle, a common criticism of some of his later output. Here the fact that the film is epic in scope seems simply to be because the story itself is epic in nature. The scale of the film and the story it wants to tell are never out of alignment. And the film's characterisations and performances are unusually strong, meaning that the characters are never overwhelmed by the scale of the film's production.

Although usually seen as the first of Lean's run of epic films, the team behind The Bridge on the River Kwai didn't include his later regular collaborators like screenwriter Robert Bolt, cinematographer Freddie Young or composer Maurice Jarre. Instead, the key crew were mostly shared with Lean's other 1950s films, including cinematographer Jack Hildyard, composer Malcolm Arnold and editor Peter Taylor, all three making their last film with David Lean.

Due to his tax status in Britain, David Lean had to edit the film in Paris. He was unable to attend the dubbing sessions in London for the same reason, but provided the sound editor Winston Ryder with detailed notes on what he wanted for the film.

The bridge in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai
The bridge taking shape

Malcolm Arnold, Lean's regular composer of the 1950s, had to write the score in only three weeks. But the film's most famous piece of music was a 40 year old march, "Colonel Bogey", originally written by Kenneth Alford in 1914. The British prisoners are whistling this tune when they first march into the prison camp.

Sam Spiegel had wanted them to sing "Bless 'Em All", a popular wartime song, but the rights were prohibitively expensive. David Lean chose "Colonel Bogey" instead because British soldiers had added their own bawdy lyrics to the tune during the war, speculating on the fact that Hitler was supposedly testicularly challenged. As, according to the lyrics, were just about all of the German High Command. In the film, the prisoners whistle this as a show of defiance against the Axis powers. Spiegel was less enthusiastic than Lean, as he thought that, while most people in Britain would be able to add the words themselves, the song wouldn't have much meaning for the international audience he was aiming for.

Filming of The Bridge on the River Kwai took place from October 1956 to May 1957, with the film crew spending 251 days in the jungle. But David Lean still wasn't finished, and stayed behind for a couple more weeks with an Arriflex camera and a skeleton crew to get more establishing shots, vistas and sunsets to give more scope to the film. These included the film's opening and closing shots of the bird of prey in the sky.

Sam Spiegel originally thought that it might be possible to make the film in Europe, and art director Donald Ashton was sent to Yugoslavia to scout locations before it was decided that, even with some strategically placed tropical foliage, this wasn't going to be quite convincing enough. Instead, the company settled on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to shoot the film.

Building the famous bridge was an epic undertaking in itself, with construction starting in early Spring of 1956 and finishing in September that year. The completed structure measured 425 feet long and 90 feet high. More than 1500 trees were felled to build it and, according to the documentary The Making of 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', it was the largest structure that had been made for a film at that time.

Contemporary publicity claimed that the cost of building the bridge alone was $250,000. But Gene D. Phillips, in Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean, states that the bridge only cost around $51,000 to construct and that the true cost was exaggerated for effect.

William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai
Shears with the other inmates of the camp hospital

It's important not to confuse the film of The Bridge on the River Kwai with the reality of imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese. As a portrayal of the building of the Burma RailwayThe Bridge on the River Kwai is a bit of a travesty. It's unfair on the real prisoners who, far from willingly collaborating with their captors, were worked to death on pitiful rations and in appalling conditions. Almost a third of Allied POWs of the Japanese died in captivity, and tens of thousands of Allied prisoners and civilians died building the Burma Railway.

The prisoners of war we see in The Bridge on the River Kwai are all far too healthy and strapping, looking like a spot of bridge building in the sun is just the thing needed to keep them fit, rather than the last straw in their physical exhaustion and degradation. William Holden, in particular, looks far too healthy and toned, more like he's just come off the beach at Saint Tropez.

The film is heavily sanitised, probably partly for censorship reasons and partly for reasons of taste, but also because a story about Japanese brutality and ill-treatment of prisoners of war is not the one that the film wants to tell. One of the reasons the film downplays the terrible conditions of the prisoners and the brutality of their captors is because it wants to draw equivalence between its various characters and to contrast their varying attitudes to war, heroism and duty. The film is not a realistic depiction of the building of the Burma "Death Railway", but instead uses the war in the Far East as a grand backdrop for its character dramas and conflicts.

Besides its heavily sanitised treatment of its subject matter, the film's chief flaw is its confused climax. The ending of the film, and the manner in which the bridge is destroyed, is too obviously contrived and designed to create ambiguity.

It seems that the question of why the detonator was set off was never resolved and the final scene feels too much like something thought up on the spot. Lean was hoping to keep the ambiguity until the end, but I don't think I can emphasise enough just how contrived it is and it does let the film down a little. Lean really should have made a decision one way or the other and stuck to it, instead he tries to have it both ways. Lean himself seems to have come around to this idea, eventually saying that he felt that the ending was too ambiguous.

Personally, I think Nicholson should destroy the bridge and do it deliberately, if very reluctantly. It's the ending with the most emotional wallop, and would underline the futility of the characters' efforts and endeavours. Or perhaps Nicholson should try and destroy the bridge, but be killed in the attempt. That's real irony.

It's also unclear why Jack Hawkins's character, Major Warden, apologises to the native women after the battle, explaining weakly "I had to do it!" In the book, Warden fires on his own soldiers to stop them from being captured by the Japanese, but this is not something clearly shown in the film.

British officers in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai
Colonel Nicholson (centre) discusses the bridge with Major Clipton (James Donald, left)

The Bridge on the River Kwai was a huge hit when it was released in late 1957, and was showered with awards. The film won 7 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor for Alec Guinness, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Original Music Score, while Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

The award for adapted screenplay went to Pierre Boulle as neither Wilson or Foreman were credited due to the blacklist. This was later corrected and they were both awarded with posthumous Oscars in the 1980s. Modern release prints of The Bridge on the River Kwai credit the screenplay to Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman.

The film also won 4 BAFTAs, for Best Film, Best British Film, Best British Actor (Alec Guinness) and Best British Screenplay, and Golden Globes for Guinness, Lean and for Best Motion Picture in the Drama category.

The film has been spoofed many times, including in the aforementioned film The Geisha Boy. Also notable is The Bridge on the River Wye, a record made by Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller, parodying the film by telling essentially the same story but playing it for laughs.

John Milius is a big fan of The Bridge on the River Kwai and gave an appreciation of it for the DVD release. Milius's enthusiasm for the film is no surprise though, especially to anyone who's seen his wartime jungle adventure film Farewell to the King, from 1988.

Also released in 1988 was Return from the River Kwai. This film was also about Allied prisoners of the Japanese, although the lawyers have asked me to explain that it definitely wasn't a sequel to The Bridge on the River Kwai, despite the similar-sounding title, and if you went to see it because you thought it was, well that wasn't the producer's fault.

Original film poster for The Bridge on the River Kwai
Original poster for The Bridge on the River Kwai, with Pierre Boulle credited as the screenwriter

One of the more unlikely complaints about The Bridge on the River Kwai from modern reviewers is the suggestion that Japanese engineers wouldn't be capable of building the bridge themselves, with the film showing the British as able to do it better.

It's quite possible that Pierre Boulle intended that the novel should show the superiority of western engineering (full disclosure: I haven't read the book). Boulle himself was a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II and was under no illusions about their treatment of prisoners of war. Even in the 1950s, Japanese industry was known more for copying western products and was not associated with technological sophistication or innovation. So it's possible that Pierre Boulle intended to depict Japan as backward culturally, morally and technologically. The film is softer on the Japanese, partly because it wants to draw parallels between the two colonels, Nicholson and Saito, and to portray them as equivalents to some degree.

It's also quite possible that one engineer on one bridge project wouldn't be up to the job. Maybe building bridges in the middle of the jungle wasn't something that attracted the best brains in Japan, or maybe the engineer's father was a general or something. There are plenty of incompetent or semi-incompetent people in positions of authority all over the world.

The truth is that The Bridge on the River Kwai is full of far more unlikely contrivances if we look into it too deeply. Would Shears really be able to escape from a prison camp in the middle of the jungle? Escapes like these from the Japanese were extremely rare, due particularly to the hostility of the terrain. And would Shears really have been helped by the inhabitants of the local village, who even give him a boat, a very valuable commodity, to help him on his way? It's just as likely, maybe more likely, that they would have turned him over to the Japanese.

And would a British colonel, and his senior officers, all enthusiastically work on a Japanese bridge project as depicted in the film, without worrying about collaborating with the enemy? Not really. And Geoffrey Horne's character, the accountant from Canada who wants to be a commando. Would a man inexperienced in combat, who's not even sure if he can kill the enemy, be chosen for a special forces mission like this and dropped behind enemy lines so he can find out? Probably not.

Perhaps the film isn't all that realistic, but it does cover for it with a certain seriousness of purpose. Although the story has its contrivances, it's clear that they are designed to serve a greater goal. And it's to the film's credit that its story doesn't feel contrived, even though in some ways it definitely is.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is the thinking persons' epic, a big film with big ideas. It's a character drama as much as a spectacle or an adventure epic and it helped to raise expectations about what was possible for blockbuster cinema. It provides the excitement and grandeur of a war epic, while under-cutting its own story of heroics with its consistent sense of dramatic irony. And its critique of the madness and futility of war and pointed satire on the military mentality are ever-present. The film is also a first rate character drama, and its flaws aren't great enough to stop it from being one of David Lean's very best films and one of the defining cinematic spectacles of its time.

The Bridge on the River Kwai 

Year: 1957
Genre: War / Drama / Adventure
Country: UK
Director: David Lean

Cast Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson), William Holden (Shears), Jack Hawkins (Major Warden), Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Saito), James Donald (Major Clipton), Geoffrey Horne (Lt. Joyce), André Morell (Colonel Green), Peter Williams (Captain Reeves), John Boxer (Major Hughes), Percy Herbert (Grogan), Harold Goodwin (Baker), Ann Sears (Nurse), Henry Okawa (Captain Kanematsu), Keiichiro Katsumoto (Lieutenant Miura), M.R.B. Chakrabandhu (Yai), Vilaiwan Seeboonreaung, Ngamta Suphaphongs, Javanart Punynchoti and Kannikar Dowklee (Siamese girls)

Screenplay Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle  Producer Sam Spiegel  Cinematography Jack Hildyard  Art Director Donald M. Ashton  Editor Peter Taylor  Music Malcolm Arnold

Running time 161 mins  Colour Technicolor  Widescreen Cinemascope

Production company Horizon Pictures (GB) Ltd  Distributor Columbia Pictures

See also:
Madeleine (1950)
Director Profile: David Lean


  1. Great review! It's one of my all-time favorites movies. BTW, I haven't read Boulle's book either but I've read that the book is less serious (interestingly, Boulle's Apes is apparently more sarcastic than the movie version). According to Lean's biographer, Kevin Brownlow, the director hated the book's humorous tone and removed any traces of it. That's why, I think, things that were meant to be a joke (like the Japanese not knowing how to build the bridge) don't make much sense in the movie.

    1. I think I did read that about Planet of the Apes and it does make sense that that story would be intended as a satire. There are definitely elements of the film The Bridge on the River Kwai that could be taken as satire as well, or maybe originated that way. This might be an interesting example of a film and its source material being at odds, but the film version still works, which is pretty unusual.

  2. I enjoyed the fascinating details behind this film for which I find I have more regard and fondness as the years go by. The outstanding cast is a large part of the draw.

    1. Yes, all the actors are so good, aren't they? Watching this again gave me a renewed appreciation for Guinness's performance, but the others are great too. I don't think Holden and Hawkins get enough praise for this.

  3. You're quite right about Alec Guinness: the man managed to be a chameleon and a star. I enjoyed reading about the making of the film too. I can sort of imagine Ronald Colman as Nicholson, but Noel Coward? The mind boggles.

    1. I guess he was thinking about his earlier films with Lean. He played a naval officer in In Which We Serve, so I suppose it's not totally out there, but it is hard to imagine him in this.

  4. Watch hthis film with an eight-year old sometime so you can hear a gem like "Why doesn't Obi-Wan just use "The Force" to build the bridge?"

    1. That reminds me of my best friend as a kid who thought that North Sea Hijack was a Bond film because it had Roger Moore in it. He couldn't work out why James Bond now had a beard and wore a woolly hat.

  5. Sorry for the late comment on this Jay but I've been reading it for five days solid and just got to the end! Jeepers mate you really went for it on this! LOL.

    Such an epic post can only fit such an epic film like this.
    Add love for this one as Commander Shears shares the family name. You don't get many Shears popping up in films.
    No way I never knew the source was from Pierre Boulle. I do have his Ape book on the shelve. Read it many years ago.
    Interesting to read about Laughton being considered for the part! Though that could of killed him don't you think.
    Both Holden and Hawkins are incredible in this but Guinness as always steals the show. Though so many great actors litter the screen. Good old James Donald is his usual dependable self. One of the kings of WW2 movies.
    An awesome read Jay.
    Haha I bet you've slept for a few days solid after hosting that blogathon. You put on an almighty show old bean. Bravo.

    BTW this one didn't show up in the "wordpress reader". I know I've said it before but I don't get notification of replies, so please don't think I being rude if I don't get back. Is you site a wordpress blog or a Blogger? I have the same trouble with Caftan Woman site which I'd like to follow but can't!

    Anyhoo. Nice one Jay and Maddy for hosting.

    1. Michael Shears aka Mikey Wolfman but I'm sure you worked that out from my comment.

    2. You had a lucky escape, this could have been even longer! But I had to finish it before the blogathon ended.

      The main site is on Blogger, but just to confuse everyone, I also have a WordPress blog where I post snippets and links to this site. I was reading all the blogathon entries this week so just haven't got round to adding The Bridge on the River Kwai post to the Wordpress site, which is why it's not showing in the reader yet.

      You can follow a Blogger site in the Wordpress reader by copying the web address and pasting it into the followed sites in your Wordpress account. To get notifications of replies to comments you have to check the box that says "Notify Me" and it should email you any follow up comments. I'm always forgetting to do this!

  6. "could have been even longer!" Oh my days you would be giving War and Peace a run for it's money.

    Of I now see why it was freaking me out. Now sorted on the blogger follows. Now I just need Blogger to sort their comment section out now! There's like 15 stages to go through before you can comment and then sometimes it randomly decides to delete the comment. LOL

    Awesome collection of WW2 post sir. My hat is a doff to you.

  7. This was such a great and informative review. I learned a lot through it - for instance, I didn't know Spiegel also produced The African Queen! In the end, you did perfect justice to this epic.
    Thanks for co-hosting this fun event!

    1. Thanks Le. I'm glad you found it interesting. And thanks for taking part in the blogathon.

  8. Epic review of a real epic, mate! Great job! I really enjoyed reading this. No matter how many times I watch this film it still packs quite a punch. Great performances and interesting characters. One of David Lean's best for sure. You're right about the contrivances, but also about how the film makes you more easily look past them than you might if this were a different film.

    1. Thanks. I'm glad you liked it. The film is very good at making us overlook the contrivances. I do feel the whole thing with the detonator is pushing it too far though!

  9. Epic review Jay! I learned a lot about the film. I have seen it only once a long time ago and don't remember liking it as much as other Lean's films, but your review definitely makes me want to watch it again.

    1. Hello Virginie. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a very good film and I think any David Lean film is worth at least a couple of viewings. I hope you get to see it again, I'm sure you'd get more out of it a second time.

  10. Fantastic review. Love this film.



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