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The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 World War II film 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 Railway in 1942-43 for its historical setting. It was directed by David Lean and 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 Congress National Film Registry.


Two prisoners of war are burying a corpse in the graveyard of a Japanese World War II prison camp in southern Burma. One, American Navy Commander Shears (William Holden), routinely bribes guards to ensure he gets sick duty, which allows him to 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, will work on the construction of a bridge over the Kwai River as part of a railroad that will 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 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, the Japanese commander 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 still standing defiantly at attention when the men return from the day's work. The British officers are placed in a punishment cage and Nicholson is locked into his own box to suffer in the heat.

Nicholson, however, refuses to budge, telling Clipton, "If we give in now, there'll be no end to it." In the meantime, construction of the railroad bridge falls far behind schedule, due in part to "accidents" arranged by the British prisoners.

Should Saito 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. Upon their release, Nicholson and his officers proudly walk through a jubilant reception. Saito for his part breaks down in tears in private.

Nicholson sets off on an inspection of the bridge and is shocked to find disorganization, shirking and outright sabotage. He orders Captain Reeves (Peter Williams) and Major Hughes (John Boxer) to come up with designs for a proper bridge, despite its military value to the Japanese. He wants to demonstrate the superiority of British ingenuity and also to keep his men busy to maintain morale.

Meanwhile, Shears and two other men attempt to escape. The others are killed; Shears is shot, falls into the river and is swept downstream. After many days in the jungle, he stumbles into a Siamese village, whose residents help him get to the British. Shears is shipped to a hospital in Colombo, Ceylon.

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 Shears at all, but an enlisted man masquerading as him. The two men had survived the sinking of their ship. When the officer was killed by a Japanese patrol, "Shears" switched dog tags with him, hoping to get preferential treatment in captivity. It didn't work, but he then had no choice but to continue the impersonation. In return for his services, Shears will not be charged with impersonating an officer, an offense punishable by death. They are joined by the untested Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) and a fourth commando.

Back in the camp, Clipton watches in bewilderment as Nicholson maniacally drives his men to complete the project by the deadline. Ironically, the colonel even volunteers his junior officers to assist with the physical labour, the cause of his original standoff with Saito - provided that the Japanese officers are willing to pitch in as well. As the Japanese engineers had chosen a poor site, the original bridge is abandoned and construction of a whole new bridge is commenced 400 yards downriver.

Meanwhile, the commandos parachute in. The fourth man is killed in a bad landing. The rest make their way to the river, assisted by native women porters and their village chief, Yai (M.R.B. Chakrabandhu). In an encounter with a Japanese patrol, the inexperienced Joyce freezes and Warden gets shot in the foot as a result. Nonetheless, the trio make their way to the bridge.

As the prisoners celebrate the completion of the bridge, 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.

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 then 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 to finish the job, but he too is shot just before he reaches Nicholson.

Recognizing Shears, Nicholson suddenly comes to his senses and exclaims, "What have I done?" Warden desperately fires his mortar, killing Shears and 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. (A full-sized bridge and a real train were used, probably the first time this had been done without model shots since 1952's The Big Trees. Buster Keaton's The General included an almost identical scene.)

Warden responds to the shocked stares of the women porters by pleading, "I had to do it! They might have been taken alive! It was the only thing to do!" Meanwhile, 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 kilometers from the Thai town of Kanchanaburi. This was part of a project to link existing Thai and Burmese railway lines to create a route from Bangkok, Thailand to Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar) to support the Japanese occupation of Burma. About a hundred thousand conscripted Asian labourers and 12,000 prisoners of war died on the whole project.

Although the suffering caused by the building of the Burma Railway and its bridges is true, the incidents portrayed in the film are mostly fictional. Historically the conditions were much worse. The real senior Allied officer at the bridge was 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 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 original novel, with two major exceptions: the character of Shears, who was a British commando officer like Warden in the book, becomes an American sailor who escaped from the POW camp; and the climax. In the original book, the bridge isn't destroyed, and Warden kills Nicholson and all of his fellow commandos; in the film, of course, the bridge is destroyed, and Warden only kills Nicholson.


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."

David 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 humor 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 UK and the United States. It is set in Thailand, but was filmed mostly near Kitulgala, Ceylon (now Sri 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 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 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 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.


Academy Awards

The Bridge on the River Kwai won seven Oscars

It was nominated for

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


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

In all the early prints Guinness' 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.


In 1962 Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, with Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller released the LP record Bridge On The River Wye (Parlophone LP PMC 1190,PCS 3036 (November 1962)). This spoof of the film was based on the script for the 1957 Goon Show episode "An African Incident". Shortly before its release, for legal reasons, producer George Martin edited out the 'K' every time the word 'Kwai' was spoken.

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'.

The 1985 movie Volunteers is a spoof of the film, with the Washington State University Fight Song used in place of the Colonel Bogey March.

An episode of Magnum PI has Magnum blowing up Higgin's model of the Bridge on the River Kwai.

See also

Peter Sellers' hit film The Mouse That Roared also parodied the sequence of Col. Nicholson's refusal to eat and drink food when held captive.


External links

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