World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Article Id: WHEBN0000042856
Reproduction Date:

Title: The Bridge on the River Kwai  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: 30th Academy Awards, Lawrence of Arabia (film), 15th Golden Globe Awards, William Holden, Carl Foreman
Collection: 1950S Drama Films, 1950S War Films, 1957 Films, American Drama Films, American Epic Films, American Films, American War Films, Anti-War Films About World War II, Best British Film Bafta Award Winners, Best Drama Picture Golden Globe Winners, Best Film Bafta Award Winners, Best Picture Academy Award Winners, British Drama Films, British Epic Films, British Films, British War Films, Columbia Pictures Films, English-Language Films, Films Based on French Novels, Films Based on Military Novels, Films Directed by David Lean, Films Featuring a Best Actor Academy Award Winning Performance, Films Featuring a Best Drama Actor Golden Globe Winning Performance, Films Produced by Sam Spiegel, Films Set in Thailand, Films Set in the 1940S, Films Shot in Sri Lanka, Films That Won the Best Original Score Academy Award, Films Whose Cinematographer Won the Best Cinematography Academy Award, Films Whose Director Won the Best Director Academy Award, Films Whose Director Won the Best Director Golden Globe, Films Whose Editor Won the Best Film Editing Academy Award, Films Whose Writer Won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award, Horizon Pictures Films, Pacific War Films, Rail Transport Films, Screenplays by Carl Foreman, Screenplays by Michael Wilson (Writer), United States National Film Registry Films, War Drama Films, War Epic Films, World War II Prisoner of War Films
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai
Original release poster
Directed by David Lean
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Screenplay by Carl Foreman
Michael Wilson
Based on The Bridge over the River Kwai 
by Pierre Boulle
Starring William Holden
Alec Guinness
Jack Hawkins
Sessue Hayakawa
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Edited by Peter Taylor
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • 2 October 1957 (1957-10-02)
Running time 161 minutes
Country United Kingdom
United States[1]
Language English
Budget $2,840,000.[2]
Box office $30.6 million (first release)[2]

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 Second World War film directed by David Lean, based on the eponymous French novel (1952) by 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 stars William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa. The movie was filmed in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). The bridge in the film was located near Kitulgala.

The film was widely praised, winning seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) at the 30th Academy Awards; 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. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.[3][4]


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Historical parallels 3
  • Production 4
    • Screenplay 4.1
    • Filming 4.2
    • Music 4.3
  • Box office performance 5
  • Awards 6
    • Academy Awards 6.1
    • BAFTA Awards 6.2
    • Golden Globe Awards 6.3
    • Other awards 6.4
    • Other nominations 6.5
    • Recognition 6.6
      • American Film Institute recognition 6.6.1
  • First TV broadcast 7
  • Restorations 8
  • In popular culture 9
    • Parodies 9.1
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12


In World War II, British prisoners arrive at a Japanese prison camp in western Burma.[5] The commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), informs them that all prisoners, regardless of rank, are to work on the construction of a railway bridge over the River Kwai. The senior British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), reminds Saito that the Geneva Conventions exempt officers from manual labour.

At the following morning's assembly, Nicholson orders his officers to remain behind when the enlisted men are sent off to work. Saito slaps him across the face with his copy of the conventions and threatens to have them shot, but Nicholson refuses to back down. When Major Clipton (James Donald), the British medical officer, intervenes, Saito leaves the officers standing all day in the intense tropical heat. That evening, the officers are placed in a punishment hut, while Nicholson is locked in an iron box.

Meanwhile, three prisoners attempt to escape. Two are shot dead, but United States Navy Commander Shears (William Holden), gets away, although badly wounded. He stumbles into a village. The villagers help him escape by boat.

Nicholson refuses to compromise. Meanwhile, the prisoners are working as little as possible and sabotaging whatever they can. Should Saito fail to meet his deadline, he would be obliged to commit ritual suicide. Desperate, Saito uses the anniversary of Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War as an excuse to save face and announces a general amnesty, releasing Nicholson and his officers.

Nicholson conducts an inspection and is shocked by the poor job being done by his men. Over the protests of some of his officers, he orders Captain Reeves (Peter Williams) and Major Hughes (John Boxer) to design and build a proper bridge, despite its military value to the Japanese, for the sake of maintaining his men's morale. The Japanese engineers had chosen a poor site, so the original construction is abandoned and a new bridge is begun downstream.

Shears is enjoying his hospital stay in Ceylon, when British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) asks him to volunteer for a commando mission to destroy the bridge before it's completed. Shears is appalled at the idea and reveals that he is not an officer at all. He switched uniforms with a dead officer after the sinking of their cruiser as a ploy to get better treatment. Warden already knows this. Faced with the prospect of being charged with impersonating an officer, Shears volunteers.

Meanwhile, Nicholson drives his men hard to complete the bridge on time. For him, its completion will exemplify the ingenuity and hard work of the British Army for generations. When he asks that their Japanese counterparts join in as well, a resigned Saito replies that he has already given the order.

The commandos parachute in, with one man being killed on landing. Later, Warden is wounded in an encounter with a Japanese patrol and has to be carried on a litter. He, Shears, and Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) reach the river in time with the assistance of Siamese women bearers and their village chief, Khun Yai. Under cover of darkness, Shears and Joyce plant explosives on the bridge towers below the water line.

A train carrying soldiers and important dignitaries is scheduled to be the first to cross the bridge the following day, so Warden waits to destroy both. However, at daybreak the commandos are horrified to see that the water level has dropped, exposing the wire connecting the explosives to the detonator. Making a final inspection, Nicholson spots the wire and brings it to Saito's attention. As the train is heard approaching, they hurry down to the riverbank to investigate.

Joyce, manning the detonator, breaks cover and stabs Saito to death. Aghast, Nicholson yells for help, while attempting to stop Joyce from reaching the detonator. When Joyce is shot dead by Japanese fire, Shears swims across the river, but is fatally wounded as he reaches Nicholson. Recognizing the dying Shears, Nicholson exclaims, "What have I done?" Warden fires his mortar, mortally wounding Nicholson. The dazed colonel stumbles towards the detonator and collapses on the plunger, just in time to blow up the bridge and send the train hurtling into the river below. Witnessing the carnage, Clipton shakes his head uttering, "Madness! ... Madness!"


Historical parallels

The bridge over the River Kwai in June 2004. The round truss spans are the originals; the angular replacements were supplied by the Japanese as war reparations.

The largely fictional film plot is loosely 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 Kanchanaburi.

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. Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma, worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre."[6]

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, historically the conditions were much worse than depicted.[7] 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.[8] 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, due to his collaboration 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.[8] He strongly denied the claim that the book was anti-British, although many involved in the film itself (including Alec Guinness) felt otherwise.[9]

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: termites were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures, and the concrete was badly mixed.[8][10]

Boulle outlined the reasoning which led him to conceive the character of Nicholson in an interview which forms part of the 1969 BBC2 documentary "Return to the River Kwai" made by former POW John Coast. A transcript of the interview and the documentary as a whole can be found in the new edition of John Coast's book Railroad of Death.[11] Coast's documentary sought to highlight the real history behind the film (partly through getting ex-POWs to question its factual basis, for example Dr Hugh de Wardener and Lt-Col Alfred Knights), which had angered so many former POWs and the documentary itself was described by one newspaper reviewer when it was shown on Boxing Day 1974 (The Bridge on the River Kwai had been shown on BBC1 on Christmas Day 1974) as "Following the movie, this is a rerun of the antidote."[12]

Some of the characters in the film have the names of real people who were involved in the Burma Railway. Their roles and characters, however, are fictionalised. For example, a Sergeant-Major Risaburo Saito was in real life second in command at the camp. In the film, a Colonel Saito is camp commandant. In reality, Risaburo 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 movie also depicts the Japanese as poor engineers when in fact many were graduates of some of the best engineering schools including several American and British universities.



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. Subsequent releases of the film finally gave them proper screen credit. David Lean himself also claimed that producer Sam Spiegel cheated him out of his rightful part in the credits since he had had a major hand in the script.[13]

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 realising "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.


A scene in the film, bridge at Kitulgala in Sri Lanka, before the explosion
A photo of Kitulgala in Sri Lanka (photo taken 2004), where the bridge was made for the film.

Many directors were considered for the project, among them John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Fred Zinnemann and Orson Welles.

The film was an international co-production between companies in Britain and the United States.[14] It is set in Burma, but was filmed mostly near Kitulgala, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), with a few scenes shot in England.

Director 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 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)."[15]

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

William Holden and Chandran Rutnam while shooting The Bridge on the River Kwai.

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

The filming of the bridge explosion was to be done on 10 March 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 the supplemental material in the Blu-ray digipak, a thousand tons of explosives were used to blow up the bridge. This is highly unlikely, as the film shows roughly 50 kg of plastic explosive being used simply to knock down the bridge's supports.

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. Ordinarily, the film would have been taken by boat to London, but due to the Suez crisis this was impossible; therefore the film was taken by air freight. When the shipment failed to arrive in London, a worldwide search was undertaken. To the producers' horror the film containers were found a week later on an airport tarmac in Cairo, sitting in the hot Egyptian sun. Although it was not exposed to sunlight, the heat-sensitive colour 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 first strain of the march "Colonel Bogey"—when they enter the camp.[16] The march was written in 1914 by Kenneth J. Alford, a pseudonym of British Bandmaster Frederick J. Ricketts. The Colonel Bogey strain was accompanied by a counter-melody using the same chord progressions, then continued with film composer Malcolm Arnold's own composition "The River Kwai March," played by the off-screen orchestra taking over from the whistlers, though Arnold's march was not heard in completion on the soundtrack. 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 used for the song "Hitler Has Only Got One Ball." Lean wanted to introduce Nicholson and his soldiers into the camp singing this song, but Sam Spiegel thought it too vulgar, and so whistling was substituted. However, the lyrics were, and continue to be, so well known to the British public that they didn't need to be laboured.

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 film's score.

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

Box office performance

Variety reported that this film was the #1 moneymaker of 1958, with a US take of $18,000,000.[17] The second highest moneymaker of 1958 was Peyton Place at $12,000,000; in third place was Sayonara at $10,500,000.[17]

The movie was re-released in 1964 and earned an estimated $2.6 million in North American rentals.[18]


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.

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

First TV broadcast

The 167-minute film was first telecast, uncut, by ABC-TV in color on the evening of 25 September 1966, as a three hours-plus ABC Movie Special. The telecast of the film lasted more than three hours because of the commercial breaks. It was still highly unusual at that time for a television network to show such a long film in one evening; most films of that length were still generally split into two parts and shown over two evenings. But the unusual move paid off for ABC—the telecast drew huge ratings. On the evenings of 28 and 29 January 1973, ABC broadcast another David Lean colour spectacular, Lawrence of Arabia, but that broadcast 'was split into two parts over two evenings, due to the film's nearly four-hour length.[19]


The film was restored in 1985 by Columbia Pictures. The separate dialogue, music and effects were located and remixed with newly recorded "atmospheric" sound effects.[20] The image was restored by OCS, Freeze Frame, and Pixel Magic with George Hively editing.[21]

On 2 November 2010 Columbia Pictures released a newly restored The Bridge on the River Kwai for the first time on Blu-ray. According to Columbia Pictures, they followed an all-new 4K digital restoration from the original negative with newly restored 5.1 audio.[22] The original negative for the feature was scanned at 4k (roughly four times the resolution in High Definition), and the colour correction and digital restoration were also completed at 4k. The negative itself manifested many of the kinds of issues one would expect from a film of this vintage: torn frames, imbedded emulsion dirt, scratches through every reel, colour fading. Unique to this film, in some ways, were other issues related to poorly made optical dissolves, the original camera lens and a malfunctioning camera. These problems resulted in a number of anomalies that were very difficult to correct, like a ghosting effect in many scenes that resembles color mis-registration, and a tick-like effect with the image jumping or jerking side-to-side. These issues, running throughout the film, were addressed to a lesser extent on various previous DVD releases of the film and might not have been so obvious in standard definition.[23]

In popular culture


  • In the 1958 motion picture The Geisha Boy, comedian Jerry Lewis plays a magician traveling in Japan to entertain GIs. During his visit, Lewis's character inadvertently becomes close with an orphaned Japanese boy. Sessue Hayakawa, playing the orphan's grandfather, reenacts a scene that he performed in The Bridge on the River Kwai: his workers are building a small bridge that greatly resembles the one in that film and whistling the familiar "Colonel Bogey March". When Lewis stares in wonder at Hayakawa and the bridge he is building in his backyard, Hayakawa acknowledges that others have mistaken him for "the actor" and then says, "I was building bridges long before he was." This is followed by a brief clip of Alec Guinness from the film.
  • In 1962, [25]
  • The comedy team of Wayne and Shuster performed a sketch titled "Kwai Me a River" on their 27 March 1967 TV show, in which an officer in the British Dental Corps is captured by the Japanese and, despite being comically unintimidated by any abuse the commander of the POW camp inflicts on him, is forced to build a (dental) "bridge on the river Kwai" for the commander and plans to include an explosive in the appliance to detonate in his mouth.[26]
  • In March 2014, the BBC television series Top Gear broadcast a Burma special, in which the hosts were challenged to drive from Rangoon to Thailand in dilapidated lorries and build a bridge over the river Kwai.

See also


  1. ^ "The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)url=".  
  2. ^ a b Sheldon Hall, Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History Wayne State University Press, 2010 p 161
  3. ^ On the AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies lists, in 1998 (#13) and 2007 (#36)
  4. ^  
  5. ^ "The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - Full Synopsis". Retrieved 2014-05-16. 
  6. ^ Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
  7. ^ links for research, Allied POWs under the Japanese
  8. ^ a b c Summer, Julie (2005). The Colonel of Tamarkan.  
  9. ^ Brownlow, Kevin (1996). David Lean: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-14578-0. pp. 391 and 766n
  10. ^ Davies, Peter N. (1991). The Man Behind the Bridge.  
  11. ^ Coast, John (2014). Railroad of Death. Myrmidon.  
  12. ^ "Boxing Day [TV Listing]". The Guardian (London). 24 December 1974. p. 14. 
  13. ^ The Guardian, April 17, 1991
  14. ^ Monaco, Paul (2010). A History of American Movies: A Film-by-film Look at the Art, Craft, and Business of Cinema. Scarecrow Press. p. 349. 
  15. ^ (Piers Paul Read, Alec Guinness, 293)
  16. ^ The Colonel Bogey March MIDI file
  17. ^ a b Steinberg, Cobbett (1980). Film Facts. New York: Facts on File, Inc. p. 23.   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).
  18. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1964", Variety, 6 January 1965 p 39. Please note this figure is rentals accruing to distributors not total gross.
  19. ^ "Nielsen Top Ten, January 29th – February 4th, 1973 | Television Obscurities". Retrieved 2014-05-16. 
  20. ^ "The Bridge on the River Kwai". 
  21. ^ "The Bridge on the River Kwai Credits". BFI Film and TV Database. 
  22. ^ "Movies | Disc & Digital | Sony Pictures". Retrieved 2014-05-16. 
  23. ^ [1]
  24. ^ "Director Balu Mahendra Biography | Balu Mahendra Personal Profile | Balu Mahendra Biodata | Balu Mahendra Childhood | Balu Mahendra Awards". Retrieved 2014-05-16. 
  25. ^ "The Goon Show Site - Facts and Trivia". Retrieved 2014-05-16. 
  26. ^ "Wayne and Shuster Show, The Episode Guide (1954–1990) (series)". Retrieved 2007-11-03. 

External links

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.