The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


Introduction

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 adventure epic war film directed by David Lean and based on the 1952 novel, of the same name, written by Pierre Boulle.

The film uses the historical setting of the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942-1943.

The cast includes William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness, and Sessue Hayakawa.

Outline

In early 1943, British Prisoners of War (POW’s) arrive by train at a Japanese prison camp in Burma. The commandant, Colonel Saito, informs them that all prisoners, regardless of rank, are to work on the construction of a railway bridge over the River Kwai that will help connect Bangkok and Rangoon. The senior British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, informs Saito that the Geneva Conventions exempt officers from manual labour. Nicholson later forbids any escape attempts because they had been ordered by headquarters to surrender, and escapes could be seen as defiance of orders.

At the morning assembly, Nicholson orders his officers to remain behind when the enlisted men march off to work. Saito threatens to have them shot, but Nicholson refuses to back down. When Major Clipton, the British medical officer, warns Saito there are too many witnesses for him to get away with murder, Saito leaves the officers standing all day in the intense 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 Lieutenant Commander Shears gets away, although wounded. He wanders half-dead into a Siamese village, where he is nursed back to health before completing his escape downstream and eventually to the British colony of Ceylon.

Meanwhile, the prisoners work as little as possible and sabotage whatever they can. Should Saito fail to meet his deadline, he would be obliged to commit ritual suicide. Desperate, he uses the anniversary of Japan’s 1905 victory in the Russo-Japanese War as an excuse to save face and announces a general amnesty, releasing Nicholson and his officers and exempting them from manual labour.

Nicholson is shocked by the poor job being done by his men. Over the protests of some of his officers, he orders Captain Reeves and Major Hughes to design and build a proper bridge, in order to maintain his men’s morale and pride in their professionalism. As the Japanese engineers had chosen a poor site, the original construction is abandoned and a new bridge begun downstream.

Shears is enjoying his hospital stay in Ceylon when British Major Warden invites him to join a mission to destroy the bridge before it is useful to Japanese forces. Shears is so appalled he confesses he is not an officer; he impersonated one, expecting better treatment from the Japanese. Warden responds that he already knew and that the American Navy agreed to transfer him to the British to avoid embarrassment. Realising he has no choice, 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 long after the war’s end. When he asks that their Japanese counterparts pitch in as well, a resigned Saito replies that he has already given the order. Nicholson erects a sign commemorating the bridge’s construction by the British Army, from February to May 1943.

The four commandos parachute in, though one is 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 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 important dignitaries and soldiers is scheduled to be the first to cross the bridge the following day, so Warden waits to destroy both. However, by daybreak, the river level has dropped, exposing the wire connecting the explosives to the detonator. Nicholson spots the wire and brings it to Saito’s attention. As the train approaches, they hurry down to the riverbank to investigate.

Joyce, manning the detonator, breaks cover and stabs Saito to death. Nicholson yells for help, while attempting to stop Joyce from reaching the detonator. When Joyce is mortally wounded by Japanese fire, Shears swims across the river, but is himself shot. Recognising the dying Shears, Nicholson exclaims, “What have I done?” Warden fires a mortar, 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, muttering, “Madness! … Madness!”

Cast

  • Alec Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson.
  • Jack Hawkins as Major Warden.
  • Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito.
  • William Holden as Lieutenant Commander/Major Shears.
  • James Donald as Major Clipton.
  • Geoffrey Horne as Lieutenant Joyce.
  • André Morell as Colonel Green.
  • Peter Williams as Captain Reeves.
  • John Boxer as Major Hughes.
  • Percy Herbert as Private Grogan.
  • Harold Goodwin as Private Baker.
  • Ann Sears as Nurse.
  • Henry Okawa as Captain Kanematsu.
  • K. Katsumoto as Lieutenant Miura.
  • Paul Lambert as a British Officer.
  • M.R.B. Chakrabandhu as Yai.

Trivia

  • The film was initially scripted by screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was later replaced by Michael Wilson.
    • Both writers had to work in secret, as they were on the Hollywood blacklist and had fled to the UK in order to continue working.
    • As a result, Boulle, who did not speak English, was credited and received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; many years later, Foreman and Wilson posthumously received the Academy Award.
  • The film was made in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
  • The bridge in the film was near Kitulgala.
  • Director David Lean clashed with his cast members on multiple occasions, particularly Alec Guinness and James Donald, who thought the novel was anti-British.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • The film was widely praised, winning seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) at the 30th Academy Awards.
  • In 1997, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress.
  • It has been included on the American Film Institute’s list of best American films ever made.
  • In 1999, the British Film Institute voted The Bridge on the River Kwai the 11th greatest British film of the 20th century.
  • The film can be seen on Sniper Thomas Beckett’s (Tom Berenger’s) motel TV in Sniper 3 (2004).

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): David Lean.
  • Producer(s): Sam Spiegel.
  • Writer(s): Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson.
  • Music: Malcolm Arnold.
  • Cinematography: Jack Hildyard.
  • Editor(s): Peter Taylor.
  • Production: Horizon Pictures.
  • Distributor(s): Columbia Pictures.
  • Release Date: 02 October 1957 (UK) and 14 December 1957 (US).
  • Running time: 161 minutes.
  • Country: UK and US.
  • Language: English.

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