The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 British World War II film by David Lean based on "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 stars William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, and Sessue Hayakawa. The scene creation of the film was done in Sri Lanka and many of them were at Kitulgala area including the bridge explosion. 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.


After the surrender of Singapore in World War II, a unit of British soldiers are marched to a Japanese prison camp in western Thailand. They are paraded before the camp commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who informs them of his rules; all prisoners, regardless of rank, are to work on the construction of a bridge over the River Kwai to carry a new railway line. Their commander, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), reminds Saito that the Geneva Conventions exempt officers from manual labour, but Saito furiously orders everyone to work. At the following morning's parade, Saito threatens to have the officers shot, and 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 into 'the oven', an iron box, to suffer without food or water. Clipton attempts to negotiate with Saito for Nicholson's release, but Nicholson refuses to compromise. Meanwhile, the soldiers are working as little as possible and sabotaging whenever they can. Saito is concerned that should he fail to meet his deadline, he would be obliged to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Using the anniversary of Japan's great victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War as an excuse to save face, he gives in, and Nicholson and his officers are released to command their men. Nicholson conducts an inspection and is shocked by what he finds. Against 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 his men's morale. The Japanese engineers had chosen a poor site, so the original construction is abandoned and a new bridge is begun 400 yards downstream, using better materials. His officers are concerned that this can be seen as collaboration, but Nicholson is determined that the job will be done as well as it can be done, and by British soldiers, not slave labourers. Meanwhile, three prisoners attempt to escape. Two are shot dead, but United States Navy Commander Shears (William Holden), gets away, although badly wounded. After many days, Shears eventually stumbles into a village, whose people help him to escape by a boat. He reaches the Mount Lavinia Hospital at Ceylon. Shears is enjoying his recovery in Ceylon with a British nurse, and about to leave for the United States, but Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) asks him to volunteer for a commando mission to destroy the bridge. Shears is horrified at the idea and reveals that he is not an officer at all. He was an enlisted man, "a swab jockey" on the cruiser USS Houston. He switched uniforms on an island with the dead Commander Shears after the sinking of the Houston, to get better treatment. Warden already knows this, he has "Shears" US Navy record from CinCPac. "Shears" has been reassigned to British duty. Shears has no choice but to join Warden's unit, with the "simulated rank of Major". Meanwhile, Nicholson drives his men to complete the bridge on time. He even volunteers his junior officers for physical labour, and asks that their Japanese counterparts join in as well. Saito replies that he has already given the order. The commandos parachute in, although one is killed in a bad landing. The other three—Warden, Shears, and the Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne)—reach the river with the assistance of Siamese women porters and their village chief, Khun Yai. Warden is wounded in an encounter with a Japanese patrol, and has to be carried on a litter. The trio reach the bridge, and under cover of darkness, plant explosives underwater. A Japanese train carrying soldiers and important officials is scheduled to be the first to use the bridge the following morning and Warden plans to destroy both the bridge and the train. But the following morning, the river level has dropped, exposing the wires to the detonator. Making a final inspection, Nicholson spots the wire and brings it to Saito's attention. As the train is heard approaching, the two colonels hurry down to the riverbank to stop the potential destruction. Joyce breaks cover and stabs Saito to death; Nicholson yells for help, while attempting to stop Joyce from reaching the detonator. Shears swims across the river but he and Joyce are shot by Japanese soldiers, just before he reaches Nicholson. While attempting to provide covering fire for Shears, Yai is also killed. Recognising the dying Shears, Nicholson exclaims, "What have I done?", and attempts to run towards the detonator. Warden fires his mortar, mortally wounding Nicholson. The colonel stumbles towards the detonator and falls on it as he dies, just in time to blow up the bridge and send the train hurtling into the river below. After exclaiming to the Siamese women that he had no choice but to kill the two commandos, because they otherwise might have been taken prisoner, Warden throws his mortar off the cliff and, with the women, begins the process of trying to get away. As he witnesses the carnage, Clipton can only shake his head incredulously and utter, "Madness! ... Madness!"