The Bridge on the River Kwai: Wikis


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The Bridge on the River Kwai

Original release poster
Directed by David Lean
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Written by Carl Foreman
Michael Wilson
Pierre Boulle (Novel)
Starring William Holden
Alec Guinness
Jack Hawkins
Sessue Hayakawa
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Editing by Peter Taylor
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date(s) October 2, 1957 (1957-10-02)
Running time 161 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $3 million
Gross revenue $27,2 million

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 British World War II film by David Lean 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 stars William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, and Sessue Hayakawa.

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 World War II prisoners of war are burying a dead comrade in a Japanese prison camp in western Thailand. One of them is United States Navy Commander Shears (William Holden), who has bribed the guards to get on the sick list to avoid more strenuous labour. He watches as a large contingent of new British prisoners led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) arrives, whistling the "Colonel Bogey March".

The Japanese camp commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), addresses them, informing them of his rules, which he chooses not to follow. All prisoners, regardless of rank, are to work on the construction of a bridge over the River Kwai for a new railway line. Nicholson reminds Saito that the Geneva Conventions exempt officers from manual labour, but Saito just walks away.

On parade the next morning, when Saito orders everyone to work, Nicholson orders his officers to stand fast, as the other ranks march off to work. Though Saito has a machine gun set up and threatens to have the officers shot, Nicholson refuses to back down. Saito is dissuaded from carrying through on his threat by Major Clipton (James Donald), the British medical officer, who warns of witnesses. Instead, Saito leaves the officers standing in the intense tropical heat. One officer collapses as the day wears on, but Nicholson and the rest are standing defiantly at attention when the men return from the day's work. The officers are then placed in a punishment hut, while Nicholson is locked into a corrugated iron box by himself to suffer in the heat.

Saito tries to negotiate, but Nicholson refuses to compromise at all. Saito discloses to Nicholson that should he fail to meet his deadline, he would be obliged to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Construction falls far behind schedule, due in part to "accidents" arranged by the prisoners. Finally, using the anniversary of Japan's great victory in the Russo-Japanese War as an excuse, Saito gives in. Nicholson and his officers triumphantly walk through a jubilant reception, while Saito privately breaks down in tears.

Meanwhile, Shears and two others attempt to escape. The others are killed, but Shears falls into the river, is carried away, and presumed dead. After many days, Shears stumbles into a Siamese village, whose people help him to escape by a boat. He reaches the Mount Lavinia Hospital at Ceylon. Mount Lavinia Hotel was displayed as the Hospital by changing the name board for a short period.

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.

Shears is enjoying his recovery in Ceylon when 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, but an enlisted man who switched uniforms with the dead Commander Shears after the sinking of their ship. Despite his expectation, it did not get him any better treatment. However, Warden already knows. Shears has no choice but to join Warden's unit in return for not being charged with impersonating an officer. He is given the "simulated rank of Major". Untested Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) and Captain Chapman make up the rest of the team.

Meanwhile, Nicholson drives his men to complete the bridge on time. He even volunteers his junior officers for physical labour, provided that their Japanese counterparts join in as well.

The commandos parachute in, although Chapman is killed in a bad landing. The other three reach the river with the assistance of Siamese women porters and their village chief, Khun Yai. When they encounter a Japanese patrol, Joyce freezes and Warden is wounded in the foot as a result. Nonetheless, the trio get to the bridge, and under cover of darkness, Shears and Joyce plant explosives underwater. The next day, a Japanese train full of soldiers and important officials is scheduled to be the first to use the bridge; Warden waits 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 in places 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 colonels 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, but Nicholson yells for help and 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, but he too is shot, just before he reaches Nicholson.

Recognising the dying Shears, Nicholson suddenly comes to his senses and exclaims, "What have I done?" Warden desperately fires his mortar, mortally wounding Nicholson. The colonel stumbles over to the detonator's plunger and falls on it as he dies, just in time to blow up the bridge and send the train hurtling into the river below. As he witnesses the carnage, Clipton can only shake his head incredulously and utter, "Madness! ... Madness!"


Historical accuracy

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 fictitious 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 (Myanmar). Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre."[1]

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, to depict the reality would have been too appalling for filmgoers. Historically the conditions were much worse than depicted.[2] 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.[3] 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.[3]

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.[3][4]

In reference to this point, novelist Pierre Boulle said that he based Nicholson on several French officers he had served with during the war. He also strongly denied the claim that the book was anti-British, though many involved in the film itself (including Alec Guinness) felt otherwise.[5]

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 Risaburo 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.


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.


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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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 realizing "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.


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."[citation needed]

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)".[6]

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.[citation needed]

The film was an international co-production between companies in the UK and the US. 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.[citation needed]

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 worldwide 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.[7] 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.

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


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.

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 recognition

Box office performance

Variety reported that this film was the #1 moneymaker of 1958, with a US take of $18,000,000.[8] The second highest moneymaker of 1958 was Peyton Place at $12,000,000; in third place was Sayonara at $10,500,000.[8]


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

In all the early prints Guinness's 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.


  • 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'.[10]

See also


  1. ^ Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
  2. ^ links for research, Allied POWs under the Japanese
  3. ^ a b c Summer, Julie (2005). The Colonel of Tamarkan. Simon & Schuster Ltd. ISBN 0-7432-6350-2. 
  4. ^ Davies, Peter N. (1991). The Man Behind the Bridge. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-485-11402-X. 
  5. ^ Brownlow, Kevin (1996). David Lean: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312145780. pp. 391 and 766n
  6. ^ (Piers Paul Read, Alec Guinness, 293)
  7. ^ The Colonel Bogey March MIDI file
  8. ^ a b Steinberg, Cobbett (1980). Film Facts. New York: Facts on File, Inc.. p. 23. ISBN 0-87196-313-2.  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).
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Wayne and Shuster Show, The Episode Guide (1954-1990) (series)".,_the/episode_guide/. Retrieved 2007-11-03. 

External links

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Around the World in Eighty Days
Academy Award for Best Picture
Succeeded by
Preceded by
BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source
Succeeded by
Room at the Top
Preceded by
Reach for the Sky
BAFTA Award for Best British Film
Succeeded by
Room at the Top

Coordinates: 14°02′27″N 99°30′11″E / 14.04083°N 99.50306°E / 14.04083; 99.50306


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 film about a British colonel who, after settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.

Directed by David Lean. Written by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, based on Pierre Boulle's novel Le pont de la rivière Kwai.
It spans a whole new world of entertainment!
The bridge over the Kwai River in June 2004. The round truss spans are the originals; the angular replacements were supplied by the Japanese as war reparations.


Col. Nicholson

  • I tell you, gentlemen, we have a problem on our hands. Thanks to the Japanese, we now command a rabble. There's no order, no discipline. Our task is to rebuild the battalion. It isn't going to be easy, but fortunately, we have the means at hand, the bridge...We can teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame. We'll show them what the British soldier is capable of doing...It's going to be a proper bridge. Now here again, I know the men. It's essential that they should take a pride in their job.
  • One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity.
  • [on feeling down] It is quite understandable. It's a very natural reaction. But one day, in a week, a month, a year, on that day when God willing, we all return to our homes again, you're going to feel very proud of what you have achieved here in the face of great adversity. What you have done, should be, and I think will be, an example to all our countrymen, soldier and civilian alike. You have survived with honor, that and more, here in the wilderness. You have turned defeat into victory. I congratulate you. Well done.

Cmdr. Shears

  • Here lies Corporal Herbert Thompson, serial number 01234567, valiant member of the King's own, and Queen's own, or something, who died of beriberi in the year of our Lord 1943. For the greater glory of...[pause] what did he die for?...I don't mock the grave or the man. May he rest in peace. He found little enough of it while he was alive.
  • Mostly Aussies, some Lime, some British, Indians, Burmese, Siamese...They died, of malaria, dysentery, beriberi, gangrene. Other causes of death: famine, overwork, bullet wounds, snake bites, Saito. And then there were some who just got tired of living.
  • [watching the British prisoners walk into the camp] We're going to be a busy pair of gravediggers.

Col. Saito

  • [speaking to British prisoners for the first time] I am Colonel Saito. In the name of His Imperial Majesty, I welcome you. I am the commanding officer of this camp, which is Camp 16 along the great railroad which will soon connect Bangkok with Rangoon. You British prisoners have been chosen to build a bridge across the River Kwai. It will be pleasant work, requiring skill, and officers will work as well as men. The Japanese Army cannot have idle mouthes to feed. If you work hard, you will be treated well, but if you do not work hard, you will be punished! A word to you about escape: there is no barbed wire, no stockade, no watch tower. They are not necessary. We are an island in the jungle. Escape is impossible. You would die. Today you rest. Tomorrow you will begin. Let me remind you of General Yamashita's motto: be happy in your work. Dismissed!
  • Attention, English prisoners! Notice I do not say "English soldiers". From the moment you surrendered, you ceased to be soldiers. You will finish the bridge by the twelfth day of May. You will work under the direction of a Japanese engineer, Lieutenant Mioura. Time is short. All men will work. Your officers will work beside you. This is only just. For it is they who betray you by surrender. Your shame is their dishonor. It is they who told you: 'Better to live like a coolie than die like a hero.' It is they who brought you here, not I. Therefore, they will join you in useful labor. That is all.
  • You speak to me of code. What code? The coward's code. What do you know of the soldier's code? Of bushido? Nothing. You are unworthy of command.
  • I hate the British. You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn, but have no pride. You endure, but you have no courage.

Maj. Clipton

  • The fact is, what we're doing could be construed as, forgive me sir, collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable activity...Must we work so well. Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built for themselves?
  • Is this your soldier's code? Murdering unarmed men?


Saito: Do you know what will happen to me if the bridge is not built on time?
Nicholson: I haven't the foggiest.
Saito: I'll have to kill myself. What would you do if you were me?
Nicholson: I suppose if I were you, I'd have to kill myself. Cheers! [He drinks the glass of Scotch]

Warden: You'll go on without me. That's an order. You're in command now, Shears.
Shears: You make me sick with your heroics. There's a stench of death about ya. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L pills. They go well together, don't they? And with you, it's just one thing or the other: 'Destroy a bridge or destroy yourself.' This is just a game, this war. You and that Colonel Nicholson, you're two of a kind. Crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman. How to die by the rules when the only important thing is how to live like a human being. I'm not going to leave you here to die, Warden, because I don't care about your bridge and I don't care about your rules. If we go on, we go on together.


External links


Simple English

The Bridge on the River Kwai
Directed by David Lean
Gus Agosti & Ted Sturgis (assistants)
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Written by Pierre Boulle (novel)
Carl Foreman & Michael Wilson (screenplay)
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Editing by Peter Taylor
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date(s) October 2, 1957
Running time 161
Country United States
United Kingdom
Language English / Japanese / Thai
Budget $3 million (estimated)
IMDb profile

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 movie from Columbia Pictures, based on Pierre Boulle's 1952 book The Bridge over the River Kwai (French: Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai). The movie was mainly filmed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and also in England.

In 1941 the Japanese Army invaded Thailand. They built a railway to link Bangkok to Rangoon. Thousands of Asian workers and POWs (prisoners of war) died while working on the project. Part of this project was building bridges over Thailand's Kwai Yai, at a place named Tamarkan, which is near a town named Kanchanaburi.

The deaths of the Asian workers and the prisoners were real events, but most of the book and the movie are not true. The British soldiers were slaves; they did not help the Japanese. Two bridges were built; one was made of wood, one was made of concrete and steel. Both bridges stood for two years and were destroyed by bombers in 1945.

In the movie the bridge is destroyed by commandos. A real train rode over the bridge as it blew up. (This can be compared to a scene in the 1927 movie, The General, which starred Buster Keaton.)

The movie is best known for the "Colonel Bogey March", the song that is whistled by the POWs. It is also known as the "River Kwai March".

The movie won seven Academy Awards, one for Best Picture.

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