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The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - An Illustrated Reference

Updated on November 9, 2017
Bridge on the River Kwai poster - (private collection)
Bridge on the River Kwai poster - (private collection)
David Lean with Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa
David Lean with Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa
Bridge on the River Kwai poster - (private collection)
Bridge on the River Kwai poster - (private collection)

The Bridge on the River Kwai was directed by David Lean and premiered on 2nd October 1957. Starring William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Andre Morell and Geoffrey Horne. 161mins.

1943 and prisoners at a Japanese POW camp are being forced to build a bridge over the river Kwai. Colonel Nicholson becomes obsessed with building the best bridge possible for the Japanese. Meanwhile ex-POW Commander Shears is given the mission to return to the camp and blow up the bridge.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a work of fiction based on the construction of the Burma railway line by POWs for the Japanese during 1942-43. Pierre Boulle (1912-1994) wrote his novel Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai in 1952 and it was first published in English in 1954. His book deals with the building of a bridge over the Khwae Yai river in western Thailand by the British POWs of Camp 16. Boulle himself was a prisoner of war during WWII and he would draw on his experiences for the book.

The book was adapted to screenplay by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, in secret, because both men were on the Hollywood blacklist for alleged communist sympathies. Pierre Boulle was the only one credited with the screenplay on the original film print even though he did not write a word of it, he couldn’t even speak English. It was not until the late 80’s that Wilson and Foreman were posthumously given proper credit for the film.

William Wyler, Howard Hawks and John Ford were among the director’s considered for the project which would finally fall into the hands of English director David Lean (1908-1991). At that time Lean was famous for his two Charles Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), He had never attempted anything as big as Kwai before.

William Holden
William Holden
Alec Guinness
Alec Guinness
William Holden and Alec Guinness
William Holden and Alec Guinness
Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa and Geoffrey.Horne
Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa and Geoffrey.Horne
Jack Hawkins
Jack Hawkins
Sessue Hayakawa
Sessue Hayakawa
James Donald
James Donald
Andre Morell
Andre Morell
Geoffrey Horne
Geoffrey Horne

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.

William Holden (1918-1981) / US Navy Commander Shears

Born in O’Fallon, Illinois, one of the Hollywood greats, William Holden won a Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 (1953 as Sefton), he was also nominated for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Network (1976)

Nicholson: What have I done?

Alec Guinness (1914-2000) / Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson

Born in London, England, one of Britain’s greatest actors, Alec Guinness won a Best Actor Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), he was also nominated for The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Horses Mouth (1958), Star Wars (1977 as Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Little Dorrit (1988).

Guinness received an Honorary Oscar in 1980 “For advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances.”

Warden: It should be interesting. Colonel Green has given me the Kwai Bridge. I'm gonna take a team in and blow it up.

Jack Hawkins (1910-1973) / Major Warden

Born in London, England, Jack Hawkins films include – The Black Rose (1950), The Cruel Sea (1953), Malta Story (1953), Land of the Pharaohs (1955 as Pharaoh Khufu), Ben-Hur (1959 as Quintus Arrius), The League of Gentlemen (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962 as General Allenby), Zulu (1964), Lord Jim (1965), Waterloo (1970), When Eight Bells Toll (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973).

Saito: Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket! You speak to me of code. What code? The coward's code. What do you know of the soldier's code? Of bushido?
Nicholson: Since you refuse to abide by the laws of the civilized world, we must consider ourselves absolved from our duty to obey you. My officers will not do manual labor.
Saito: We shall see.

Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973) / Colonel Saito

Born in Chiba, Japan, Sessue Hayakawa was a silent movie star of the 1920’s, he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Bridge on the River Kwai.

Other films include – House of Bamboo (1955), The Geisha Boy (1958), Green Mansions (1959) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960).

Major Clipton: Madness! Madness!

James Donald (1917-1993) / Major Clipton

Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, James Donald’s films include – In Which We Serve (1942), The Pickwick Papers (1952), Lust for Life (1956), The Vikings (1958), The Great Escape (1963 as Ramsey), Quatermass and the Pit (1967 as Dr. Roney) and The Big Sleep (1978).

Andre Morell (1909-1978)/ Colonel Hornsby

Born in London, England, Andre Morell’s films include Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950), Seven Days to Noon (1950), The Black Knight (1954), Ben-Hur (1959 as Sextus), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959 as Watson), The Plague of the Zombies (1966), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Lord of the Rings (1978 voice of Elrond).

Geoffrey Horne (1933-) / Lieutenant Joyce

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Geoffrey Horne’s films include – The Strange One (1957), Bonjour tristesse (1958), Lions of Corsica (1961),The Story of Joseph and his Brethren (1962) and Big Daddy (1999)

16 thousand Allied POWs died building the Burma railway for the Empire of Japan during their Burma Campaign in WWII, they were buried along the railway line which was also known as the Death Railway.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) over 8 months beginning in October 1956.

Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant were both considered for the role of Commander Shears which went to William Holden, an Oscar winner for another prisoner of war movie, Stalag 17 (1953).

Charles Laughton, James Mason and Laurence Olivier were approached to play Colonel Nicholson, they turned it down, so did Alec Guinness at first but changed his mind and won an Oscar playing Nicholson.

Guinness was worried that Nicholson was too dull, strict and unlikeable and wanted to inject some humour into the role but David Lean was against it, they both argued about how the role should be played throughout filming.

Lean got on extremely well with William Holden, who was a total pro during filming. Lean thought Holden was one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors. Holden had a reason to be happy he would go on to receive 10 per cent of the films box office gross.

Studio chiefs were worried that there was no love interest in the script. Producer Sam Spiegel asked Lean to add some romance. Lean didn’t want to but finally relented and included the scene of Shears having an affair with a British nurse after his escape from the camp.

Nicholson: 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.

In the film the bridge took three months to build by the POWs but in reality the bridge took many more months to build by a British construction company using 500 workers and 35 elephants and costing a reported $250,000. The bridge was built full scale, no miniatures were used. It was 425ft long and rose 50ft above the river, it took seconds to destroy at the climax.

Bridge on the River Kwai author Pierre Boulle would become even more famous in 1963 when he wrote the sci-fi novel La Planète des singes, the book was retitled 'Monkey Planet' in the UK. And after many changes to the novel it was filmed as Planet of the Apes (1968).

The Colonel Bogey march is the film’s signature tune and became very popular thanks to the film. The original Bogey March had lyrics, one of them was “Hitler has only got one ball”, but only whistling was used in the film.

The Colonel Bogey march was first written in 1914 by Lt. F.J. Ricketts, a British army bandmaster. Musician Mitch Miller had a hit recording of both the Colonel Bogey March and Malcolm Arnolds ‘River Kwai’ theme after the films release.

Kwai ranked at #13 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films List, #58 on the AFI’s 100 Greatest Thrillers and #14 on the AFI's 100 Most Inspiring Films list

The Bridge on the River Kwai was nominated for 8 Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director (David Lean), Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Malcolm Arnold) and losing for Best Supporting Actor (Sessue Hayakawa).

Kwai also won 4 British Academy Awards – Best British Film, Best Film from any Source, Best Director and Best Actor (Alec Guinness).

Kwai cost $3m and was the top grossing film of 1957 earning $33m at the box office in North America and was among the films selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1997.

Joyce: Officer, sir. A British officer. We're here to blow up the bridge, sir!
Nicholson: Blow up the bridge?
Joyce: Yes, sir. British commando orders, sir.
Nicholson: Blow up the bridge? NO!

Kwai has one of the greatest endings in any film. Colonel Nicholson, after being locked up alone in a cage as punishment for his defiance and suffering from heatstroke, goes a little mad, and becomes obsessed with building the bridge temporarily forgetting there is a war on.

At the climax when Joyce tells Nicholson they’ve come to blow up the bridge he is shocked and angry at first but than his mind starts to clear, “What have I done?” he says to himself.

Mortally wounded from a mortar blast Nicholson totters forward and falls onto the dynamite plunger blowing up the bridge. Fans of the film have speculated for years on whether he accidentally fell on the plunger or did it intentionally. It was a memorable finish to one of cinema’s greatest anti-war movies.

The Critics Wrote –

"A gripping drama, expertly put together and handled with skill in all departments... Guinness etches an unforgettable portrait of the typical British army officer, strict, didactic and serene in his adherence to the book." (Variety)

"Alec Guinness does a memorable - indeed a classic - job in making the ramrod British colonel a profoundly ambitious type... He gives one of the most devastating portraits of a militarist that we have ever seen." (New York Times)

"If ever there was a nearly perfect motion picture in every way this is it." (Hollywood Reporter)

"A huge, expensive chocolate box of a war picture. Inside it is perhaps a bitter and ironic idea; but it takes more than the word madness repeated three times at the end of the film to justify comparisons with All Quiet on the Western Front. They'll be saying that the new Jayne Mansfield is better than Lubitsch next." (Lindsay Anderson, New Statesman)

“Unique in its success on three levels: as a taut adventure-suspense story that sags not for a second in its two hours and forty minutes; as a psychological study of a variety of men in a noncombat war situation; and as a beautiful example of the perfections of every aspect of cinematic art.” (Judith Crist)

"Splendidly professional, finely directed and excitingly photographed... I have rarely seen, in a film of action, a better cast." (Dilys Powell)


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