AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Alternate Title: The Bridge Over the River Kwai
Director: David Lean (Dir)
Release Date:   Nov 1957
Premiere Information:   London premiere: 2 Oct 1957
Production Date:   26 Nov 1956--11 May 1957 in Sri Lanka
Duration (in mins):   161
Print this page
Display Movie Summary


Cast:   William Holden (Shears)  
    Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson)  
    Jack Hawkins (Major Warden)  
    Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Saito)  
    James Donald (Major Clipton)  
  and introducing Geoffrey Horne (Lieutenant Joyce)  
    Andre Morell (Colonel Green)  
    Peter Williams (Captain Reeves)  
    John Boxer (Major Hughes)  
    Percy Herbert (Grogan)  
    Harold Goodwin (Baker)  
    Ann Sears (Nurse)  
    Henry Okawa (Captain Kanematsu)  
    Keiichiro Katsumoto (Lieutenant Miura)  
    M. R. B. Chakrabandhu (Col. Broom Yai)  
    Vilaiwan Seeboonreaung (Siamese girl)  
    Ngamta Suphaphongs (Siamese girl)  
    Javanart Punynchoti (Siamese girl)  
    Kannikar Dowklee (Siamese girl)  

Summary: In World War II Burma, after they are captured by Japanese troops during World War II, British commander Col. Nicholson and his troops march into Prisoner of War Camp 16 whistling their regimental tune. Their crisp arrival is wryly observed by Shears, an American sailor who bribes a guard to transfer him from the burial detail to the infirmary. When the camp’s commander, Col. Saito, imperiously informs the new prisoners that they will all be expected to work on building a railroad that will connect Bangkok to Rangoon, Nicholson protests that under the regulations of the Geneva Convention, all officers are exempt from manual labor. Afterward, Nicholson goes to the infirmary to visit Jennings, one of his wounded men. There Maj. Clipton, the camp’s medical officer, introduces the colonel to “Commander Major” Shears. When Jennings proposes escaping, Nicholson counters that he was ordered by headquarters to surrender, and therefore escaping would constitute a military infraction. Incredulous at the colonel’s naïveté, Shears retorts that escape is their only chance to avoid the death sentence of forced labor. The following day, Saito announces that all the men, including officers, will work on building a bridge across the River Kwai. When Nicholson defiantly waves a copy of the Geneva Convention, Saito slaps him across the face with it and flings it to the ground. Nicholson still refuses to let his officers perform manual labor, and after the other men march off to work, Saito calls for a machine gun and threatens to gun down all the officers. Watching in horror, Clipton runs out of the infirmary and protests that he and his patients have seen everything and will be witnesess to murder if Saito orders the gunners to fire. Saito then changes his mind and forces the officers to stand for the entire day in the merciless sun. Afterward, Saito locks Nicholson in “the oven,” a crude metal shed, and imprisons the other officers in the “punishment hut.” As the troops encourage Nicholson with a rendition of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” Shears, Jennings and a prisoner named Weaver escape into the jungle. Jennings and Weaver are gunned down by the guards, who then pursue Shears to a ridge above the river and shoot him. The guards assume that Shears is dead after he plunges into the river, but he survives and makes his way down river to the shore. Later, Saito summons Clipton and asks him to tell Nicholson that unless he cooperates, the patients in the infirmary will be forced to work. Confronted with the ultimatum, Nicholson still refuses to comply on the grounds that “it is a matter of principle.” With only two months left before the May first deadline for the completion of the bridge, Saito, frustrated by the slow progress, takes command of the project himself. After a segment of the bridge collapses, a defeated Saito has Nicholson brought to his office from the oven and explains that if he fails to meet the deadline, he will be forced to commit hara-kari. Unmoved, Nicholson insists that the Geneva Convention be adhered to, after which Saito orders him taken back to the oven. Meanwhile Shears, who was found near death by some friendly villagers, recovers and begins a solitary boat trip down river. Days later, his water exhausted, Shears passes out, leaving his boat to drift aimlessly. Plagued by ineptness and sabotage in his efforts to build the bridge, Saito orders the weakened and dehydrated Nicholson pulled from the oven and brought to his office where he grants a general amnesty to the officers and declares it will not be necessary for them to perform manual labor. As the men cheer Nicholson’s victory, Saito sits in his office, broken and sobbing. Upon inspecting the bridge, Nicholson criticizes the workers’ cavalier attitude and asks Capt. Reeves, who worked as a civilian engineer, for advice. Reeves observes that the river bottom at the present location is soft mud and suggests moving downstream where the bottom is solid bedrock. When Maj. Hughes, a public works engineer, criticizes the men’s lack of teamwork, Nicholson declares that they will rebuild the company’s morale by building an exemplary bridge. Nicholson, completely oblivious to the fact that he is about to aid and abet the enemy, presents a plan to Saito increasing the men’s daily work quota and suggests that Japanese soldiers should work laying track. Seeing his position crumbling, Saito stoicly says that he has already given the order. Shears, meanwhile, has been picked up by a sea rescue plane and brought to a hospital in Ceylon where he is visited by Maj. Warden, the explosives instructor at a nearby British commando school, who invites him to a meeting at the school. At the meeting, Warden explains that he plans to lead a team into Burma to blow up the bridge and asks Shears to join them. Shears, desirous of returning to civilian life, demurs, confessing that he was merely impersonating an officer and therefore is not qualified for the mission. Warden then informs him that the U.S. Navy already knows about his deception and has authorized his transfer to the British commandoes. Faced with possible imprisonment for impersonating an officer, Shears reluctantly accepts the assignment and retains his rank as Major. At the prison camp, Clipton warns Nicholson that he could be charged with treason for collaborating with the enemy. Obsessed by proving the mettle of his British soldiers, Nicholson turns a deaf ear to the medic’s protest. At the commando school meanwhile, Shears joins a team comprised of Warden, Chapman and Lt. Joyce, a young recruit wary of killing. As the four parachute into the jungle, Chapman crashes into a tree and is killed. The others are met by Yai, a native guide who hates the Japanese, and four women bearers. As they begin their trek through the jungle, they receive a radio transmission from headquarters informing them that a special train carrying troops and VIPs is scheduled to inaugurate the bridge on the thirteenth, and ordering them to carry out the demolition on that day. Realizing that he cannot finish the bridge by the deadline, Nicholson matter-of-factly tells Clipton that he has asked the officers to work beside the enlisted men and they have volunteered "to a man." After Clipton's protests, Nicholson then recruits wounded men from the infirmary to perform “light labor.” In the jungle, meanwhile, Warden’s team is accosted by Japanese soldiers, and in the skirmish Warden is shot in the ankle. Warden subsequently stumbles along on his crippled foot, climbing torturous mountain paths, but when they are just six hours away from the bridge, he declares that the others should continue on without him. Angrily denouncing Warden’s self-sacrifice as the histrionics of a British gentleman, Shears orders him hoisted onto a stretcher, after which they all continue on together, reaching the bridge just as Nicholson is nailing up a plaque commemorating the work of the British soldiers. That night, as the prisoners put on a show in celebration of the completion of the bridge, concluding with “God Bless the King,” Joyce and Shears, aided by the women, pilot a raft filled with plastic explosives to the bridge while Saito, having been bested by the British, makes preparations for hara-kari. After attaching the explosives to the bridge, Joyce takes cover with the detonator while Shears swims back across the river to await the arrival of the train the next day. At daybreak, the commandoes discover that the water level of the river has dropped, exposing the wires leading to the detonator. When the troops march onto the bridge for the ribbon cutting ceremony, Clipton informs Nicholson he wants no part of the festivities and retreats to a hill to watch. As the train whistle is heard in the distance, Nicholson spots the wires and calls Saito to go with him and investigate. Warden watches in disbelief as Nicholson follows the wire to the detonator, incredulous that a British officer would try to prevent an act of sabotage against the enemy. Sneaking up behind Saito, Joyce stabs him in the back with his knife, then informs Nicholson that they have been sent by the British to blow up the bridge. Crazed, Nicholson attacks Joyce, prompting Shears to scream “kill him” and swim to Joyce’s defense. As Warden bombards the bridge with mortar shells, the Japanese open fire, wounding Shears and killing Joyce. When the injured Shears dies at Nicholson’s feet, the colonel realizes his folly just as he is wounded by mortar fire and falls onto the detonator, setting off the explosives as the train approaches the bridge. As the bridge collapses, sending the train spilling into the river, Clipton surveys the scene and utters “madness.”  

Production Company: Horizon-American Pictures, Inc.  
Production Text: A Sam Spiegel Production
Distribution Company: Columbia Pictures Corp.  
Director: David Lean (Dir)
  Gus Agosti (Asst dir)
  Ted Sturgis (Asst dir)
  John Kerrison (2d asst dir)
Producer: Sam Spiegel (Prod)
Writer: Pierre Boulle (Wrt)
  Carl Foreman (Wrt)
  Michael Wilson (Wrt)
Photography: Jack Hildyard (Dir of photog)
  Peter Newbrook (Cam op)
  Archie Dansie (Chief elec)
Art Direction: Donald M. Ashton (Art dir)
  Geoffrey Drake (Asst art dir)
Film Editor: Peter Taylor (Chief ed)
Set Decoration: Peter Dukelow (Const mgr)
  Husband & Co. of Sheffield (Consulting eng for the bridge)
  Equipment and Construction Co. Ceylon ([Bridge] Constructed by)
Costumes: John Apperson (Ward)
Music: Malcolm Arnold (Mus)
  The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Played by)
Sound: John Cox (Sd)
  John Mitchell (Sd)
  Winston Ryder (Chief sd ed)
  Eric Boyd-Perkins (Sd ed)
  Janet Davidson (Sd ed)
  Teddy Darvas (Sd ed)
  Rusty Coppleman (Sd ed)
  Peter Miller (Sd ed)
  Pamela Bosworth (Sd ed)
  Fred Burnley (Sd ed)
  Norma Hawkes (Sd ed)
Make Up: Stuart Freeborn (Makeup)
  George Partleton (Makeup)
Production Misc: Cecil F. Ford (Prod mgr)
  Major-Gen. L. E. M. Perowne C.B., C.B.E. (Tech adv)
  Angela Martelli (Cont)
  Grady Johnson (Pub)
Country: Great Britain and United States
Language: English

Music: "Colonel Bogey March" by Lt. F. J. Ricketts.
Songs:
Composer: Lt. F. J. Ricketts
Source Text: Based on the novel Le pont de la Rivière Kwai by Pierre Boulle (Paris,France, 1952).
Authors: Pierre Boulle

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Horizon Pictures (G.B.) Ltd. 4/10/1957 dd/mm/yyyy LP10231

Physical Properties: Sd: RCA Sound Recording
  col: Technicolor
  Widescreen/ratio: CinemaScope

 
Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: World War II
 
Subjects (Major): Bridges
  Great Britain. Army
  Japan. Army
  Obsession
  Prison camps
  Prisoners of war
  World War II
 
Subjects (Minor): Burma
  Ceylon
  Escapes
  Explosions
  Hospitals
  Impersonation and imposture
  Jungles
  Military discipline
  Officers (Military)
  Physicians
  Pride and vanity
  Prison escapes
  Sailors
  Solitary confinement
  Torture
  Trains
  Wounds and injuries

Note: The working title of the film was The Bridge Over the River Kwai , which was the English translation of the title of Pierre Boulle’s novel. The opening and closing cast credits differ slightly in order. In the opening credits, Geoffrey Horne's name is proceeded by the phrase "and introducing." However, Horne had previously appeared in the 1957 film The Strange One (see below). In the onscreen credits, the credit for chief sound editor is followed by the word "with" and a list of all the sound editors. The film closes with the following written acknowledgment: "The producers gratefully acknowledge the co-operation and help extended to them by the various departments of the government of Ceylon during the course of the production of this film." The film was shot entirely on location in Sri Lanka, which was then known as Ceylon. The film's signature tune, "Colonel Bogey March," which is whistled by "Nicholson" and his troops at the film's opening, became an immensely popular hit and an iconographic musical theme.
       The action in the film roughly parallels that of the Boulle novel on which it was based. One major difference, however, is that in the novel, the character of “Shears” is British, not American. The novel features an epilogue in which “Warden” returns to the commando school and reports that the damaged bridge was still intact and that “Joyce” and Shears, injured by enemy fire, were killed by mortar fire delivered by Warden in order to save them from Japanese capture. Boulle’s book was inspired by the stretch of railway from Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar) known as “The Death Railway." The corridor was built by the Axis powers during World War II to transport Japanese troops and supplies to Burma. Approximately 100,000 conscripted Asian laborers and 16,000 Allied prisoners of war died while working on the project. The construction of the railway became necessary when Allied troops mined the sea route through the Strait of Malacca, the main route by which Japanese support troops were transported to Burma.
       The project was started in Jun 1942. The wooden bridge over the River Kwae Yai, which in Boulle’s book was called the River Kwai, was completed in Feb 1943, followed by a concrete and steel bridge completed in Jun 1943. Both bridges were destroyed by Allied bombers on 2 April 1945, although they had been damaged and repaired several times before. Although as many of the film reviews noted, the film's Japanese prison camp was in Burma, while the actual bridge over the Kwae Yai River is in Thailand.
       In 1943, Boulle himself was captured by Vichy French loyalists on the Mekong River and sentenced to a life of hard labor at a prison camp in Saigon. After escaping in 1944, Boulle served with British Special Forces until the end of the war. Although several newspaper articles, including an Oct 1997 article in The Observer (London) , noted similarities between “Col. Nicholson” and the real-life Lt. Col. Philip Toosey, a British officer serving in Singapore who was captured by the Japanese in 1942 and forced to help build the bridge, Boulle claimed that he based Nicholson on two officers he had known in Indochina. Unlike Nicholson, Toosey was not an upper-class career officer, but a Territorial Army Officer.
       ^Although modern sources have mentioned several actors that were considered for the parts of Nicholson and Shears, IHR news items have substantiated the following information about the production: In Apr 1956, it was announced that Charles Laughton was to appear as Nicholson. Although a Nov 1956 news item announced that Brenda Marshall was cast in a featured role opposite her then real-life husband, William Holden, Marshall does not appear in the film. A Dec 1956 news item announced that 2d assistant director John Kerrison was killed on 2 Dec in an auto accident. According to studio publicity contained in the film’s production file at the AMPAS Library, location filming was done at the Kelani River in Sri Lanka. A Nov 1956 news item described the 400-foot wooden bridge that was constructed for the production. The bridge, which was as tall as a six-story building, required the labor of twenty-five elephants and hundreds of native workers, and took six months to complete, according to studio publicity.
       Studio publicity also noted that the train in the film was a sixty-year-old locomotive that once served an Indian maharajah. Producer Sam Spiegel bought the train from the Ceylonese government so that he could blow it up. The paratroopers in the film were members of the RAF stationed in Sri Lanka, according to studio publicity. A Dec 1956 news item explained that in order to film the paratroopers jumping from their plane, director of photography Jack Hildyard lashed himself to the wing of the British military plane carrying the paratroopers and shot the jump with a handheld 16mm camera. A Jan 1957 news item noted that actor Percy Herbert, who played the role of a prisoner of war in the film, actually spent four years as a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore. Although an Apr 1957 HR production chart places Pom Prom in the cast, Prom’s appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. According to a Feb 1958 HR news item actor William Holden received ten percent of the film's gross, which , according to modern sources, made him the highest paid film star at the time and represented a ground-breaking financial agreement.
       The Var review noted that author Boulle, who spoke no English, did an “excellent job of screenwriting, (particularly because it marked [his] debut in the medium).” In reality, the screenplay was written by blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. They were posthumously awarded an Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium in 1985, and their screenwriting credit was restored by the WGA in 2000. The question of the screenplay’s authorship was addressed several times in HR columns in 1957 and 1958. Although Foreman and Wilson received no screen credit, a 17 Jan 1957 “Rambling Reporter” news item noted that Foreman wrote the screenplay and owned a “big chunk” of the production. This assertion was immediately denied by Spiegel in a 21 Jan 1957 HR news item. In a Feb 1958 “Broadway Ballyhoo” column, Holden called the reports about Foreman writing the screenplay “hogwash.” According to a Feb 1958 “Rambling Reporter” item, when Boulle was presented the British Film Academy’s award for Best Screenplay, he announced that he did not write the screenplay. Spiegel then clarified that the screenplay was written by several people, among them director David Lean, Boulle and Spiegel himself, who decided to credit only Boulle onscreen.
       According to a modern source, Foreman optioned Boulle’s novel, hoping that Zoltan Korda would direct it. When Zoltan’s brother Alexander criticized the script as being anti-British, Foreman formed a partnership with Spiegel and Korda left the project. Lean reportedly hated Foreman’s original version of the screenplay and asked producer Norman Spencer, who worked with the director on the 1955 film Summertime (see below) to help write a new treatment. Foreman then rewrote the script, but Spiegel was unhappy with the finished product and asked writer Calder Willingham to work on script revisions. Although an Aug 1956 HR news item confirmed that Willingham was working on script revisions, the modern source notes that Lean was unhappy with his work and Wilson was then brought in to work with Lean on the script. The extent of Willingham’s contribution to the final script, if any, has not been determined.
Modern sources add the following production credits: Eddie Fowlie ( Prop master ); Keith Best ( Const eng ); Gerry Fisher ( Cam op ); Tommy Early ( Props ); Frankie Howard ( Stunts ); Tommy Nichol ( Asst cam ); Freddy Ford ( 2d unit cam ); and Fred Lane ( Carpenter ). According to a Dec 1958 HR news item, Red Skelton and Sessue Hayakawa were to appear in feature-length satire of The Bridge on the River Kwai entitled The Tunnel of Kwai , which would be filmed in Japan and "scheduled for release only to the Orient with Japanese dialogue." However, no additional information on the film has been located.
       In addition to the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Bridge on the River Kwai won the following Academy Awards: Alec Guinness, Best Actor; Jack Hildyard, Best Cinematography; David Lean, Best Director; Peter Taylor, Best Film Editing; Malcolm Arnold, Best Music Scoring and producer Sam Spiegel for Best Picture. Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The film also won a Golden Globe for Best Picture--Drama, Best Motion Picture Actor in a Drama (Guinness) and Best Director. Among other honors garnered by the film was the DGA Award for Best Director, the National Board of Review for Best Actor (Guinness), Best Director, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Hayakawa) and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor (Guinness), Best Director and Best Film. The Bridge on the River Kwai was ranked 36th on AFI's 2007 100 Years…100 Movies--10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films, moving down from the 13th position it held on AFI's 1997 list. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
American Cinematographer   Mar 58   p. 166.
American Cinematographer   Apr 58   pp. 222-23, 246.
Box Office   23 Nov 1957.   
Box Office   30 Nov 1957.   
Daily Variety   20 Nov 57   p. 3.
Film Daily   20 Nov 57   p. 10.
Hollywood Citizen-News   11 Dec 1957.   
Hollywood Reporter   18 Apr 1956   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   8 Aug 1956   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   8 Nov 1956   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   12 Nov 1956   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   13 Nov 1956   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   5 Dec 1956   p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter   11 Dec 1956   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   17 Jan 1957   p. 2, 4.
Hollywood Reporter   21 Jan 1957   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Apr 1957.   
Hollywood Reporter   7 Oct 1957   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Nov 57   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   4 Feb 1958   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   24 Feb 1958   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   27 Feb 1958   p. 5, 6.
Hollywood Reporter   17 Dec 1958.   
Hollywood Reporter   2-6 Aug 2000   p. 1, 35.
Los Angeles Herald Express   20 Dec 1957.   
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   30 Nov 57   p. 627.
New York Times   19 Dec 57   p. 39.
The Observer (London)   26 Oct 1997.   
Variety   20 Nov 57   p. 6.

Display Movie Summary
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
Advanced Search
AFI Membership
AFI honoring the masters

© 2014 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.