The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Director: David Lean

Producer: Sam Spiegel (Columbia, Horizon)

Writers: Pierre Boulle (novel), Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson (screenplay)

Photography: Jack Hildyard

Music: Malcolm Arnold

Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne, Andre Morell, Peter Williams, John Boxer, Percy Herbert, Harold Goodwin, Ann Sears, Heihachiro Okawa, Kelichiro Katsumoto

Internationally, 1957 may be remembered as the year of Federico Fellini’s The Nights of Cabria (It./Fr.) or the year Ingmar Bergman brought both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (Sw.). But in the English language, 1957 was the year of The Bridge on the River Kwai, British director David Lean’s second American collaboration and the smash hit that would prove the turning point in Lean’s career. It was the one that convinced him to think big and never look back, infecting him with what scholar David Thomson called “The Selznick Syndrome” and leading to such grand-scale pictures as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Passage to India (1984). It was a formula for both a decade of dominance and a gradual slip into full-blown excess.

In Lean’s defense, the hardware Kwai received was more than enough to convince anyone that big was the way to go. The film totaled seven Oscars, including Best Picture (Sam Spiegel), Director (Lean), Actor (Sir Alec Guinness) and Screenplay (Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson), a sweep of all the major categories except Best Actress, and that only because there were no lead actresses in the film. Another convincer for Lean was the film’s extraordinary box office showing, to the tune of $30 million on initial release, the equivalent of $385 million today, making it the #1 film of the year. In fact, the film was so popular that its ABC television debut on Sept. 25, 1966, was dubbed “Black Sunday” because of all the lost business it created for movie theaters (A). An exceptional hit indeed.

The film opens in a WWII Japanese prison camp located in the 1943 Burmese jungle. It’s here that Japanese officer Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) holds a collection of captured British soldiers and their leader, Colonel Nicholson (Guinness), along with shipwrecked American naval officer, Commander Shears (William Holden). Saito has been ordered by the Japanese Army to use the captured soldiers to build a bridge across the Kwai River, providing for a connector railroad to run supplies between Bangkok and Rangoon. But his building process is stuck in the mud as Col. Nicholson continues to protest Saito’s insistence on having officers perform manual labor, an act he argues violates the Geneva Conventions.

Through various means, Saito tries to break the defiant British officer, locking him inside a sweat box, nicknamed “the oven,” where the brutal sun cooks him for days on end. Through it all, Nicholson remains the stubborn, principled leader he is and eventually scores a moral victory when Saito announces that officers will only oversee the bridge construction. Jubilated at their leader’s triumph, the men become happy in their work and build the best damn bridge possible, while Nicholson grows mightily attached to the project, even if it is collaboration with the enemy, as pointed out by fellow officer Major Clipton (James Donald). Even so, Nicholson argues that the project builds morale, maintains discipline and ensures good treatment of his men. He also thinks it will be a fine legacy to his men, that they could do such fine work even while in captivity.

But by this point the wheels of irony are already chugging along. Amidst Nicholson’s defiant demands and bridge-building precision, Shears orchestrates a successful escape and, with the help of some Pacific natives, makes it back to British intelligence headquarters. While frollicking with a bosomy blonde nurse (Ann Sears) and awaiting his return to the States, he runs into Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), a gungho British officer who asks Shears to return to the camp on a covert mission to blow up the bridge. Apparently the location is too far for bombers to carry an adequate load, and the only mission that will do is to parachute in and carry demolition equipment by foot through the dangerous jungle. Obviously, Shears despises the idea of going back, but is coerced to do so in a mid-movie twist (“hot potato”). With Nicholson and company celebrating the completion of the very bridge Shears and Warden are on their way to destroy, The Bridge on the River Kwai concludes with one of the most exciting climaxes in movie history.

When it came to casting the picture, Lean and Spiegel originally thought Charles Laughton for the part of Col. Nicholson. But when he left to take part in a Broadway revival of Major Barbara, the filmmakers settled on Guinness, a trusted player for Lean in a pair of British Dickens adaptations, as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1946) and Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948). What a break Kwai was. The performance is perhaps the best in Guinness’s career, essential to his British knighthood and deserving of the sole Oscar of his career. For proof, look no further than his emergence from the sweat box, talking in horse voice and walking on wobbly legs in an acting feat so convincing that Ben Kingsley said, “I don’t know how he did it.”

Commanding the screen right with him was Holden, the #1 box office draw at the time, thanks to the success of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), George Cukor’s Born Yesterday (1950) and Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), in which he won an Oscar as a Nazi POW and cemented that famous image of him, rising up from his barracks cot with a shiner on his eye. Rounding out the cast was Hawkins a familiar chiseled face from the ’50s (seen in Ben-Hur) and former silent actor Hayakawa, whom many will recognize as the Pirate Chief from Swiss Family Robinson (1960). Hayakawa, too, earned an Oscar nomination and was the only nominated category that did not win.

If Lean and Spiegel had scored big in the casting, their biggest coup came in signing blacklisted screenwriters Carl Foreman (High Noon) and Michael Wilson, who secretly wrote the picture but whose names were left off the film to avoid McCarthyist punishment. Instead, novelist Pierre Boulle, who wrote the film’s source book as a partial reflection of his own POW experience in Thailand, received sole writing credit and the Oscar for Best Screenplay, an award given posthumously to Foreman and Wilson in 1984.

One doesn’t have to look hard to see the work of two left-leaning screenwriters. Their anti-war message is hardly concealed beneath the film’s superficial patriotic fervor; it is presented out in the open through Holden’s character, who at seperate points says “all you need is love” and delivers a cynical gravesite speech while burying a man whose name he’s already forgotten. “What did he die for? … I don’t mock the grave or the men (he mocks the idea of war). May he rest in peace. He found little enough of it while he was alive.” The film’s final line — Clipton’s “Madness. Madness!” — was a predecessor to Coppola’s “The horror, the horror” in Apocalypse Now (1979). What the finale appears to suggest is that war is madness, physically destroying mankind’s hard work (the bridge, our buildings, our built civilization) and stunting our potential to live peacefully with the rest of the world (symbolized in the growing understanding between Guinness and Saito). And though any definite statement is surrendered to ambiguity, the script remains one of the best ever done, voted #48 in the Writers Guilds’ 101 Greatest Screenplays of All Time.

Yet amidst the superb story pacing, biting dialogue and complex character renderings, the film is at least partially flawed. The main complaint most have with the film is its somewhat flagrant disregard for historical accuracy. To say that it is loosely based on a true story is generous. There was a real WWII incident where British bombers blew up two railway bridges built by Allied POWS over the Kwai river. But Lean and his two screenwriters take plenty of liberties with the details, fictionalizing the idea that a former prisoner would come back to blow up the bridge, as well as the necessity to blow it up with dynamite. The real bridge also took eight months to build, as opposed to the two months allotted in the film, and was also accompanied by a second temporary wooden bridge until the main steel structure was completed (A).

As for Col. Nicholson, the character is thought to be more a mixture of Boulle’s memories of various French officers rather than any true reflection of the real-life bridge builder, Lt. Col. Philip Toosey. (B) Unlike his film portrayal, Toosey tried sabotaging the bridge building for the Allied cause (D). Check out Peter Davies’s novel The Man Behind the Bridge (1991) for more information on the real colonel.

This air of inaccuracy followed Lean and Spiegel in their selection of location site. Due to logistical and political conflicts, they decided not to shoot in the actual Burma/Siam locations and instead set up camp in Ceylon, Sri Lanka, which, according to Spiegel, “not only possessed the ideal tropical scenery for a picture of this sort, but has the best climatic, working and health conditions.” (C)

Once there, however, the moviemakers strove for complete physical accuracy, building a 360′ X 50′ bridge across a river, sticking to the design details of the actual bridge that had been smuggled out of the real-life camp and brought to Lord Louis Mountbatteris headquarters in Ceylon (C). The bridge recreation took four months to complete, jacking up the film’s overall budget to $3 million. The big budget territory was a perfect match for Lean, using his first widescreen Cinemascope production to orchestrate the climatic explosion of the bridge and simultaneous derailing of an actual locomotive down into the river.

“That wasn’t a computerized train, that was a real train,” Spike Lee told the AFI. “Whew, boy. That knocked me out!” (E)

A further credit to Lean is the fact that such grandiosity never does become boring, even at two hours and 40 minutes. The film earned Lean his fourth nomination for Best Director, but it was the first ever to win him the award, and for good reason. First, Lean shows understanding as to when a long take will be most effective, like in Nicholson’s first confrontation with Saito. After Saito takes Nicholson’s Geneva codebook, smacks him with it and tosses it on the ground, Lean holds his shot as Nicholson slowly retrieves his book and dusts it off, the long-take itself accenting Nicholson’s steadfast conviction amidst the tension.

Lean also knows how to most effectively position his camera, taking it into places that will give the viewer the maximum effect of the situation. Take for instance the low-angle shot looking up at Nicholson as he is forced to stand erect all day in the sun, the very angle of the shot making us feel the overpowering heat of the sun above, its light shining against the camera lens. Look also at Lean’s camera set-up inside the sweat box with Nicholson, capturing the claustrophobia and the blinding light as the door is opened — clearly influential on scenes in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Thirdly, Lean shows mastery of the jump cut. As in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), he uses the sun as a transition between scenes, here in Kwai, starting with a shot of Clipton looking up at the sun and cutting to a shot of the sun itself, seemingly from Clipton’s POV, but in reality, it’s the sun above Shears, who enters the frame.

Finally, Lean effectively implements character voyeurism as a means of audience participation. In addition to binocular POVS, Lean uses subjective shots to really tell his entire bridge-blowing climax. We get subjective shots of Shears from the base of the bridge looking up at the Japanese guards above. We get subjective shots from Warden’s POV as he sits off in the jungle brush, looking on at the bridge from afar. We get subjective shots of Nicholson and Saito’s POVs as they slowly figure out that their bridge is wired. And we even get subjetive shots from the eyes of Lt. Joyce (Geoffrey Horne), the young soldier assigned to detonate he explosives, as he peers up above a rock to assess the situation. The cutting of multiple POVS against the building tension and sounds of an ever-approaching train constitute one of the most brilliantly-paced suspense sequences ever done.

If there is any fault in Lean’s direction it’s that it often dips into the overly dramatic, summed up by Nicholson’s final, balletic flop onto the dynamite trigger. Some viewers may see such dramatism as indicative of an entire far-fetched approach — that captured troops could ever be so hunky dorey, treated so well by the Japanese guards, splashing around in the water and whistling along with their captured commander. In essence, Lean made joy out of a POW picture, something that could only be done in the ’50s.

Perhaps this is what has caused the film to drop from #13 to #36 between AFI’s two Top 100 lists. Perhaps it is a recognition that film is undeniably great, but definitely flawed. Still, it is a spectacular achievement for a film to not only be one of the Top 10 highest-voted war films on IMDB, but also #58 on AFI’s 100 Thrills and #14 on AFI’s 100 Cheers. What a special film if it can indeed thrill and inspire at the same time! I guess that’s what happens when one takes such an approach to a war picture, grabbing all the gunfire and explosions of a warzone and adding the inspiration of a Colonel that simply won’t conform to his captor’s requests.

Much of this tone is captured in the film’s unforgetable theme song, the Colonel Bogey March (you know it even if you think you don’t). First written in 1914 by WWI British Lt. F.J. Ricketts (under the pseudonym Kenneth Alford), the piece was adapted into an Oscar-winning orchestrated score by Malcom Arnold for The Bridge on the River Kwai. Since then, it has been engrained into popular culture, thanks partially to the Tom Hanks-John Candy Kwai spoof Volunteers (1985), in which the Washington State University Fight Song is sang in replace of the Colonel Bogey March. Similarly, in an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Carlton sings his own fight song to the tune.

But few actually know the hilarious secret to the tune, a hidden anti-Nazi conotation given to the song by Allied servicemen during WWII. Though the lyrics certainly were not featured in the film, veterans sitting in the theaters in 1957 could amusingly sing the defiant words in their heads: “Hitler has only got one ball! / Goering has two, but very small! / Himmler has something sim’ler / But poor old Goebbels, has no balls at all.” You’ll never think of The Bridge on the River Kwai the same way again.


CITE A: Tim Dirks,
CITE B: Summer, Julie (2005). The Colonel of Tamarkan. Simon & Schuster Ltd. 0-7432-6350-2. (from wikipedia)
CITE C: Bridge on the River Kwai DVD booklet
CITE D: Davies, Peter (1991). The Man Behind the Bridge. Continuum International Publishing Group. 0-485-11402-X.
CITE E: AFI Top 100 Movies: 10th Anniversary (CBS Broadcast)

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