Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957): David Lean’s Oscar Winning WWII Epic, Starring Alec Guinness and William Holden

A turning point in David Lean’s career and the first of his big-budget, large-scale epic movies, The Bridge on the River Kwai swept most of the Oscars in 1957, including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Guinness) and others.

Set during WWII, this thrilling prison drama and rousing adventure is rich in characterization and marked by an ironic and ambiguous point of view.  It is manifest in the manner in which it presents the conflict between three military men, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a rigid British officer committed to the military code of integrity at all costs, the Japanese commander of the prisoners’ war camp (Sessue Hayakawa), and the American man of action, Shears the Lieutenant Commander (William Holden), who at first seems to be just a cowardly wise-guy.

Our Grade: A- (***** out of *****)

It’s worth noting that though he won the Best Actor Oscar, Alec Guinness was not the director’s first choice.  The juicy part was first offered to handsome leading man Ronald Colman, character actor Charles Laughton, and even Noel Coward (better known as playwright), all of whom rejected it.

The escape of Holden’s Shears is nothing short of miracle, of which is aware.  Though initially skeptical about the risky mission, he agrees to take part under pressure from Jack Hawkins’ Major Warden, claiming: “As long as I’m Hooked, I might as well volunteer.”

Through these individual characters, we also get a poignant look at the respective national cultures of which they are both products and victims. The British and Japanese officers are similar in that they are both resolute, showing fierce loyalty to their rigid military codes, even when they defy any reason or logic.

Hence, the construction of the bridge bears different meanings for these men. At the end, when the British Colonel dies by falling on the detonator that destroys the bridge, the irony of the story becomes explicitly stinging.  His last words, “madness, madness,” capture well the general idea of the entire movie (and book upon which it is based): The futility and inanity of war, an insanity that embraces both conquerors and conquered.

“Bridge on the River Kwai” is compelling as a psychological study of character, suspense, action, and a visual epic. As the critic Ivan Butler noted, “Bridge” is one of those rare pictures that satisfy audiences emotionally, cerebrally, and aesthetically.

Based on fact, the film is still one of the finest and most exciting war films in general and prison dramas in particular.

Uncharacteristically of its times, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is more morally ambivalent and complex than most WWII pictures. If nothing else, the film illustrates the contradictions in the phrase “civilized warfare.” Perhaps for the first time in a Western film, the Japanese got to play a role that was not a clichéd villain.

Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman did a good job at adapting Piere Boulle’s book to the screen, retaining much of his tough and terse dialogue, even if they departed from some of the facts. However, the writers were denied screenwriting credit due to blacklisting problems. But in 1996, the Writers Guild of America officially restored their names.

The stellar ensemble consists of major stars, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, and William Holden deliver masterful performances, and so do the men who are cast in smaller and supporting roles..

Blockbuster on TV

In 1966, when the movie played on American TV for the first time, it attracted 60 million viewers, the biggest TV audience for any show to date.

Oscar Alert

Nominated for eight Oscars, “Bridge on the River Kwai” won seven:

Picture Director: David Lean Actor: Alec Guinness Screenplay (Adapted) Pierre Boulle, Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman. Cinematography: Jack Hildyard Editing: Peter Taylor Score: Malcolm Arnold

The only category in which the movie lost was the Supporting Actor (Sessue Hayakawa), which in 1957, went to Red Buttons for “Sayonara.”

Director Alert

After this movie, Lean made four more pictures: the stunning epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” which swept the 1962 Oscars, “Doctor Zhivago,” the disappointing “Ryan’s Daughter” 1970) and the wonderful “A Passage to India” (1984), which became his swan song; Lean died in 1991.

Oscar Context

In 1957, “Bridge” was not the most nominated picture. That honored was claimed by “Sayonara,” with 10 nominations, and “Peyton Place,” with 9. The other two nominees were courtroom dramas: Sidney Lumet’s brilliant feature debut, “Twelve Angry Men” and Billy Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution.”

Three of the Best Picture nominees, “Peyton Place,” “Twelve Angry Men,” and “Witness for the Prosecution” didn’t win any awards.

Detailed Scenario

In World War II, British prisoners arrive at a Japanese prison camp in west Burma. Japanese Commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) decides that all prisoners, regardless of rank, will work on the construction of a railroad bridge over the River Kwai.  Senior British officer Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) reminds Saito that the Geneva Conventions exempt officers from manual labor.

Nicholson orders his officers to remain behind when the enlisted men are sent off to work. Saito slaps him with his copy of conventions, but Nicholson refuses to back down. When Major Clipton (James Donald), the British medical officer, intervenes, Saito leaves the officers standing all day in the tropical heat. The officers are punished and Nicholson is beaten and then locked in an iron box, known as the “oven.”

The prisoners work as little as possible, sabotaging whatever they can, realizing that if Saito fails to meet his deadline, he would be obliged to commit ritual suicide. Desperate, Saito uses the anniversary of Japan’s victory in the Russian-Japanese War as excuse to save face, announcing general amnesty, and releasing Nicholson and the officers.

Inspecting the project, Nicholson is shocked by the poor job done by his men. He orders Captain Reeves (Peter Williams) and Major Hughes (John Boxer) to build a proper bridge, despite its military value to the Japanese. As the Japanese engineers had chosen a poor site, the original construction is abandoned and a new one begins.

Three prisoners try to escape, and two are shot dead, but U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Shears (William Holden), gets away, although badly wounded. He stumbles into a village, and the residents help him escape by boat.

Shears is the hospital in Ceylon, when British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) asks him to volunteer for a commando mission to destroy the bridge before it’s completed. Shears reveals that he is not an officer at all; he switched uniforms with a dead officer as a ploy for better treatment. Faced with being charged with impersonating an officer, Shears volunteers.

Nicholson drives his men to complete the bridge on time. For him, its completion exemplifies the honor and hard work the British Army is known for. When he asks that their Japanese counterparts join in, Saito replies that he has already given the order.

The commandos parachute in and one man is killed. Warden, wounded in encounter with Japanese patrol, has to be carried on a litter. He, Shears, and Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) reach the river with the assistance of Siamese women and village chief Khun Yai. In darkness, Shears and Joyce plant explosives on the bridge towers below the water line.

The train carrying soldiers and dignitaries is scheduled to be the first to cross the bridge, and Warden waits to destroy both. However, the commandos are horrified to see that the water level has dropped, exposing the wire connecting the explosives to the detonator. Making final inspection, Nicholson spots the wire and informs Saito.


Photo: Sessue Hayakawa: One of few Japanese actors ever nominated for an Oscar.

Madness! Madness!

Joyce, manning the detonator, stabs Saito to death. Nicholson yells for help, while attempting to stop Joyce from reaching the detonator. When Joyce is shot dead, Shears swims across the river, but is fatally wounded as he reaches Nicholson. Recognizing the dying Shears, Nicholson exclaims, “What have I done?” Warden fires his mortar, mortally wounding Nicholson. The dazed colonel stumbles towards the detonator and collapses on the plunger, in time to blow up the bridge and the train. Witnessing the carnage, Clipton shakes his head, “Madness!… Madness!”


William Holden as Shears, Lieutenant Commander

Alec Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson

Jack Hawkins as Major Warden

Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito

James Donald as Major Clipton

Geoffrey Horne as Lieutenant Joyce

André Morell as Colonel Hornsby

Peter Williams as Captain Reeves

John Boxer as Major Hughes

Percy Herbert as Private Grogan

Harold Goodwin as Private Baker












The Bridge on the River Kwai The Bridge on the River Kwai