Cast: William Holden (Shears), Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson), Jack Hawkins (Major Warden), Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Saito), James Donald (Major Clipton), Geoffrey Horne (Lieutenant Joyce), André Morell (Colonel Green), Peter Williams (Captain Reeves), John Boxer (Major Hughes)
Director: David Lean
My rating: 7.5 / 10
In early 1943, British POWs arrive by train at a Japanese prison camp in Burma. The commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), informs them that all prisoners, regardless of rank, are to work on the construction of a railway bridge over the River Kwai that will help connect Bangkok and Rangoon. The senior British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), informs Saito that the Geneva Conventions exempt officers from manual labour. Nicholson later forbids any escape attempts due to the likelihood they would die and because they had been ordered by headquarters to surrender, and escapes could be seen as defiance of orders.
At the morning assembly, Nicholson orders his officers to remain behind when the enlisted men march off to work. Saito threatens to have them shot, but Nicholson refuses to back down. When Major Clipton (James Donald), the British medical officer, warns Saito there are too many witnesses for him to get away with murder, Saito leaves the officers standing all day in the intense heat. That evening, the officers are placed in a punishment hut, while Nicholson is beaten and locked in an iron box.
Meanwhile, three prisoners attempt to escape. Two are shot dead, but United States Navy Lieutenant Commander Shears (William Holden) gets away, although wounded. He wanders half-dead into a Siamese village, where he is nursed back to health before completing his escape downstream and eventually to the British colony of Ceylon.
Meanwhile, the prisoners work as little as possible and sabotage whatever they can. Should Saito fail to meet his deadline, he would be obliged to commit ritual suicide. After many weeks of during to break Nicholson, desperate he uses the anniversary of Japan’s 1905 victory in the Russo-Japanese War as an excuse to save face and announces a general amnesty, releasing Nicholson and his officers, exempting them from manual labour and allowing them to supervise their men.
On inspecting the work Nicholson is shocked by the poor job being done by his men. Over 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, in order to maintain his men’s morale and pride in their professionalism. As the Japanese engineers had chosen a poor site, the original construction is abandoned and a new bridge begun downstream.
Shears is enjoying his hospital stay in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) when British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) invites him to join a mission to destroy the bridge before it is useful to Japanese forces. Shears is so appalled he confesses he is not an officer; he impersonated one, expecting better treatment from the Japanese. Warden responds that he already knew and that the American Navy agreed to transfer him to the British to avoid embarrassment. Realising he has no choice, Shears “volunteers”.
Meanwhile, Nicholson drives his men hard to complete the bridge on time. For him, its completion will exemplify the ingenuity and hard work of the British Army long after the war’s end and it will keep up the moral of his men. When he asks that their Japanese counterparts pitch in as well, a resigned Saito replies that he has already given the order. On completion of the bridge Nicholson erects a sign commemorating the bridge’s construction by the British Army, from February to May 1943.
The four commandos parachute in, though one is killed on landing. Later, Warden is wounded in an encounter with a Japanese patrol and has to be carried on a litter. He, Shears, and Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) reach the river in time with the assistance of Siamese women bearers and their village chief, Khun Yai. Under cover of darkness, Shears and Joyce plant explosives on the bridge towers below the water line.
A train carrying important dignitaries and soldiers is scheduled to be the first to cross the bridge the following day, so Warden waits to destroy both. However, by daybreak, the river level has dropped, exposing the wire connecting the explosives to the detonator. Nicholson spots the wire and brings it to Saito’s attention. As the train approaches, they hurry down to the riverbank to investigate.
Joyce, manning the detonator, breaks cover and stabs Saito to death. Nicholson yells for help, while attempting to stop Joyce from reaching the detonator. When Joyce is mortally wounded by Japanese fire, Shears swims across the river, but is himself shot. Recognising the dying Shears, Nicholson exclaims, “What have I done?” Warden fires a mortar, wounding Nicholson. The dazed colonel stumbles towards the detonator and collapses on the plunger just in time to blow up the bridge and send the train hurtling into the river below. Witnessing the carnage, Clipton shakes his head, muttering, “Madness! … Madness!”
What’s to Like
The camaraderie of the prisoners, the spirit of defiance, the music, the acting, the story.
What’s not to Like
The film uses the historical setting of the construction of the Burma Railway in which many Allied soldiers died due to terrible forced labour and cruel punishment despite the Geneva convention rules. The entire movie is done in a practical environment for example the filming of the bridge explosion was done for real and in the presence of the Prime Minister of Ceylon luckily it worked given they could do it only once.
The movie is mostly about the prisoners and they commanding officer Nicholson who wants them to hang onto their military discipline and pride in their unit as a way of clinging to sanity in captivity. Nicholson is prepared to die rather than bend on principle, and eventually he is locked inside “the Oven” barely surviving but ultimately winning out with Japanese Commander giving in to his demands to follow the Geneva convention.
But Nicholson ends up losing the focus on what really matters when his obsession on the moral and discipline of this men he loses focus on the higher priority of helping the Allies win the war by not materially helping the Japanese.
- Best Picture – Winner
- Best Actor in a Leading Role (Alec Guinness) – Winner
- Best Director (David Lean) – Winner
- Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – Winner
- Best Cinematography (Jack Hildyard) – Winner
- Best Film Editing (Peter Taylor) – Winner
- Best Music, Scoring – Winner
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sessue Hayakawa) – nominee