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Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Main image of Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)
DirectorDavid Lean
Production CompaniesColumbia Pictures Corporation
 Horizon Pictures
ProducerSam Spiegel
ScreenplayMichael Wilson, Carl Foreman (originally uncredited)
Original novelPierre Boulle
CinematographyJack Hildyard
Original MusicMalcolm Arnold
'Colonel Bogey March'Kenneth Alford

Cast: William Holden (Commander/Major Shears), Jack Hawkins (Major Warden), Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson), Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Saito), James Donald (Major Clipton), Geoffrey Horne (Lieutenant Joyce)

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British soldiers, held at a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Malaya in 1943, are ordered to bridge the Kwai river for the Burma-Siam railway.

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David Lean's plans to film Richard Mason's novel, The Wind Cannot Read, for Alexander Korda had come to nothing. However, his new project was also to have a jungle setting, and also brought his first collaboration with legendary producer Sam Spiegel, who approached Lean with The Bridge on the River Kwai while he was still shooting Summer Madness (US/UK, 1955). Significantly, Lean was attracted by the story's epic quality, and saw a drama of Shakespearean dimensions in the tragic relationship between Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and Nicholson (Alec Guinness). He wrote the script with Michael Wilson, although the screen credit went to the book's author, Pierre Boulle.

It is a film of two halves. The first concerns Nicholson's stubbornness, wrong-headedness and courage, and his relationship with the Japanese Colonel Saito, while the second is the story of the British commandos attack on the bridge. The link between the two stories is the character of the American sailor Shears (William Holden), who escapes from the prisoner of war camp, only to return to it as one of the commando team.

The first story is replete with ironies. Nicholson, having endured terrible punishment for refusing to allow his officers to perform manual labour, actively encourages them to do so once he has decided that the bridge must be as well built as possible, to demonstrate British superiority. He himself sees no irony in this, nor realises that he, the great upholder of the Geneva Convention, is collaborating with the enemy by becoming obsessed with the building of the bridge. He has more in common with Saito than he realises: both men are governed by their own codes of 'honour'.

The second story comes as something of a shock. We seem to be watching a completely different film, when the theme of the commando raid on the bridge is introduced. This segment is much more straightforwardly told, with plenty of action sequences and conventional heroics. Lean achieves some memorable images, especially the opening, a wonderful aerial shot of the jungle. A marvellous cut shows Shears' head filling the screen and appearing to come out of the sun. When the Japanese open fire on the commandos in the jungle, hundreds of birds rise up from the trees and fill the sky.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. Extract (0:59)
2. Extract (0:54)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Tenko (1981-84)
Arnold, Sir Malcolm (1921-2006)
Foreman, Carl (1914-1984)
Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)
Hawkins, Jack (1910-1973)
Hildyard, Jack (1908-1990)
Lean, David (1908-1991)
Morell, André (1909-1978)
Spiegel, Sam (1903-1985)