This superb war drama is distinguished by magnificent acting and direction and an out-of-the-ordinary approach to its subject.
In early 1943, British military prisoners are brought to a POW camp in Burma where the Japanese officer in charge, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), tells the captives they will be constructing a railway bridge over the River Kwai in order to link Bangkok with Rangoon.
The head British ofﬁcial, Lt. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), tries to avoid the manual labour by citing the Geneva Convention, but all enlisted soldiers are forced to report to work. Nicholson tells his own ofﬁcers to stay behind in protest.
A furious Saito punishes the men by leaving them to stand outside for the day, in the unbearable tropical heat. At night, the disobedient ofﬁcers are conﬁned to a punishment hut and Nicholson is conﬁned to a locked iron box.
In the meantime, US Navy Commander Shears (William Holden) breaks free from the camp and despite his injuries, he ﬁnds a village whose residents help him to escape via boat.
Back at the camp, the POWs work as slowly and ineffectively as possible in order to undermine the Japanese captors, knowing that if Saito is unable to build the bridge by his assigned deadline, he will be forced to commit ritual suicide.
In a play to save his own life, Saito creates an excuse for the delay by proclaiming a general amnesty to celebrate the Japanese victories in the Russo-Japanese War, which releases the British soldiers from their work.
Nicholson uses the reprieve to look over his men’s work and is appalled to ﬁnd that they have been doing such a poor job. While some of his fellow squad members rail against him, Nicholson works with Captain Reeves (Peter Williams) and Major Hughes (John Boxer) to plan and execute the creation of a sturdy, working bridge in order to bolster his unit’s conﬁdence and morale, choosing a better site for the bridge downstream.
Nicholson’s nationalistic hubris drives him to unwittingly collaborate with the Japanese by building them an excellent railway bridge in record time.
Meanwhile, the escaped Shears recuperates in a hospital bed, cared for by a steadfast nurse (Ann Sears), and is ordered to join three British soldiers to obliterate the bridge being built by his comrades before they can complete the construction.
Back at the river, Nicholson encourages his unit to complete the construction of the bridge by their intended deadline to prove the dedication and hard work of the British Army.
Shears and his colleagues parachute into the jungle and get to the river before the bridge is put into active use. In the dark, they rig the bridge towers with explosives beneath the waterline. The men then wait to blow up the bridge the next day, when a train full of enemy soldiers and dignitaries are scheduled to cross it by train.
Nicholson discovers the wire for the explosives and tells Colonel Saito, and a skirmish develops during which Saito and Shears are killed. Realising what he has done, Nicholson throws himself on the detonator just in time to blow up the bridge that he has just so proudly completed and watch the train careen into the river.
Alec Guinness stands out as Colonel Nicholson, the determined British commanding officer, who is a personification of courage and stubbornness.
The film (based on Pierre Boulle’s best-selling novel) is blessed with gripping action, suspense, and a compelling script that bristles with ironies.
Such is the film’s cunning that we have been encouraged to identify with Guinness’s character to the point where we, too, resist the demolition of the bridge, even though the structure is designed to transport Japanese munitions and aid the enemy.
The film took more than eight months to shoot in the jungle of Ceylon in high heat and humidity and deservedly cleaned up at the 1957 Academy Awards, receiving Oscars for Best Film, Best Director (Lean), Best Actor (Guinness), Best Screenplay (based on material from another medium); and Best Cinematography (Jack Hildyard). The movie also won three BAFTAs, three Golden Globes, three New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and a Grammy.
Although the bridge is destroyed by commandos at the end of the movie almost immediately after its completion, in actuality, the wooden bridge was bombed and rebuilt seven times between 1943 and 1945. Completed on 1 May 1943, a parallel concrete and steel bridge (Bridge 277) remained intact for two years, until it was destroyed in June 1945 by B-24 liberators from the US 458th Heavy Bombardment Group. As reparations after the war, the Japanese rebuilt the bridge, which still stands today.