Carl Foreman was the initial screenwriter, but Lean replaced him with Michael Wilson. Both writers had to work in secret, as they were on the Hollywood blacklist and had fled to England in order to continue working. As a result, Boulle, who did not speak English, was credited and received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; many years later, Foreman and Wilson posthumously received the Academy Award.
The film was widely praised, winning seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) at the 30th Academy Awards. In 1997, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. It has been listed among the best American films ever made by the American Film Institute. In 1999, the British Film Institute voted The Bridge on the River Kwai the 11th greatest British film of the 20th Century.
In early 1943, World War II British prisoners 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 connect Bangkok and Rangoon. The senior British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), informs Saito that the Geneva Conventions exempt officers from manual labour.
At the following morning's assembly, Nicholson orders his officers to remain behind when the enlisted men are sent off to work. Saito slaps him across the face with his copy of the conventions and threatens to have them shot, but Nicholson refuses to back down. When Major Clipton (James Donald), the British medical officer, intervenes, telling Saito there are too many witnesses for him to get away with murdering the officers, Saito leaves the officers standing all day in the intense tropical heat. That evening, the officers are placed in a punishment hut, while Nicholson is locked in an iron box.
Meanwhile, three prisoners attempt to escape. Two are shot dead, but United States Navy Commander Shears (William Holden), a survivor of the sinking of the USS Houston, gets away, although badly wounded. He stumbles into a village of natives who nurse him back to health and then help him leave by boat.
Nicholson refuses to compromise. Meanwhile, the prisoners are working as little as possible and sabotaging whatever they can. Should Saito fail to meet his deadline, he would be obliged to commit ritual suicide. Desperate, Saito uses the anniversary of Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War as an excuse to save face and announces a general amnesty, releasing Nicholson and his officers from manual labour.
Nicholson conducts an inspection and is shocked by the poor job being done by his men. Over the protests of some of his officers, he allows Captain Reeves (Peter Williams) and Major Hughes (John Boxer) to design and build a proper bridge, despite its military value to the Japanese, for the sake of maintaining his men's morale. The Japanese engineers had chosen a poor site, so the original construction is abandoned and a new bridge is begun downstream.
Shears is enjoying his hospital stay in Ceylon with a beautiful nurse (Ann Sears), when British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) informs him that the U.S. Navy has transferred him over to the British to join a commando mission to destroy the bridge before it's completed. Shears is appalled at the idea of returning to a place from which he nearly died during escape. He confesses he is not an officer, but merely had appropriated an officer's uniform prior to his capture, expecting that this revelation will invalidate the transfer order. However, Warden responds he already knew the truth and tells Shears that the American Navy's desire to avoid dealing with the embarrassment of his actions is the very reason they agreed to his transfer. Assured that he will be allowed to retain the privileges of being an officer and accepting that he actually has no choice, Shears relents and "volunteers" for the mission. The commando team consists of four men.
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 for generations, long after the war's end. When he asks that their Japanese counterparts join in as well, a resigned Saito replies that he has already given the order.
The commandos parachute in, with one man killed on landing, leaving three to complete the mission. 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 soldiers and important dignitaries is scheduled to be the first use of the bridge the following day, so Warden waits to destroy both. However, at daybreak the commandos are horrified to see that the water level has dropped, exposing the wire connecting the explosives to the detonator. Making a final inspection, Nicholson spots the wire and brings it to Saito's attention. As the train is heard approaching, they hurry down to the riverbank to investigate. The commandos are shocked that their own man is about to uncover the plot.
Joyce, manning the detonator, breaks cover and stabs Saito to death. Aghast, Nicholson yells for help, while attempting to stop Joyce from reaching the detonator. As he wrestles with Nicholson, Joyce tells Nicholson that he is a British officer under orders to destroy the bridge. When Joyce is shot dead by Japanese fire, Shears swims across the river, but is fatally wounded as he reaches Nicholson. Recognising 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 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!"
The largely fictional film plot is loosely based on the building in 1943 of one of the railway bridges over the Mae Klong – renamed Khwae Yai in the 1960s – at a place called Tha Ma Kham, five kilometres from the Thai town of Kanchanaburi.
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission:
The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Siam (Thailand) and Burma. Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma, worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre.
The incidents portrayed in the film are mostly fictional, and though it depicts bad conditions and suffering caused by the building of the Burma Railway and its bridges, historically the conditions were much worse than depicted. The real senior Allied officer at the bridge was British Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. Some consider the film to be an insulting parody of Toosey. On a BBC Timewatch programme, a former prisoner at the camp states that it is unlikely that a man like the fictional Nicholson could have risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and, if he had, due to his collaboration he would have been "quietly eliminated" by the other prisoners. Julie Summers, in her book The Colonel of Tamarkan, writes that Pierre Boulle, who had been a prisoner of war in Thailand, created the fictional Nicholson character as an amalgam of his memories of collaborating French officers. He strongly denied the claim that the book was anti-British, although many involved in the film itself (including Alec Guinness) felt otherwise.
Toosey was very different from Nicholson and was certainly not a collaborator who felt obliged to work with the Japanese. Toosey in fact did as much as possible to delay the building of the bridge. While Nicholson disapproves of acts of sabotage and other deliberate attempts to delay progress, Toosey encouraged this: termites were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures, and the concrete was badly mixed.
In an interview that forms part of the 1969 BBC2 documentary "Return to the River Kwai" made by former POW John Coast, Boulle outlined the reasoning that led him to conceive the character of Nicholson. A transcript of the interview and the documentary as a whole can be found in the new edition of John Coast's book Railroad of Death. Coast's documentary sought to highlight the real history behind the film (partly through getting ex-POWs to question its factual basis, for example Dr Hugh de Wardener and Lt-Col Alfred Knights), which angered many former POWs. The documentary itself was described by one newspaper reviewer when it was shown on Boxing Day 1974 (The Bridge on the River Kwai had been shown on BBC1 on Christmas Day 1974) as "Following the movie, this is a rerun of the antidote."
Some of the characters in the film use the names of real people who were involved in the Burma Railway. Their roles and characters, however, are fictionalised. For example, a Sergeant-Major Risaburo Saito was in real life second in command at the camp. In the film, a Colonel Saito is camp commandant. In reality, Risaburo Saito was respected by his prisoners for being comparatively merciful and fair towards them. Toosey later defended him in his war crimes trial after the war, and the two became friends.
The bridge described in the book didn't actually cross the River Kwai. Pierre Boulle had never been to the bridge. He knew that the 'death railway' ran parallel to the River Kwae for many miles, and he therefore assumed that it was the Kwae which it crossed just north of Kanchanaburi. This was an incorrect assumption; the bridge actually crossed the Mae Klong river. The destruction of the bridge as depicted in the film is also entirely fictional. In fact, two bridges were built: a temporary wooden bridge and a permanent steel/concrete bridge a few months later. Both bridges were used for two years, until they were destroyed by Allied bombing. The steel bridge was repaired and is still in use today.
Ernest Gordon, a survivor of the POW camps and railway construction described in the movie, stated in his book Through the Valley of the Kwai recounting his experiences as a POW: "In Pierre Boulle's book The Bridge over the River Kwai and the film which was based on it, the impression was given that British officers not only took part in building the bridge willingly, but finished in record time to demonstrate to the enemy their superior efficiency. This was an entertaining story. But I am writing a factual account, and in justice to these men—living and dead—who worked on that bridge, I must make it clear that we never did so willingly. We worked at bayonet point and under bamboo lash, taking any risk to sabotage the operation whenever the opportunity arose."
The Japanese resented the implication in the movie that their engineers were less capable than British engineers. In fact, Japanese engineers had been surveying the route of the railway since 1937 and were highly organized. In essence, viewers disliked the "glorification of the superiority of Western civilization" represented in the movie, illustrated by the British being able to build a bridge that the Japanese could not. The film also contains a scene where Colonel Nicholson, while inspecting the bridge construction progress, refers to the Japanese overseeing them as “barbarians.” In the version of the movie edited for DVD in 2000, the reference is overdubbed with a water splash sound.
The screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, were on the Hollywood blacklist and, even though living in exile in England, could only work on the film in secret. The two did not collaborate on the script; Wilson took over after Lean was dissatisfied with Foreman's work. The official credit was given to Pierre Boulle (who did not speak English), and the resulting Oscar for Best Screenplay (Adaptation) was awarded to him. Only in 1984 did the Academy rectify the situation by retroactively awarding the Oscar to Foreman and Wilson, posthumously in both cases. Subsequent releases of the film finally gave them proper screen credit. David Lean himself also claimed that producer Sam Spiegel cheated him out of his rightful part in the credits since he had had a major hand in the script.
The film was relatively faithful to the novel, with two major exceptions. Shears, who is a British commando officer like Warden in the novel, became an American sailor who escapes from the POW camp. Also, in the novel, the bridge is not destroyed: the train plummets into the river from a secondary charge placed by Warden, but Nicholson (never realising "what have I done?") does not fall onto the plunger, and the bridge suffers only minor damage. Boulle nonetheless enjoyed the film version though he disagreed with its climax.
Many directors were considered for the project, among them: John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Fred Zinnemann, and Orson Welles (who was also offered a starring role).
The film was an international co-production between companies in Britain and the United States.
Director David Lean clashed with his cast members on multiple occasions, particularly Alec Guinness and James Donald, who thought the novel was anti-British. Lean had a lengthy row with Guinness over how to play the role of Nicholson; Guinness wanted to play the part with a sense of humour and sympathy, while Lean thought Nicholson should be "a bore." On another occasion, Lean and Guinness argued over the scene where Nicholson reflects on his career in the army. Lean filmed the scene from behind Guinness, and exploded in anger when Guinness asked him why he was doing this. After Guinness was done with the scene, Lean said "Now you can all fuck off and go home, you English actors. Thank God that I'm starting work tomorrow with an American actor (William Holden)."
Alec Guinness later said that he subconsciously based his walk while emerging from "the Oven" on that of his eleven-year-old son Matthew, who was recovering from polio at the time, a disease that left him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Guinness later reflected on the scene, calling it the "finest piece of work" he had ever done.
Lean nearly drowned when he was swept away by the river current during a break from filming.
The filming of the bridge explosion was to be done on 10 March 1957, in the presence of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister of Ceylon, and a team of government dignitaries. However, cameraman Freddy Ford was unable to get out of the way of the explosion in time, and Lean had to stop filming. The train crashed into a generator on the other side of the bridge and was wrecked. It was repaired in time to be blown up the next morning, with Bandaranaike and his entourage present.
According to the supplemental material in the Blu-ray digipak, a thousand tons of explosives were used to blow up the bridge.
The producers nearly suffered a catastrophe following the filming of the bridge explosion. To ensure they captured the one-time event, multiple cameras from several angles were used. Ordinarily, the film would have been taken by boat to London, but due to the Suez crisis this was impossible; therefore the film was taken by air freight. When the shipment failed to arrive in London, a worldwide search was undertaken. To the producers' horror the film containers were found a week later on an airport tarmac in Cairo, sitting in the hot sun. Although it was not exposed to sunlight, the heat-sensitive colour film stock should have been hopelessly ruined; however, when processed the shots were perfect and appeared in the film.
British composer Malcolm Arnold recalled that he had "ten days to write around forty-five minutes worth of music" - much less time than he was used to. He described the music for The Bridge on the River Kwai as the "worst job I ever had in my life" from the point of view of time.
A memorable feature of the film is the tune that is whistled by the POWs—the first strain of the march "Colonel Bogey"—when they enter the camp. Gavin Young recounts meeting Donald Wise, a former prisoner of the Japanese who worked on the Burma Railway. Young: "Donald, did anyone whistle Colonel Bogey ... as they did in the film?" Wise: "I never heard it in Thailand. We hadn't much breath left for whistling. But in Bangkok I was told that David Lean, the film's director, became mad at the extras who played the prisoners—us—because they couldn't march in time. Lean shouted at them, 'For God's sake, whistle a march to keep time to.' And a bloke called George Siegatz ... —an expert whistler—began to whistle Colonel Bogey, and a hit was born."
The march was written in 1914 by Kenneth J. Alford, a pseudonym of British Bandmaster Frederick J. Ricketts. The Colonel Bogey strain was accompanied by a counter-melody using the same chord progressions, then continued with film composer Malcolm Arnold's own composition, "The River Kwai March," played by the off-screen orchestra taking over from the whistlers, though Arnold's march was not heard in completion on the soundtrack. Mitch Miller had a hit with a recording of both marches.
In many tense, dramatic scenes, only the sounds of nature are used. An example of this is when commandos Warden and Joyce hunt a fleeing Japanese soldier through the jungle, desperate to prevent him from alerting other troops. Arnold won an Academy Award for the film's score.
Variety reported that this film was the No. 1 moneymaker of 1958, with a US take of $18,000,000. The second highest moneymaker of 1958 was Peyton Place at $12,000,000; in third place was Sayonara at $10,500,000.
The movie was re-released in 1964 and earned an estimated $2.6 million in North American rentals.
The film received highly positive reviews, with Guinness being widely praised for his performance.
The film has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Channel 4 held a poll in 2005 to find the 100 Greatest War Movies: The Bridge on the River Kwai came in at #10, behind Black Hawk Down and in front of The Dam Busters.
The British Film Institute placed The Bridge on the River Kwai as the eleventh greatest British film.1998 — AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies — #13
2001 — AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills — #58
2003 — AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains
Commander Shears- Nominated Villain
2005 — AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes
"Madness. Madness" — Nominated
2006 — AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers — #14
2007 — AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) — #36
The 167-minute film was first telecast, uncut, by ABC-TV in color on the evening of 25 September 1966, as a three hours-plus ABC Movie Special. The telecast of the film lasted more than three hours because of the commercial breaks. It was still highly unusual at that time for a television network to show such a long film in one evening; most films of that length were still generally split into two parts and shown over two evenings. But the unusual move paid off for ABC—the telecast drew huge ratings. On the evenings of 28 and 29 January 1973, ABC broadcast another David Lean colour spectacular, Lawrence of Arabia, but that broadcast was split into two parts over two evenings, due to the film's nearly four-hour length.
The film was restored in 1992 by Columbia Pictures. The separate dialogue, music and effects were located and remixed with newly recorded "atmospheric" sound effects. The image was restored by OCS, Freeze Frame, and Pixel Magic with George Hively editing.
On 2 November 2010 Columbia Pictures released a newly restored The Bridge on the River Kwai for the first time on Blu-ray. According to Columbia Pictures, they followed an all-new 4K digital restoration from the original negative with newly restored 5.1 audio. The original negative for the feature was scanned at 4k (roughly four times the resolution in High Definition), and the colour correction and digital restoration were also completed at 4k. The negative itself manifested many of the kinds of issues one would expect from a film of this vintage: torn frames, embedded emulsion dirt, scratches through every reel, colour fading. Unique to this film, in some ways, were other issues related to poorly made optical dissolves, the original camera lens and a malfunctioning camera. These problems resulted in a number of anomalies that were very difficult to correct, like a ghosting effect in many scenes that resembles color mis-registration, and a tick-like effect with the image jumping or jerking side-to-side. These issues, running throughout the film, were addressed to a lesser extent on various previous DVD releases of the film and might not have been so obvious in standard definition.Balu Mahendra, the Tamil film director, saw the shooting of this film at Kitulgala, Sri Lanka during his school trip and was inspired to become a film director.
The film is referenced in the 1958 Jerry Lewis film The Geisha Boy, with Sessue Hayakawa making a reappearance supervising a bridge's construction in his garden pond.
In 1962, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, with Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller, released the LP record Bridge On the River Wye (Parlophone LP PMC 1190, PCS 3036 (November 1962)). This spoof of the film was based on the script for the 1957 Goon Show episode "An African Incident". Shortly before its release, for legal reasons, producer George Martin edited out the 'K' every time the word 'Kwai' was spoken.
The comedy team of Wayne and Shuster performed a sketch titled "Kwai Me a River" on their 27 March 1967 TV show, in which an officer in the British Dental Corps is captured by the Japanese and, despite being comically unintimidated by any abuse the commander of the POW camp inflicts on him, is forced to build a (dental) "bridge on the river Kwai" for the commander and plans to include an explosive in the appliance to detonate in his mouth.
The film is referenced in Billy Joel's 1989 song We Didn't Start the Fire.
In season 3, episode 12 of Parks and Recreation, Leslie's birthday gift to Ron Swanson is a steak dinner and a copy of The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Canadian comedy team Kids in the Hall featured a sketch in their TV series set at a gay rights march. When one character expresses disapproval regarding another's comment, the response is "You're acting like I just blew up the bridge over the river queer."