The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
  • Time: 161 min
  • Genre: Adventure | Drama | War
  • Director: David Lean
  • Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins


The film deals with the situation of British prisoners of war during World War II who are ordered to build a bridge to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway. Their instinct is to sabotage the bridge but, under the leadership of Colonel Nicholson, they are persuaded that the bridge should be constructed as a symbol of British morale, spirit and dignity in adverse circumstances. At first, the prisoners admire Nicholson when he bravely endures torture rather than compromise his principles for the benefit of the Japanese commandant Saito. He is an honorable but arrogant man, who is slowly revealed to be a deluded obsessive. He convinces himself that the bridge is a monument to British character, but actually is a monument to himself, and his insistence on its construction becomes a subtle form of collaboration with the enemy. Unknown to him, the Allies have sent a mission into the jungle, led by Warden and an American, Shears, to blow up the bridge.


  • The Second World War is one of the most revisited and re-imagined real-life scenarioes in human history and with the benefit of hindsight, the Greatest of Wars inherently tells stories of the best and worst of humanity, heroes and villains, the destruction of Europe before it rebuilds itself for the second time in half a century, the destruction and rebuilding of Japan in the wake of the single most devasting weapon ever created, millions dead and injured, and the restructuring of Western society and its norms. Bridge on the River Kwai is an essential piece of cinema, has been for nearly 50 years, and it tells of a bizarre story of heroism and pride that is emblematic of the British spirit, and how that pride can blind as well as give strength.

    Read the full review over at

  • Often cited as one of the greatest films of all time, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is a colossal war movie, a big-budget action extravaganza, and, in many ways, a deep psychological study of the affects of battle and imprisonment. Bridge marked Lean’s transformation from British art-house and kitchen-sink drama director to international mega-director, and while the film is nowhere near as perfect and polished as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it is a thrilling and thoughtful story expertly executed, featuring one of the most heart-pounding climaxes I’ve ever seen.

    In 1943, a flock of British World War II prisoners arrive at a Japanese POW camp in Burma. The senior commander, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), instantly clashes with camp commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), refusing to order his officers to help his men build a railway bridge that will connect Bangkok and Rangoon, as such an order is a violation of Geneva Conventions. Nicholson’s refusal lands him and his officers in the ‘oven’ – an iron box out in the sun – while the construction of the bridge is left to the rest of the soldiers, who naturally sabotage the work every chance they get. With Saito facing ritual suicide should the bridge fail to meet the deadline, he allows Nicholson to take over, developing a reluctant respect for the stubborn Brit.

    Meanwhile, American prisoner Shears (William Holden) narrowly escapes the camp with his life, finding help in some native villagers who feed and nurse him, and send him on his way down river. As he enjoys his hospital stay with a pretty blonde nurse, he is approached by Brit Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) who informs Shears that he has been transferred from the U.S. Navy to the British army to assist in a commando mission, that is to be led by Warden, to blow up the bridge over the River Kwai shortly after its completion. Shears is appalled at the idea, but with the threat of punishment for posing as an officer looming over his head, he has no choice but to return the deadly jungle terrain he thought he had left behind for good.

    The two stories are perfectly paced and structured, with the first half of the movie mainly dedicated to Nicholson’s arrival at the camp and his desire to keep up his men’s morale, with the second half spent with Shears, Warden, and their near-impossible mission. Guinness wasn’t convinced of his performance as Nicholson, but his proud, wilful and heavily conflicted Nicholson is some of the best work he’s ever done. When he is finally given command of the bridge, he instructs his men to build the best damn bridge possible, and they obey, somewhat confused. While it may seem like he’s giving his men something to live for in such horrible, sweltering conditions, it soon transpires that there is more going on. Is it obsession, treason, or madness? It never becomes clear, and this mystery is of the many reasons why the film is still so fascinating almost 60 years on.

    A lot has been written about the lack of historical accuracy, as the events covered in the film are somewhat similar to the building of the bridge over the Mae Klong by a mixture of European prisoners of war. The criticism is somewhat unfair, as Lean’s film makes no claim to be based on actual events, and is instead an adaptation of Pierre Bouelle’s novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai. If there is a valid criticism to be had, it is that the conditions of the camp are incredibly softened, and the Japanese ineptness for construction seems extremely unfair. The film should instead be enjoyed for what it is, a riveting action movie with emotionally and psychologically complex characters, featuring some outstanding on-location cinematography during an era when movies were still being filmed using sets. It won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Guinness, Best Director and Best Cinematography, and deservedly so.

    Rating: 5/5

    Read more reviews at The Wrath of Blog

  • There are three kinds of David Lean fans. First, there are people who think that Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is his greatest work. Second, there are people who think that The Bridge on the River Kwai is his greatest work. And of course, there is the third group of people who believe that Lean’s best works are made before Kwai, such as Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Oliver Twist (1948).

    Even though I am a firm admirer of the legendary British filmmaker, I find myself belonging to neither category. But that’s because I have not seen enough of his works to make a reasonable claim. However, in the context of the claims by the first two aforementioned groups, I find myself aligning with the stars of the latter.

    Could The Bridge on the River Kwai possibly be a more accomplished work than Lawrence of Arabia? In my opinion, I would think so, and from my experience having viewed both films twice, I suggest a strong case for it. In this review, I will stick to the discussion on Kwai, but when necessary, I would use Lawrence as a comparison.

    The film that marked the first of five epics that Lean shot in the last three decades of his life, Kwai tells the fictional story of a company of British POWs led by Col. Nicholson (Alex Guinness) who is forced to succumb his power to Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) who orders the completion of a bridge across the Kwai river so that trains carrying war supplies could cross it.

    What makes Kwai such a fascinating war film is this: Nicholson, in a bid to boost the morale of his men and ease their suffering, decides to build a top-quality bridge for Saito that would become a symbol of British pride after the war. However, in a parallel story, the Allies’ counteract by sending a few trained soldiers in explosives to blow up the bridge in a covert operation no one knows.

    Set in WWII Burma, but filmed in picturesque Sri Lanka, Kwai’s stunning cinematography captures the tropical landscape in both sweltering heat and pouring rain, highlighting the harsh conditions that plague the camp. Lean’s wide, sweeping shots and steady close-ups allow the drama and action to unfold in its totality, never disorientating the viewer.

    Lawrence of Arabia admittedly features more stunning shots (set in a desert no less), but Kwai is the much tighter film. The latter is paced with more urgency and though both films have moments of going through the motions, it is Kwai that remains to be the more watchable film, and with a more appealing screenplay to boot.

    Much of Kwai’s watchability also hinges on the Nicholson-Saito relationship. It is an awkward one, but it is interesting to see how it develops. In the film’s most understated scene, both characters stroll along the completed bridge. Saito remarks, “Beautiful, isn’t it?”, referring to the sunset (and maybe, symbolically, Japan’s impending decline). Nicholson replies thinking that Saito is referring to the bridge, and starts expressing how it represents his life’s greatest achievement as a soldier. Saito does not correct Nicholson and allows him his quiet moment of triumph.

    In a way, this scene is the finest indicator of the growing comradeship between the two enemies in the film. Lean’s depiction of WWII boils down to these two characters, as human as anyone else in terms of their fallibility, but are made to look invulnerable to that very perceived fallibility.

    The final forty-five minutes is an exercise in suspense-building. And its ending is as climactic as it can get. The last line as uttered by one of Nicholson’s men, “Madness! Madness! Madness!” chillingly echoes Col. Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror! The horror!” in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

    The Bridge on the River Kwai is a rousing action-adventure spectacle that is not to be missed. It is also a towering achievement in Lean’s career, proving his versatility in film directing. For better or worse, he would never return to directing small, intimate dramas again after catching the epic film bug.

    GRADE: A (9/10 or 4.5 stars)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *