After settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.
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. Written by
It wouldn't have been necessary for Joyce, the Canadian, to go to the UK to enlist to fight against the Japanese, as he says when being interviewed to join the commando group going back to the Kwai. Canada joined the war only ten days after war was declared by the British, and Joyce could easily have enlisted at home in Montreal. However, Joyce may have wished to serve in an elite commando unit such as the SAS, which Canada lacked, or to serve in the Pacific, which, due to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King's 'limited liability' policies, Canada's involvement in the Pacific was limited to the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941 and the Aluetian Islands in 1942. See more »
[to Col. Green]
Sir, it's most annoying. They say, in view of the time element, they don't think a few practice jumps would be worthwhile.
No, they say if you make one jump, you've only got 50% chance of injury, two jumps, 80%, and three jumps, you're bound to catch a packet. The consensus of opinion is that the most sensible thing for Major Shears to do is to go ahead and jump, and hope for the best.
With or without a parachute?
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About as Oscar-worthy as any film made in the '50s is David Lean's gripping BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Based loosely on a real-life incident, it tells the story of an imprisoned British officer (Alec Guinness) who loses sight of his mission when forced to build a bridge for the Japanese that will enable the enemy to carry supplies by train through the jungle during World War II. Guinness plays the crisp British officer to perfection, brilliant in all of his scenes but especially in his confrontations with Sessue Hayakawa. William Holden has a pivotal role as one of the prisoners who escapes and enjoys his freedom for awhile before being asked to return with a small squadron to destroy the bridge. Jack Hawkins and Geoffrey Horne have colorful roles too and all are superb under David Lean's direction.
The jungle settings filmed in Ceylon add the necessary realism to the project and there is never a suspension of interest although the story runs well over two-and-a-half hours. The film builds to a tense and magnificent climax with an ending that seems to be deliberately ambiguous and thought provoking. Well worth watching, especially if shown in the restored letterbox version now being shown on TCM.
Some of the best lines go to William Holden and he makes the most of a complex role--a mixture of cynicism and heroism in a character that ranks with his best anti-hero roles in films of the '50s. He brings as much conviction to his role as Alec Guinness does and deserved a Best Actor nomination that he did not get.
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