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
The film's story was loosely based on a true World War II incident, and the real-life character of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. One of a number of Allied POW's, Toosey was in charge of his men from late 1942 through May 1943 when they were ordered to build two Kwai River bridges in Burma (one of steel, one of wood), to help move Japanese supplies and troops from Bangkok to Rangoon. In reality, the actual bridge took 8 months to build (rather than two months), and they were actually used for two years, and were only destroyed two years after their construction - in late June 1945. The memoirs of the real Colonel Nicholson were compiled into a 1991 book by Peter Davies, entitled "The Man Behind the Bridge". See more »
While the prisoners are all supposed to be sick and/or mistreated, in fact all look reasonably healthy and even tanned, and none in any kind of starved or emaciated state. In reality, as numerous photographs of actual prisoners of the Japanese show, all prisoners were uniformly emaciated, having lost an enormous amount of weight, starved, and with skeletal frames - conditions noticeably absent from any of the prisoners in the film. However, Saito was based on one of the more humane commandants who was acquitted of war crimes after war's end. See more »
[after speaking with Nicholson and Saito, neither of whom will relent]
Are they both mad? Or am I going mad? Or is it the sun?
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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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