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
William Holden, then a major star, was brought into the project to provide "box-office appeal" after Cary Grant turned down the role. He received $300,000 up front, and was guaranteed a 10% share of the profits, to be paid at the rate of $50,000 a year. This is one reason why Holden sued to stop the first American TV showing of the film in 1966, claiming it would hurt future box-office receipts, on which he was dependent (the lawsuit was unsuccessful). Because the film made so much money, his shares eventually accumulated to the point where the studio was making more off the interest on the unpaid balance than Holden was paid per year. A settlement was reached where Holden was paid a lump sum, and any future payments were willed to a motion picture relief fund. See more »
The end of the opening sequence shows a railroad car with a machine gun approaching the end of the railroad. There are perhaps a dozen workers milling around in front of the car. A subsequent longer shot shows many more workers and a longer length of track in front of the car. See more »
[Addressing the prisoners, who are standing in formation]
English prisoners... let us ask the question... "Why does the bridge not progress?" You know why. Because your officers are lazy! They think themselves too good to share your burdens! This is not just. Therefore, you are not happy in your work. Therefore, the bridge does not progress. But there is another cause. I do not hide the truth. With deep shame and regret, I admit to you the failure of a member of the Japanese staff. I refer to ...
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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
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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