The film's story was loosely based on a true World War II incident, and the real-life character of Lt. Col. Philip Toosey. One of a number of Allied POWs, 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 eight months to build (rather than two months), and they were actually used for two years--they were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in late June of 1945. Toosey's memoirs were compiled into a 1991 book by Peter Davies, entitled "The Man Behind the Bridge".
Col. Saito was inspired by Maj. Risaburo Saito, who unlike the character portrayed in the film was said by some to be one of the most reasonable and humane of all of the Japanese officers, usually willing to negotiate with the POWs in return for their labor. Such was the respect between Saito and Lt. Col. Toosey (upon whom Col. Nicholson was based) that Toosey spoke up on Saito's behalf at the war-crimes tribunal after the war, saving him from the gallows. Ten years after Toosey's 1975 death, Saito made a pilgrimage to England to visit his grave.
During shooting, Alec Guinness continued to have doubts about his performance and the direction he was getting from David Lean. To put Guinness at ease, Lean decided to show the actor a rough cut of certain sequences. One night, Lean ran over an hour's worth of footage for Guinness, with the actor's wife and son also attending. During the screening nothing was said. At the end, the Guinness family thanked Lean and promptly walked out, leaving the director without a clue as to what to think of their reaction (or lack of). Later that night, Lean received a visit from Guinness, who told him that he and his family had decided that Nicholson was the best thing that Guinness had ever done.
David Lean initially wanted Nicholson's soldiers to enter the camp while singing "Hitler Has Only Got One Ball", a popular (during World War II) parody version of the "Colonel Bogey March" poking fun at Adolf Hitler and various other Nazi leaders. Sam Spiegel told him it was too vulgar, and the whistling-only version was used instead.
When this film was first aired on commercial TV in the US, on Sunday night, Sept. 25, 1966, ABC-TV pre-empted its entire evening's schedule so the film could be aired in one night, as opposed to two parts on consecutive nights. This was considered a bold move at the time. It was the longest single network telecast of a film up to then (three hours and 10 minutes with commercials; Ford Motor Co. was the lone sponsor), beating the previous record set by Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955), which was telecast by NBC over three hours on March 11, 1956. An estimated 60 million viewers watched the program.
For the scenes where William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Geoffrey Horne and the native girls had to wade through swamps, they were wading through specially created ones. The real swamps in Ceylon were deemed to be too dangerous. Nevertheless, the leeches in the recreated swamps were real.
For the scene when Col. Nicholson emerges from the oven after several days confined there, Alec Guinness based his faltering walk on that of his son Matthew Guinness when he was recovering from polio. Guinness regarded this one tiny scene as some of the finest work he did throughout his entire career.
Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman had been blacklisted in Hollywood after having been accused of having Communist ties at the time the film was made, and went uncredited. The sole writing credit, and therefore the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, went to Pierre Boulle, who wrote the original French novel but did not speak English. Clearly he had not written the English script and this became a long-running controversy between the Academy and the actual authors to achieve recognition for their work. In 1984 the Academy retroactively awarded the Oscar to Wilson and Foreman. Sadly, Wilson did not live to see this; Foreman died the day after it was announced. When the film was restored, their names were added to the credits.
Initially Alec Guinness had doubts about playing the role of Col. Nicholson. Guinness had become a much-loved figure on screen, appearing in a series of popular comedies. The Nicholson character seemed humorless, unlovable and perhaps even dull. To remedy this, Guinness tried to inject some humor into his portrayal of the Colonel. David Lean was very much opposed to this idea, insisting that it be played straight. Thus began an argument between the two men that continued through shooting.
The film's eight months of shooting began in October 1956. A scouting expedition of the real river Kwai had shown that it was an unsuitable location for filming, as it appeared to be nothing more than a trickling stream. The production finally settled on a tiny village called Kitulgula in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The site was remote, so a compound of bungalows had to be built for the film crew.
Prior to casting Alec Guinness, Sam Spiegel tried to persuade Spencer Tracy to play the part of Col. Nicholson. Tracy had read the book and told Spiegel emphatically that the part must be played by an Englishman.
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.
After a successful stunt test for the film's climax, where a Japanese soldier falls off the bridge into the river, stuntman Frank Howard was swept under the strong current during the actual shooting of the scene. Prop man Tommy Early dove in to save him but was also pulled under. Once they stopped struggling against the current, both men were carried to a point in the river where they were rescued. Unfortunately, Howard later died from a stomach illness while in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases back home in England.
Sessue Hayakawa was 68 years old when he was cast as Col. Saito. Having limited command of the English language, he focused only on those pages of the script in which he had dialog--the rest of the pages he tore out. The complete script was about one inch thick; Hayakawa's with the pages torn out was about an eighth of that.
To keep costs down, producer Sam Spiegel decided not to hire any extras, using crew members and Ceylon locals instead. This meant that some of the British prisoners were actually natives of the region wearing make-up to appear Caucausian.
Around the time that he was offered this film, David Lean had little money--he was in the midst of a financially ruinous divorce--and was very much in need of a new project. He was contracted for $150,000 to be paid in installments. As soon as he signed, Lean borrowed $2000 from Columbia Pictures to get his teeth fixed.
The construction of the bridge itself for the film was rumored to have cost $250,000, although the real figure was more likely in the region of $53,000 (producer Sam Spiegel was prone to some inventive figures).
When William Holden first arrived on the set, he was greeted with crew complaints regarding David Lean's attitude. Holden immediately responded like a sports coach corralling his team and gave a rousing speech about how they all knew the quality of the script and director.
Ian Watts, longtime professor of English at Stanford and author of the landmark "The Rise of the Novel", had actually been a prisoner in the camp and helped with the construction of the bridge. He served as an advisor during the making of the film.
Sam Spiegel was en route from Paris to London when he bought the then much-talked about novel by Pierre Boulle out of curiosity. By the time he arrived in London, he had read the novel and decided what his next film was going to be. He immediately flew back to Paris for a meeting with a surprised Boulle, who agreed to sell him the film rights.
David Lean was initially opposed to the idea of Alec Guinness playing Col. Nicholson. He felt that Guinness lacked the "size" that the role required. However, Sam Spiegel was keen on hiring the actor. He invited Guinness to dinner, hoping to entice him to take the part. At the start of the meal, Guinness was emphatic that he would not play the role. By the end of the evening, however, the two men were discussing what sort of wig Guinness would wear. Such were the persuasive powers of Sam Speigel.
Sam Spiegel had made the decision to credit Pierre Boulle as screenwriter despite the French writer's lack of involvement in the film (screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were blacklisted, so ineligible for screen credit). This was a point of dispute with David Lean, who felt at the very least that he and Wilson should have received credit. The dispute continued to escalate and actually became physical at the Academy Awards that year. It is said that Spiegel and Lean dueled with the two Oscars they had just won.
Producer Sam Spiegel wanted to release the movie by the December 31, 1957 deadline for the movie to be eligible for Academy Award consideration for that year, but by early-December 1957, the movie had yet no music score and no composer. Spiegel hired Malcolm Arnold to compose the score, which Arnold completed in a mere ten days. The movie was released prior to the 1957 Academy Award consideration deadline, and Arnold was rewarded with the 1957 Academy Award for Best Music Score for his speedy effort.
While David Lean didn't always get along with everyone in his cast, he was very fond of William Holden. Lean found Holden to be extremely professional. He felt that Holden's considerable talent often went unnoticed, in part because the actor made everything look so effortless.
Fred Zinnemann was another choice to direct; Sam Spiegel very much wanted him to take the job, due to his box-office clout, but Zinneman didn't understand the novel and declined. Orson Welles was reportedly approached to co-star and direct, but Welles, too, dropped out after reading the script. William Wyler was considered but never formally approached. Ultimately, Spiegel explained the decision to hire David Lean as being "In absence of anybody else."
Sam Spiegel bought the railroad train from the Ceylonese government. It had previously belonged to an Indian maharajah and had seen 65 years of active service. Spiegel had it refurbished completely and then had one mile of railway track laid for it.
Shooting in the jungles of Ceylon was not always a happy experience for cast and crew. Living conditions were uncomfortable due to intense heat and humidity. The unit also had to co-exist with snakes, leeches and other indigenous creatures of the area. Illness was rampant. Adding to the discomfort was David Lean's tendency to take many hours or even days to get a single shot.
When Columbia Pictures read the script for "Kwai", it was concerned that the story was too much about men and had no love interest. At its behest, Sam Spiegel asked David Lean to incorporate a love scene. Although unconvinced of its merits, Lean agreed to include Shears' affair with a British nurse.
Howard Hawks was asked to direct, but declined. After the box-office failure of Land of the Pharaohs (1955), he didn't want a second one in a row, and he thought the critics would love this movie but the public would stay away. One particular concern was the all-male lead roles.
David Lean was completely at home in the hot and humid Ceylon jungle. Despite the discomfort the rest of the crew were experiencing, Lean was thrilled about the shoot and never complained about his living conditions.
It was David Lean's suggestion to have the British soldiers march into the POW camp singing "Colonel Bogey" at the start of the film. Producer Sam Spiegel was opposed to including the song and felt it would have not meaning to most audiences. The song was in fact a British military march. At first, Spiegel tried to convince Lean that the song would cost too much money to license, but eventually Lean got his way.
When David Lean agreed to the project, he took on the task of reworking Carl Foreman's script. He felt that Foreman's script had discarded the best elements of the book in favor of heavy-handed melodrama and action/adventure. Lean noted that the conflict between Col. Nicholson and Saito became apparent far too late in the narrative, and that Saito was written like a stock B-picture villain. In terms of message, it was important to Lean that Nicholson's minor folly of building the bridge mirror the greater folly of the war itself.
Producer Sam Spiegel brought David Lean and Carl Foreman together for a brief period of time to work on the screenplay. The tension between Lean and Foreman was apparent, much to Spiegel's delight. Spiegel felt that the best screenplays were born out of friction and discord. In this case, tensions became too great and Foreman left the project.
There are many rumors about the casting of the film, but most sources claim that Charles Laughton was the original choice to play Col. Nicholson. Laughton turned down the part as he did not know how to play it convincingly, since he did not understand the motivations of the character. He said he only understood the character after seeing the completed film and Alec Guinness' performance as Nicholson.
Production manager Cecil F. Ford transformed a local tea plantation house into the production unit headquarters. Located two miles from the bridge set, it consisted of one large main house and surrounding bungalows.
Historically the real Kwai river ran parallel to the real railroad line, and the WWII bridge was actually built over the Mae Klong River next door. This river was renamed the Kwai a few years after the movie, some believe because of its newfound fame.
Alec Guinness initially turned down the role of Col. Nicholson, saying, "I can't imagine anyone wanting to watch a stiff-upper-lip British colonel for two and a half hours." He had also clashed with David Lean when they made Oliver Twist (1948).
The real bridge on the River Kwai was destroyed in a bombing raid by Allied planes in June of 1945. The bombardier who actually dropped the bombs on the bridge was Paul Picerni, who was serving in the US Air Force at the time and later became a popular character actor. He is probably best-known for having co-starred in The Untouchables (1959) TV series, and appeared in dozens of TV shows and films, including Miracle in the Rain (1956). In one of his earliest films, Twelve O'Clock High (1949), he played a bombardier.
Some consider the film to be an insulting parody of British Lt.Col. Philip Toosey, the real senior Allied officer at the bridge. 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.
When Geoffrey Horne came to Ceylon he was amazed by the entire production. One of the most memorable details for him was his living accommodation in a tin shack shared with the film's English technical advisor, Maj. Gen. L.E.M. Perowne. The general wore a monocle and read letters from his wife about the flowers in their garden back in England.
Although a major player in Hollywood, producer Sam Spiegel was based in London. Upon meeting Spiegel, David Lean was won over by the man's larger-than-life personality and charm. Their working relationship, however, would not always be harmonious.
Among survivors of the construction of the Burma-Siam railway, there is often a lot of bitterness directed towards this film, as real-life conditions were much worse, with 13,000 POWs and 100,000 civilians dying in its construction. The filmmakers felt depicting conditions as harsh as they actually were would be too depressing for filmgoers.
Writer Pierre Boulle, who had been a prisoner of war in Thailand, created Colonel Nicholson as an amalgamation 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, who played Nicholson) felt otherwise.
In order to film the paratroopers jumping from their plane, director of photography Jack Hildyard lashed himself to the wing of the British military plane carrying the paratroopers and shot the jump with a handheld 16mm camera.
The bridge destruction scene was not filmed as director David Lean originally planned it. He wanted to blow up the pilings on only one side of the bridge so it would topple towards the cameras, taking the train with it. Producer Sam Spiegel feared this was too risky and ordered all the pilings rigged with explosives. "So the bridge just sank," Lean recalled. "It looked good enough but it would have been wonderful to see the whole bloody thing keel over with a moving train on top of it."
Unfortunately, the restored version of this film has altered the sound effects/foley noticeably. The final indicator is the sound of the mortar Warden launches against Nicholson at the river. In the original release, the mortar has a distinct pop. In the restored copy, it sounds more like a large caliber gun going off.
David Lean and Sam Spiegel differed widely over the film's focus. Lean was more interested in the prison camp rivalry between Nicholson and Saito, while Spiegel felt the novel's action-adventure elements (namely the commando storyline, a subplot in the book) deserved more focus. Early scripts featured elaborate action scenes like an elephant stampede, an army ant attack, and even a submarine battle, which Lean adamantly vetoed.
After filming a scene with Alec Guinness, David 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]."
David Lean reportedly hated Carl Foreman's original version of the screenplay and asked Norman Spencer to help write a new treatment. Foreman then rewrote the script, but Sam Spiegel was unhappy with the finished product and asked Calder Willingham to work on script revisions. Lean was unhappy with his work and Michael Wilson was then brought in to work with Lean on the script. The extent of Willingham's contribution to the final script, if any, has not been determined.
When Shears, Warden and Joyce are hiking to the bridge, the packs carried by the Siamese girls are obviously empty, judging by the ease in which carry them and how they swing on the poles. This is usually the case with any kind of luggage or packs in movies.
Montgomery Clift was the first choice for Lt. Joyce. David Lean and Sam Spiegel had dinner with him at Danny's Hideaway with the promise of beefing up the role. According to Spiegel's wife, "Monty was taking pills . . . and he was still vaguely coherent. He'd answer with non-sequiturs like 'the sky is blue'." Lean discreetly left. Sam was soon yelling, "For Christ's sake, Monty" as Clift fell, not into his cups, but into Betty Spiegel's lap. She later recalled, "He could not move. It was as if he was numb."
The destruction of the bridge as depicted in the film is entirely fictional. In reality, two bridges were built, a temporary wooden one and a permanent steel and concrete one a few months later. Both bridges were used for two years until they were destroyed by Allied aerial bombings. The steel bridge was repaired and is still in use today.
After filming was completed on the exploding bridge sequence, which cost an enormous amount of money and time, rumor has it that the footage disappeared somewhere between Ceylon and London. It was finally discovered two weeks later, sitting in the intense heat out on the runway at the airport in Cairo, Egypt. Miraculously, it was undamaged.
When Alec Guinness, as Col. Nicholson, ruminates on the completed bridge to Maj. Saito, he and director David Lean argued over how the scene should be shot. Guinness wanted a close-up of his face, while Lean insisted on shooting him from behind. Nevertheless, Guinness loved his dialog and deliberately timed his delivery to coincide with the setting of the sun.
While the bridge in the story was constructed by prisoners in two months, the actual one built in Ceylon by a British company for the filming (425 feet long and 50 feet above the water) took eight months, with the use of 500 workers and 35 elephants. It was demolished in a matter of seconds, and the total cost was 85,000 pounds (equivalent to about 1.2 million pounds in 2002).
The film was relatively faithful to the Pierre Boulle 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. In the novel, the bridge is not destroyed: the train plummets into the river from a secondary charge placed by Warden, but Nicholson (never realizing "what have I done?") does not fall onto the plunger, and the bridge suffers only minor damage. Boulle nonetheless enjoyed the film though he disagreed with its climax.
The final scene of the film (an aerial shot of James Donald walking away from the scene of the bridge explosion) was the last scene of the film to be shot. The cast and most of the crew had left Ceylon and the producers had taken the cameras away, too. David Lean had to use a wind-up 35mm camera to shoot it and also a stand-in for James Donald, who had also returned to the UK.