Colonel Saito was inspired by Major Risaburo Saito, who, unlike the character portrayed in this movie, 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 P.O.W.s in return for their labor. Such was the respect between Saito and Lieutenant Colonel Toosey (upon whom Colonel 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, Sir Alec Guinness continued to have doubts about his performance, and the direction he was getting from Sir David Lean. To put Guinness at ease, Lean decided to show him a rough cut of certain sequences. One night, Lean ran over an hour's worth of footage for Sir Alec, with Guinness' wife and son also attending. During the screening, nothing was said. At the end, the Guinness family thanked Lean and promptly walked out, leaving Lean 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.
Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman had been blacklisted in Hollywood after having been accused of having Communist ties at the time that this movie 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, and Foreman died the day after it was announced. When this movie was restored, their names were added to the credits.
Initially, Sir Alec Guinness had doubts about playing the role of Colonel 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. Director Sir 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.
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.
Prior to casting Sir Alec Guinness, Sam Spiegel tried to persuade Spencer Tracy to play the part of Colonel Nicholson. Tracy had read the book and told Spiegel emphatically that the part must be played by an Englishman.
When this movie was first aired on commercial television in the U.S. on Sunday, September 25, 1966, ABC pre-empted its entire evening's schedule so that this movie could be aired in one night, as opposed to two parts on consecutive nights. This was considered to be a bold move at the time. It was the longest single network telecast of a movie up to then (three hours and ten minutes with commercials; Ford Motor Company was the lone sponsor), beating the previous record set by Sir Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955), which was telecast by NBC over three hours on March 11, 1956. An estimated sixty million viewers watched it. Unfortunately, this was the era of pan and scan, standard 1.33:1 ratio presentation, ("formatted to fit your screen") and so viewers actually saw little more than half of its original 2.55:1 CinemaScope widescreen image, with either the sides cut off, and/or composition severely mutilated, a cruel blow to its director and cinematographers.
For the scene when Colonel Nicholson emerges from the "oven" after several days confined there, Sir Alec Guinness based his faltering walk on that of his son Matthew when he was recovering from polio. Guinness regarded this one tiny scene as some of the finest work he did throughout his entire career.
The destruction of the bridge as depicted in the movie 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.
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 re-created swamps were real.
Director Sir 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.
The eight months of filming 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 crew.
Ian Watts, longtime professor of English at Stanford, and author of the landmark "The Rise of the Novel", had been a prisoner in the camp, and helped with the construction of the bridge. He served as an advisor during the making of this movie.
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.
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 Caucasian.
Director Sir 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.
Sessue Hayakawa was sixty-eight-years-old when he was cast as Colonel Saito. Having limited command of the English language, he focused only on those pages of the script in which he had dialogue, 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.
When Sir Alec Guinness, as Colonel Nicholson, ruminates on the completed bridge to Colonel Saito, he and Director Sir 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 dialogue and deliberately timed his delivery to coincide with the setting of the sun.
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 three hundred thousand dollars up front, and was guaranteed a ten percent share of the profits, to be paid at the rate of fifty thousand dollars a year. This is one reason why Holden sued to stop the first American television showing of the movie in 1966, claiming it would hurt future box-office receipts, on which he was dependent (the lawsuit was unsuccessful). Because the movie made so much money, his shares eventually accumulated to the point where the studio was making more off of 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.
The movie's story was loosely based on a true World War II incident, and the real-life character of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. One of several Allied P.O.W.s, Toosey was in charge of his men from late 1942 through May 1943 when they were ordered to build two River Kwai bridges in Burma (one of steel, one of wood), to help move Japanese supplies and troops from Bangkok to Rangoon. In reality, the bridge took eight months to build (rather than two months), and they were 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, titled "The Man Behind the Bridge".
This movie 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 P.O.W. camp. In the novel, the bridge was 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 movie, though he disagreed with its climax.
Director Sir David Lean was initially opposed to the idea of Sir Alec Guinness playing Colonel Nicholson. He felt that Guinness lacked the "size" that the role required. However, Producer Sam Spiegel was keen on hiring Sir Alec. 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 Producer Sam Speigel.
After a successful stunt test for the 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.
When William Holden first arrived on the set, he was greeted with crew complaints regarding Sir 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.
Producer 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 movie was going to be. He immediately flew back to Paris for a meeting with a surprised Boulle, who agreed to sell him the movie rights.
Shooting in the jungles of Ceylon was not always a happy experience for cast and crew. Living conditions were uncomfortable due to the 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 Sir David Lean's tendency to take many hours or even days to get a single shot.
Producer Sam Spiegel bought the railroad train from the Ceylonese government. It had previously belonged to an Indian maharajah, and had seen sixty-five years of active service. Spiegel had it refurbished completely, and then had one mile of railway track laid for it.
Fred Zinnemann was another choice to direct. Producer 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 Sir David Lean as being "in absence of anybody else."
Around the time that he was offered this movie, Sir 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 one hundred fifty thousand dollars, to be paid in installments. As soon as he signed, Lean borrowed two thousand dollars from Columbia Pictures to get his teeth fixed.
The real bridge on the River Kwai was destroyed in a bombing raid by Allied planes in June of 1945. The bombardier who dropped the bombs on the bridge was Paul Picerni, who was serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces at the time, and later became a popular character actor. He is probably best-known for having co-starred on The Untouchables (1959), and appeared in dozens of television shows and movies, including Miracle in the Rain (1956). In one of his earliest movies, Twelve O'Clock High (1949), he played a bombardier.
When Sir David Lean agreed to the project, he took on the task of re-working Carl Foreman's script. He felt that Foreman's script had discarded the best elements of the book in favor of heavy-handed melodrama, action, and adventure. Lean noted that the conflict between Colonel Nicholson and Saito became apparent far too late in the narrative, and that Saito was written like a stock B-movie 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.
While Sir 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.
When Columbia Pictures executives read the script, they were concerned that the story was too much about men, and had no love interest. At its behest, Producer Sam Spiegel asked Director Sir David Lean to incorporate a love scene. Although unconvinced of its merits, Lean agreed to include Shears' affair with a British nurse.
It was Director Sir David Lean's suggestion to have the British soldiers march into the P.O.W. camp singing "Colonel Bogey" at the start of the movie. Producer Sam Spiegel was opposed to including the song, and felt it would have no 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.
Sir Alec Guinness initially turned down the role of Colonel 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 Sir David Lean when they made Oliver Twist (1948).
Producer Sam Spiegel had made the decision to credit Pierre Boulle as Screenwriter, despite the French writer's lack of involvement in the movie (Screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were blacklisted, so ineligible for screen credit). This was a point of dispute with Sir David Lean, who felt at the very least that he and Michael Wilson should have received credit. The dispute continued to escalate and actually became physical at the Academy Awards ceremony that year. It is said that Spiegel and Lean duelled with the two Oscars they had just won.
Producer Sam Spiegel brought Sir 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.
This movie has many elements of truth woven into its fictitious narrative. While prisoners were used as slave laborers to build the railway depicted, the factual commander, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey was the senior officer in this camp and risked his own life many times by deliberately sabotaging the bridge building efforts, completely different from the senior officer in this movie.
There are many rumors about the casting of the movie, but most sources claim that Charles Laughton was the original choice to play Colonel 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 movie and Sir Alec Guinness' performance as Nicholson.
While the bridge in the movie was constructed by prisoners in two months, the actual one built in Ceylon by a British company for the filming (four hundred twenty-five feet long and fifty feet above the water) took eight months, with the use of five hundred workers and thirty-five elephants. It was demolished in a matter of a few seconds, and the total cost was eighty-five thousand pounds sterling (equivalent to about 1.2 million pounds sterling in 2002).
After filming a scene with Sir Alec Guinness, Sir David Lean said, "Now you can all fu-ck off and go home, you English actors. Thank God that I'm starting work tomorrow with an American actor (William Holden)."
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.
Historically the real River Kwai ran parallel to the real railroad line, and the World War II 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.
Some considered this movie to be an insulting parody of British Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey, the real senior Allied officer at the bridge. A former prisoner at the camp stated 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.
The final scene of the movie (an aerial shot of James Donald walking away from the scene of the bridge explosion) was the last scene to be shot. The cast and most of the crew had left Ceylon, and the producers had taken the cameras away, too. Director Sir 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 U.K. Many years later, Lean, in a BBC TV Interview with film critic Barry Norman, admitted he hated the scene, as the stand-in looked so stiff and unnatural and "walked like a mannequin".
Sir Alec Guinness initially turned down the role. Others eventually convinced him to accept it. He disliked the Nicholson character and noted audiences would not want to watch him for two hours. Guinness questioned and became unhappy with Sir David Lean's directing. The voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Guinness an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, the only one he would receive in that category.
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 movie (including Sir Alec Guinness, who played Nicholson) felt otherwise.
Amongst the survivors of the construction of the Burma-Siam railway, there is often a lot of bitterness directed towards this movie, as real-life conditions were much worse, with thirteen thousand P.O.W.s and one hundred thousand civilians dying during its construction. The filmmakers felt depicting conditions as harsh as they actually were would be too depressing for moviegoers.
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 English Technical Advisor Major General 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, Director Sir David Lean was won over by the man's larger-than-life personality and charm. Their working relationship, however, would not always be harmonious.
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.
The bridge destruction scene was not filmed as Director Sir 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."
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.
Montgomery Clift was the first choice for Lieutenant Joyce. Director Sir David Lean and Producer 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."
Director Sir David Lean and Producer Sam Spiegel differed widely over the movie's focus. Lean was more interested in the prison camp rivalry between Nicholson and Saito, while Spiegel felt the novel's action and 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.
Sir David Lean reportedly hated Carl Foreman's original version of the screenplay and asked Norman Spencer to help write a new treatment. Foreman then re-wrote the script, but Producer 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.
None of the major characters has a first name. They're simply Colonel Nicholson (Sir Alec Guinness), Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), Major Clipton (James Donald), and Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne). Shears (William Holden) has a name that's an alias that he stole from a dead fellow serviceman because he thought he'd get better treatment as an officer.
As the same movies were nominated in the Best Picture and Best Director categories for the first time at the Academy Awards that year, this is the first movie to win both awards against the same competition in both categories.
In 1957, John Scott was a musician performing under the direction of Malcolm Arnold, and recording his score for this movie. The musicians had finished the morning session, and the orchestra broke for lunch. John was prevented from leaving by Eric Boyd-Perkins, who subsequently became the movie editor on John's score for Antony and Cleopatra (1972), and was now the Sound Editor on this movie. He had been having trouble recording a group of people he had rounded up to do some whistling. He asked if John had a piccolo, and would he mind lending a hand. John told him it would be a pleasure, and remained, while Eric ran the footage in the movie where men are marching and whistling the famous "Colonel Bogey March". Malcolm had composed a theme which was a counter melody to the "Colonel Bogey March", and the collective whistlers present needed something to follow. John obliged by leading them, and keeping them in time with his piccolo playing. And, that is how the famous "whistling main title" was produced, and that is how John came to miss his lunch that day. They carried on recording the score for the movie after the lunch break.
Unfortunately, the restored version of this movie 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.
In the scene where Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) interviews Shears (William Holden) on the beach, the very short focal length, wide angle camera lens results in a visible curvature to the horizon that is a purely optical effect.
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 they carry them and how they swing on the poles. This is usually the case with any kind of luggage or packs in movies.
Despite Producer Sam Speigel usually frowning on having wives or mistresses on location, he relented to David Lean's inviting his then mistress, the Indian Leela Matkar, to stay with him during the filming of this movie. She spent the Christmas of 1956 with David in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).