A cynical American POW named Shears (William Holden, cynical was his trademark in the fifties) watches Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) lead his British regiment into a Japanese camp deep in the harsh jungles of Burma (while whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” which became a hit record). There the prisoners working as slave laborers are building a military bridge, but Nicholson will not work and demands to keep his rank among his men. A battle of wills takes place between the overly proud Brit and the camp’s Japanese commander, Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). The Japanese do everything to break the will and pride of Nicholson to no avail. Eventually the two opposing leaders reach a compromise. Nicholson is given full dignity and instead of forcing his men to chore as slaves, they will build the bridge under their own British commanders. For Nicholson this is a chance to show the Japanese how superior both the British way of life and work ethic are and to build the morale of his men.
Meanwhile Shears makes a dangerous escape from the camp; though he gets shot and his two comrades are killed he manages to make his way to a friendly village and then a British military hospital. Recovering from his injuries on a picturesque beach with a foxy nurse, Shears is forced to join a group of commandos lead by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) and return to the camp he just escaped from to destroy the very bridge (over the Kwai river) that Colonel Nicholson is now building. An exciting covert raid on the bridge takes place leading to an eventual classic confrontation between Shears and Nicholson.
Another great war film made years later, Apocalypse Now, ends with the words, “the horror, the horror.” Similarly the final words spoken in The Bridge on the River Kwai are “madness, madness.” Nicholson’s madness is evident in more ways than one. At first he was willing to die to maintain his British gentleman’s dignity but then he becomes so obsessed with the quality of the bridge he seems to forget there is a war going on and that he is building something vital for the enemy. By the end he becomes so deeply consumed by his project that instead of the war or his allies all that matters to him is protecting the bridge. The final fate of the bridge is one of the great iconic moments of film history.
The film was based on a novel by the French writer Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the source novel for The Planet Of The Apes), though the screenplay was secretly written by two uncredited blacklisted writers, Carl Forman (High Noon) and Michael Wilson (A Place In The Sun). (Boulle received the on-screen credit.) Mega producer Sam Spiegel (On the Waterfront) carried the massive production from day one, assembling everyone both in front of and behind the camera. At certain points actors Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, and Humphrey Bogart were considered for the two lead roles while Howard Hawks and, more surprisingly, Rebel Without a Cause’s Nicholas Ray were in talks to direct.
While Guinness had worked with Lean on his two acclaimed Dickens adaptations, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, he was mostly known for the genteel British comedies he made at Ealing studios (The Lavender Hill Mob, etc.) He would continue to be associated with Lean, appearing in four of the director’s next five final films. Though the two apparently had a stormy working relationship, their output together may be as impressive as any director/actor combo as there has ever been. The Bridge on the River Kwai may be Guinness at his best and Lean’s greatest film just for shear entertainment and excitement. As more than just another classic, Kwai still holds up today and it even stands out for the scope of the adventure. Though a television will do, Kwai is one of those films that are a must-see on the big screen. Missing it is pure “madness.”
The Bridge on the River Kwai won 7 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Cinematography (Jack Hildyard), Best Director (David Lean), Best Editing (Peter Taylor), Best Original Score (Malcolm Arnold), Best Adapted Sceenplay (Pierre Boulle, Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson). It was nominted for an 8th Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (Sessue Hayakawa).