Bridge On the River Kwai (1957)



Director:    David Lean.

Starring:    William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne, Andre Morell, Peter Williams, Percy Herbert, Harold Goodwin, Ann Sears, K. Katsumoto, Henry Okawa.

Academy AWardens: 7 aWardens, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Guinness)

Based on Pierre Boulle's 1952 novel.  Script actually written by blacklisted writer Michael Wilson.

Colonel Nicholson is the British commander of English POWs in Burma.  He and his men are forced to build a bridge for their Japanese captors. The commander becomes so obsessive about the bridge building that he loses all perspective on why he was sent to Burma in the first place. He is so in love with his own creation that he at first opposes the attempts of British and American intelligence officers to blow up the bridge.



Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.

1943.  The Japanese run a train to the end of the track being built through the Burmese jungles by the Japanese using Allied POW labor.  Colonel Nicholson is the British commander of a new batch of British POWs coming to work on the bridge.  The only two leftovers from the previous crew, Shears and Weaver, bury the dead by the railroad or by the huts where they live.  Shears speaks with Captain Kanematsu asking him to put him in the hospital.  He gives the Captain a cigarette lighter he got from a young man who he just buried.  The Captain says he will put him and his friend Weaver on the sick list.  Weaver tells Shears that one of these days Colonel Saito will catch Shears bribing his men and that will be it for them.

The POWs whistle while they march into the camp.   When they arrive Saito comes out to welcome the men.  He says he is the commander of this camp which is Camp 16 which will soon connect Bangkok, Thailand with Rangoon, Burma.  The POWs have been chosen to build a bridge over the River Kwai.  Both officers and men will work.  He says that escape is impossible because they are surrounded by jungle and any escapee would soon die.  The men are dismissed.

Nicholson's second in command is Major Hughes.  Hughes takes over while Nicholson speaks with Saito.  He tells the Japanese officer that it is against the Geneva Conventions to ask the officers to work.  Saito doesn't care, but Nicholson doesn't get that yet.    (The Japanese never signed the Geneva Conventions.)

The heavy rains come down.  Nicholson speaks with the doctor named Clipton.  Clipton introduces Nicholson to Commander Shears of the United States Navy.  He and an Australian are all that is left of the prisoners that built the camp.  Shears said they had mostly Australians, then British, Indians, Burmese and Siamese.  Nicholson asks what happened to the men?  They died of malaria, dysentery, beriberi, gangrene, famine, overwork, bullet wounds, snake bites, Saito and depression.  Nicholson says Saito seems like the reasonable type.  (Shears knows he's not, but doesn't say anything.)

In a meeting with his officers Nicholson tells them there will not be an escape committee.  They have no where to go.  It's 100 to 1 that anyone could make it out alive from the camp.  Shears speaks up to say that the changes of their survival in the camp are actually worse than that and the men should never give up the idea of the possibility of escape.  Nicholson is not interested and drops the subject of escape.  When Shears leaves, Nicholson calls him a "queer bird even for an American". 

The next morning Saito says the prisoners will finish the bridge by May 12.  They will work under the Japanese engineer Lt. Miura.  Nicholson again tries to quote the Geneva Conventions.  Saito takes his little book from him and slaps Nicholson with it.  The Japanese believed that surrender to the enemy was cowardice and they had no sympathy for cowards.  Therefore, Saito calls Nicholson a coward, unworthy of command because he surrendered himself and his men to the Japanese.  Nicholson tells Saito that since the Japanese will not follow the rules of the civilized world, the POWs are absolved of any duty to their captors. 

Saito keeps the officers behind as the men march off to work.  He tells Nicholson to order his men to work.  Nicholson says no.  Saito shows him the machine gun available for his use.  He is going to count to three and then open up on the men with the machinegun.  Dr. Clipton runs over to ask Saito if it is the Japanese military code to kill unarmed men?  Saito just turns and goes inside his hut.  He leaves the men standing outside in the hot sun. 

Shears says Nicholson's kind of guts can get them all killed.  One man falls unconscious.  The enlisted men return from work.  All the officers are sent to punishment hut.  They put Nicholson into the "oven".  Two Allies try to escape and are killed by the Japanese.  Shears kills one of the Japanese with his bayonet.  Other soldiers come and Shears runs for it.  They shoot him and he falls off a cliff into the river below.  He survives the wound and the fall. 

The men start building the bridge, but they use various delaying techniques.   Saito is mad about the acts of sabotage.  He tells the doctor that they are behind schedule and it is greatly due to the stubbornness of the Colonel.  Saito says the Colonel is mad.  He tells the doctor he has five minutes to speak to his Colonel.  Clipton tells the Colonel that Lt. Jennings, the Australian Weaver and the American Shears were all killed while trying to escape.  He begs him to give in to Saito.  Clipton says that Saito will do anything to get his way.  Nicholson says he will not give in.  Clipton tells Saito that if anything happens to Nicholson it would be murder.  Saito just says that Nicholson is responsible, not he. 

Shears continues walking, but he is dead tired.  He reaches a native village.  The men and women take him in. 

Saito is mad and tells the prisoners that no progress is being made on the bridge.  He says that Lt. Miura is incompetent and has been removed from his post.  Saito will now take personal command of the building.  He lets the men have their Red Cross parcels.  An entire section of the bridge falls down.  Saito is not happy.  He lets the old man out.  Nicholson is brought to see Saito.  Saito wants Nicholson to have a meal with him, but Nicholson will not eat or drink 

Saito says he only has twelve weeks left to build the bridge.  Therefore, he has to use all available personnel.  If he doesn't complete the task on time, he will have to kill himself.  Nicholson says he has two officers, Reeves and Hughes, who have built bridges all over India.  And the men respect them.  Just when Nicholson seems about to help Saito, the fellow gets too frustrated and has him taken out of his presence and back to the oven.  Saito says he hates the British. 

Shears gets better and takes a boat to try to get to the sea.  He runs out of fresh water and drinks from the river.  This makes him terribly ill and he and the boat just drift down the river. 

They let Nicholson out of the oven again.  He goes back to see Colonel Saito.  Saito gives in and says the POW officers will not have to do manual labor.  The men cheer their commander.  The other British officers are now released from their oven.  In private Saito cries over his defeat. 

Nicholson gets his men into ship shape.  He tells his officers that he will use the building of the bridge to establish discipline and teamwork again among the men.  Evans can't believe that Nicholson wants to actually build the bridge.  They work with Saito now.  tTey will build a bridge 400 yards downstream to establish the bridge on bedrock instead of mud. 

Mount Lavinia Hospital, Ceylon.  Shears is having a vacation at the hospital.  He even has a girlfriend already and he lays out on the sand with her.  British Major Warden comes to speak with Shears.  He wants Shears to go over everything he knows about the railway in Burma that he helped build. 

The next day the two men meet and Warden tells him that his commando unit wants to go in and blow up the railway and the bridge.  The purpose of the railway is eventually to drive on through to India.  Their chief problem is lack of firsthand knowledge.  His particular team will blow up the bridge over the River Kwai.  The Major wants Shears to go back with them.  Shears can't believe he is asking him to go back to a place from which he just managed to escape.  The US Navy has already turn Shears over to the British Force 316.   Shears confesses that he is not even an officer.  He took the uniform of a dead naval officer thinking he would get better treatment in the Japanese POW camp.  Warden says that he already knew all that.  He has his folder.  Shears will have the simulated rank of major. 

At the River Kwai the medical officer tells Nicholson that what they are doing could be considered as collaboration with the enemy or even treason.  He asks a good question:  "Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built themselves?"  The Colonel just doesn't get it!  He has completely lost the sense of what is proper and not proper. 

Shears will be on the team.  Warden will be going and a fellow named Chapman.  They are considering taking a man named Joyce but have to evaluate him.  Shears gives him the okay and Joyce is selected. 

The four men make the jump, but poor Chapman is killed while landing amid the trees.  A local guide named Yai will lead them to the bridge.  They have to hack their way through the jungle because there are heavy Japanese patrols on the roads.  They have to use women as bearers because all the local men have been grabbed by the Japanese to work on the railroad.  Over the radio they learn that a Japanese train is arriving May 13.  So the commandos will try to arrive on May 12. 

Nicholson is so gung-ho on finishing the job on time that he goes to the infirmary to take sick men to work on the bridge.  He gets nine volunteers to do light work.

The commandos take a break by a stream. Japanese soldiers arrive to pick up the women. The commandoes kill them. But one man gets away. Warden and Joyce go after him. The man tries to hide but Joyce stumbles right onto him. They are both so shocked that neither moves. Warden kills the man with his knife. In the process Warden suffers a foot injury.  He falls behind the others, but keeps going.   

Warden tells Shears and Joyce to leave him behind.  He has to tell them that it's an order.  He places Shears in command.  Shears says he is not leaving him behind because he doesn't care about his rules and dying like a gentleman.  The men march on.  They finally see the River Kwai below them.  They get closer and take a look at it with binoculars.  Warden says the bridge is too well built, not like the usual temporary bridges the Japanese throw up. 

Nicholson finishes hanging a sign that says:  "This bridge was designed and constructed by soldiers of the British army, Feb.-May 1943.  Lt. Colonel L. Nicholson."

The commandoes get in place and decide how to blow up the bridge.  They will go upstream to build a raft and then at night float it downstream filled with the wiring and explosives to the bridge. 

The two colonels walk on the bridge.  They both agree that the bridge is beautiful.  At night the men put on a show.  The commandoes float the raft downstream during the show.  They reach the bridge.  They have to be extremely quiet as the bridge is patrolled by two guards walking back and forth.  Colonel Nicholson speaks to all the men.  He says the men should be very proud of what they have built here.  It will be an example to all, soldiers and civilians alike.  The men take the wire and plunger farther downstream to be used when the train arrives.  Joyce stays with the plunger, while Shears stays on the opposite shore. 

The next morning the men get a bad surprise.  The river has gone down considerably and now the wiring is exposed.  The Japanese could now discover what's going on.  The Japanese have a ribbon cutting ceremony and the British come whistling over the bridge. 

The sound of the locomotive engine is heard.  Nicholson waits on the bridge.  He leans over a railing and sees the wires.  Shears says:  "What's he doing?"   Nicholson goes to Saito to tell him something strange is going on and they better take another look before the train crosses.  They go down to the river.  He walks out to the middle of the river to see where the wire goes.  Warden says:  "He's gone mad!  He's leading them right to it!  Our own man!" 

Nicholson pulls up the wire from the sand and follows it until he gets to the plunger.  He asks Saito for a knife to cut the wire.  While Saito's back is turned, Joyce stabs him in the back killing him.  Nicholson now tries to stop Joyce from blowing up the bridge.  He yells for help!  The Japanese soldiers make there way toward Nicholson.  Shears yells for Joyce to kill Nicholson, but Joyce just keeps trying to talk to the officer.  So Shears has to jump into the river and swim to the other side while being fired upon.  Joyce is hit and killed, while still struggling with the crazed Nicholson.  Shears is hit several times but keeps coming.  Nicholson sees that it's Shears, who was supposed to be dead.  That seems finally to wake up the Colonel.  He asks himself:  "What have I done?"  As he heads over to the plunger, he is hit by shrapnel from a British mortar shell exploding in his vicinity.  The Colonel gets up slowly stumbling to the plunger.  He goes unconscious and falls onto the plunger, thereby exploding the bridge.  The train goes down with the fall of the bridge. 

Dr. Clipton surveys the damage and says: "Madness!  Madness!" 


Very good movie.  Many Allied POWs had to work on the Japanese railways through southeast Asia.  They were brutally and cruelly treated.  But we see little of this in the film.   The film is all about Colonel Nicholson who becomes a ritualist, someone performing a task over and over without a goal, or without at least a decent goal.  Focusing on his being a reasonable gentleman, he doesn't realize that he is committing treason by aiding the enemy.  Secondarily, the film is about the American named Shears who does not want to be anyone's hero.  He wants an easy life and will escape at the first opportunity he gets.  When asked to return with a commando unit, to the POW camp, Shears think Major Warden is stark raving mad.  He only agrees to go after pressure is put on him.  Then and only then does he say he will "volunteer".   Both men act honorably in the end, in spite of themselves.  Alec Guinness as Nicholson and William Holden as Shears were both very good in the film. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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