Director: David Lean
Stars: Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins
Plot: 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. Unknown to him, the Allies have sent a mission into the jungle, led by Warden and an American, Shears, to blow up 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.
At one point during filming, David Lean nearly drowned when he was swept away by a river current. Geoffrey Horne saved his life.
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.
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.
Sessue Hayakawa considered his performance as Saito as the highlight of his career.
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".
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.
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.
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.
Sessue Hayakawa really did (accidentally) strike Alec Guinness hard enough to draw blood in one scene. As evinced in the film, Guinness played the scene without flinching.
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.
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.
David Lean wanted to introduce Nicholson and his soldiers into the camp singing the "Hitler Has Only Got One Ball" song, but producer Sam Spiegel thought it too vulgar, and so they enter whistling the Colonel Bogey March
On the first take of the final bridge sequence, the explosives on the bridge didn't detonate. The train crossed over safely, only to crash down a hill on the other side.
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.
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.