It’s 1943, the depths of World War II in the Pacific Theater. A platoon of British P.O.W’s has just been sent to a prison camp in Myanmar, welcomed only by the warden, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and a cynical longtime prisoner, U.S. Naval officer Shears (William Holden). Saito informs the new prisoners that they will be put to work right away, building a railway bridge over the nearby River Kwai. Shears assumes the British arrivals will succumb to the same diseases and overwork that have killed so many other prisoners; but this group, lead by British officer Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), are particularly stubborn and sturdy. Nicholson especially so – when Saito tells Nicholson that officers will be expected on the work crew as well, Nicholson protests on the grounds that it violates the Geneva Convention.
The unimpressed Saito throws all the officers into tin huts at the camp, torturing them by leaving them to roast in the sweltering heat. But Nicholson doesn’t give in, even after several days; it’s the principle of the thing, he insists. The British platoon slacks off their work, some prisoners (including Shears) escape, and Saito is up against a strict deadline; so finally, using a Japanese national holiday as an excuse, Saito gives in and releases Nicholson and the other officers.
But Nicholson is devoted to other principles – including the notion that if you’re asked to do a thing, you have to do a good job. So he is not pleased when he first surveys the bridge his men have been building, noticing the shoddy workmanship and the general disorganized work flow. And that evening he calls for a meeting with Saito, accompanied by some engineers from within his platoon and reams of papers plotting out a whole new plan for the bridge project – a new means to manage the men, a new location, a new design. Never mind that this bridge will benefit the Japanese – for Nicholson, this is a matter of honor. His men have been asked to build a bridge, and he will personally see to it that it will be the best damn bridge in Myanmar, by God. Saito is over a barrel and has no choice but to accept.
While Nicholson’s men are working away, Shears has been happily recuperating in a hospital in Sri Lanka. He’s just about to be sent home on a medical discharge when the head of a British special forces unit taps him for an assignment – they’re going to try to blow up that bridge, right when a train full of Japanese VIPs is making the ceremonial first crossing. Since Shears managed to escape from the camp and knows the area, they think he’d be a perfect asset to the mission. And….the fact that they know he’s been faking his officer’s credentials would no doubt mean he’d surely want to volunteer to improve his reputation, yes? ….It’s a polite drafting, but a drafting all the same, and Shears is soon parachuting back in to Myanmar, creeping through the jungle towards the bridge Nicholson and his men are racing to finish.
Alec Guinness and director David Lean apparently locked horns a lot during filming. Guinness was actually Lean’s second choice for the role (Lean had been hoping for Charles Laughton), and was a bit stung when he found out. From the sound of things, though, Lean wasn’t all that pleasant to anyone – he once chewed out all of the British platoon extras because they weren’t marching in time. In frustration, Lean yelled at them to “whistle a march to keep time to!” One of the extras, Percy Herbert, suggested the British “Colonel Bogey” march to another extra named George Siegatz who had an especially piercing whistle. Everyone joined in with Siegatz on the next take, and it worked, leading to a now-iconic motif from the film. Lean was apparently so impressed that he paid Herbert an extra few pounds a week as a “consultant’s fee”.
People who actually had been P.O.W.s in Myanmar weren’t impressed, however – particularly those who’d been forced to work on the real bridge. The real troops involved sabotaged their own work wherever they could, under the direction of their commanding officer; their C.O. even helped gather termites to set loose on the wood pilings supporting the bridge. Another survivor scoffed that they did their work “under bayonet and bamboo lash”, and that he and his fellow prisoners “wouldn’t have had the breath to whistle!”
The historical inaccuracies were apparently another beef Alec Guinness had with the script (and the novel on which it was based); he felt that the story was “anti-British”. However, I didn’t see Nicholson’s stubbornness as a particularly British thing. It seemed a much more personal trait; someone trying to make the best of a bad situation and getting a little carried away. There’s a poignant scene between Nicholson and Saito as they inspect the bridge the night before its grand opening, and Nicholson starts reflecting on his military career and what kind of impact he’d had on the world; effectively he admits that the bridge might have been a kind of midlife crisis move for him. That’s not an anti-British sentiment – that’s a very human one, just as human as the sudden flash of clarity Nicholson has towards the very end of the film as he watches the train approach the bridge and suddenly asks aloud, “….what have I done?”
Speaking of that moment – there’s a bit of family lore about it. My mother told me once that when she was a girl, her whole family went to see Bridge On The River Kwai in the theater – including my uncle Peter, who was at that time only about five or six years old. And in that moment, as the train is nearing the bridge, suddenly Peter excitedly sang out in the silent theater – “it’s too late noooooooooooooow!” Fortunately, everyone in the audience cracked up.