Film / The Bridge on the River Kwai

"One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity!"
Colonel Nicholson

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 World War II POW film about the construction of the bridges over the River Kwai, although it's heavily fictionalised. It's based on the French novel The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle, of Planet of the Apes fame.

A British battalion is captured in Thailand and sent to a Japanese prison camp run by Colonel Saito. Notable among the prisoners is the battalion's commander, Lt. Colonel Nicholson, and Major Clipton, a medical officer.

The prisoners of war are being forced to build the bridge over the River Kwai, which when finished is supposed to help Japanese expansion. Saito tries to demoralize the British troops, but fails because of Values Dissonance. Nicholson decides to keep everyone's morale up by making sure everyone does as good a job on the bridge as possible, making it the best bridge they can.

Meanwhile, the British government is planning a covert mission to blow that bridge up, since its existence will help the Japanese. They draft an American, Shears (William Holden), into their effort (he has two valid excuses which, together, the Brits had already used to get him transferred to them). Shears, along with Major Warden and Lieutenant Joyce, parachute into the jungle and find their way to the bridge. They secure dynamite, but things go wrong quickly.

It's best known for its theme tune, the pre-existing "Colonel Bogey March" (which is far better known to nearly every Brit - including those at the time - for a set of lyrics to the tune about the lack of genitalia of certain senior Nazis).note  But the film itself is a classic; it earned its Oscars, including best actor for Alec Guinness, best director for David Lean, and best picture.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Nationality: Shears is British in the book, doesn't escape from the prison camp, and isn't especially distinct from Warden or the other commandos. He was changed to American to accommodate William Holden's casting, and given a larger role to boot. A great example of Tropes Are Not Bad.
  • And Starring: And introducing Geoffrey Horne.
  • Anyone Can Die: Warden is the only main character who survives the incident.
  • Badass Crew: The demolition team.
  • Behind the Black:
    • When the native girls are frolicking at the waterfall, one of them backs into a Japanese soldier. Even if she was unaware of him, the other girls, facing her, should certainly have seen him.
    • When Shears is attacked by a kite, he is actually in eyeshot of the village but he doesn't seem to notice until the camera pans down to reveal his surroundings.
  • Big Bad: Saito is an unusually sympathetic one considering who and what he represents. By the end, it's Nicholson.
  • Binocular Shot: The team of saboteurs use field glasses to check out details at the bridge. Interestingly, the shot uses only one hole instead of the typical two-hole matte to emulate the binocular vision.
  • Bookends: A shot of a hawk soaring in the air opens and closes the film.
  • Break the Haughty: Colonel Nicholson, and it takes more than the Punishment Hut to do it.
  • Broken Tears: Colonel Saito, after giving in to Nicholson's demands that officers do not do hard labour.
  • California Doubling: The film is set in Thailand, but was filmed in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), a distinction the publicity of the time didn't see fit to make clear. Instead, it raved about the movie being shot in Ceylon in a way which implied the real-life River Kwai was located there.
  • Captain Morgan Pose: Colonel Nicholson casually rests his right leg on his chair during the project meeting with Saito, signaling the power switch between the two leaders.
  • The Casanova: Shears, it seems.
  • Circling Vultures: During his escape through the jungle, Shears notices a couple of vultures waiting for him to die.
  • Clothing Damage: Shears' clothes are almost undone when he reaches the friendly villagers after his escape.
  • Colonel Bogey March: The film made at least one post-war generation familiar with this.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: Nicholson takes a moment when the bridge is complete to reflect on his career as a military man.
  • Day Hurts Dark-Adjusted Eyes: Nicholson is visibly irritated by the sunlight, when the medic comes to visit him in his Punishment Box.
  • Dead Person Impersonation / Impersonating an Officer: Shears is actually an enlisted seaman who switched uniforms with a dead officer to get better treatment. It doesn't work, as Saito treats all prisoners the same. Then, the British Army checks into "Commander Shears" after finding him and bringing him to Ceylon, and use this to blackmail him into "volunteering" for the commando raid.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Shears. Warden also has a rather dry wit.
  • Determinator: The demolition team really wants to blow up the bridge, and Nicholson really wants the bridge to be a success. See Know When to Fold 'Em.
  • Disturbed Doves: When the Japanese discover the British commandos bathing, the first shot is followed by a cut to the bats woken up by the shot flying around above the canopy.
  • Downer Ending: Though it does have a certain amount of irony to it. Joyce and Shears are intentionally killed by friendly fire so they won't be captured, while Nicholson is fatally wounded by Warden's mortar fire seconds after his My God, What Have I Done? moment and falls onto the detonator, blowing up the bridge he worked so hard to build.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: In the build up to Col Saito giving the order to have Col Nicholson and his officers executed you can see a visibly-worried look on Lt Miura's face.
  • Fascist, but Inefficient: Saito and his soldiers are good at punishment, but are awful at structural engineering. Even if they could have pushed the POWs into completing the bridge, their original design was doomed from the start because it was sinking into soft soil. Nicholson and his fellow officers are able to build a much sturdier bridge, with knowledge as much with inspiring their soldiers.
  • A Father to His Men / An Officer and a Gentleman: Col. Nicholson. The character was based on French collaborateurs known to the author, while the actual colonel (Philip Toosey) was evidently above reproach. Even the Japanese second-in-command grew to respect him. The whole "father to his men" business is lessened when Nicholson drags sick men out of the hospital to work on the bridge, but it's also implied that some of them are Playing Sick.
  • Hollywood Darkness: The nightly scenes were clearly shot during day hours.
  • Hollywood History:
    • 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.
    • Also, there was really no way that the cast and walk-on soldiers could be expected to become as emaciated as the real Burma-Siam railworkers.
    • The whole notion that any Japanese POW commandant wouldn't just execute Nicholson and his officers if they didn't obey.
    • Japan was not a signatory of the Geneva Conventions until 1953, therefore there was no expectation by Allied prisoners of being treated in accordance with them. In fact, the Japanese treatment of prisoners led to the review and update of the conventions in 1949.
    • The actual bridge is a steel truss bridge on concrete pillars, and was destroyed by a bombing run, not a commando raid. The round trusses are original; the angular trusses were constructed by the Japanese as war reparations.
    • In fairness, Boulle himself had served as a POW in Southeast Asia and based Nicholson on several French officers he'd served with. This doesn't explain, of course, why he made the book's characters British in the first place.
  • Honor Before Reason: Nicholson and the officers almost let the Japanese kill them rather than violate their ethics by working on the bridge. Clipton intervenes and manages to spare them from committing a rather Senseless Sacrifice.
  • Hourglass Plot: Saito and Nicholson switch their power position during the film.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Warden after shooting his comrades.
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: By the end Saito has essentially been reduced to this.
  • Instant Death Bullet: The first prisoners who gets shot during his escape attempt, fall down and is dead on the spot.
  • I Will Only Slow You Down / You Are in Command Now: Said by Warden to Shears after he is wounded, but Shears is having none of it.
  • Knight Templar: Saito and Warden are too concerned with doing their job to the point of hurting their comrades, though Saito at least has the excuse that he would have to commit ritual suicide if he failed.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Averted. Nicholson refuses to compromise his obedience to the letter of the Geneva Conventions (the Hague Convention also applies) and this results in two negative outcomes. First, the rations are reduced for all the prisoners. Second, he insists on building a superior bridge because of his pride and the requirement that prisoners can be forced to work.
  • Last Name Basis: To the extent that none of the characters' first names are ever even mentioned.
  • Les Collaborateurs / The Quisling: Col. Nicholson does not realize that he has become this until the end of the film. Maj. Clipton, on the other hand, knows that Nicholson could be perceived as aiding the enemy, but cannot persuade Nicholson of this.
  • The Medic: Clipton.
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: All three members of The Squad exchange Longing Looks with the attractive women bearers from the village.
  • Multinational Team: The demolition team is composed of one British, one Canadian, and one American officer, plus some help from the locals. Meanwhile the bridge building team is made up of British and Japanese officers, commanding British and Australian soldiers (Shears specifically mentions the Aussies in his first conversation with Nicholson).
  • My God, What Have I Done?. The ending, word-for-word minus the "my God" part.
  • Native Guide: Yai, the friendly villager, becomes a scout for the commando team.
  • No Name Given: We never do learn what Shears' real name is.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Shears does not leave Warden behind when the latter gets injured, which Warden would not do if their roles were reversed.
  • Not So Different: Nicholson and Saito come to realize that they are both similar with regards to being obsessed with following the rules of their respective codes regardless of the consequences they might have for others. During their standoff with each other, both state that the other is responsible for the stalemate and any damage arising from it is the fault of the other. And both ultimately resort to completing the bridge at all costs: Saito out of a sense of duty, Nicholson out of a misplaced sense of pride.
  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: When the medic brings some meat to Nicholson in his Punishment Box, he explains that if the Colonel wouldn't give in to Saito, the prisoners from sick bay would be forced to work and probably die in the process. Nicholson stays stubborn but thanks those contributing for the food. The medic reveals that it came from patients from sick bay. Nicholson is visibly shaken by that thought.
  • Only Sane Man: Clipton, in the end. Shears himself, who is more interested in staying alive, and mocks Nicholson and others for looking to die in glory.
  • Parachute in a Tree: A fatal example.
  • Parenthetical Swearing: This movie manages to do this with just the word "You" spoken by itself as a complete sentence.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: Shears delivers one of these to Warden when he insists on being left behind.
    "This is just a game, this war. You and that Colonel Nicholson, you're two of a kind. Crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman. How to die by the rules when the only important thing is how to live like a human being. I'm not going to leave you here to die, Warden, because I don't care about your bridge and I don't care about your rules. If we go on, we go on together."
  • Percussive Maintenance: Frustrated that the radio won't work, Shears kicks it ... and then it does.
  • Personal Effects Reveal: The Japanese soldier that Warden kills with his knife is shown lying dead on the ground with a photo of a young woman beside him.
  • Pet the Dog: Saito has his moments.
    • One example being when Jennings, Weaver, and Shears (supposedly in Shears case) are killed by the guards while attempting to escape the camp. Saito tells Nicholson of his admiration of them, giving them credit for their courage and saying with pride that "for a few brief moments, they were soldiers again."
    • Similarly, Grogan and Baker (who spend most of the movie mocking Saito and the Japanese) seem sincerely sad at the implication of Lt. Miura committing suicide.
  • Plunger Detonator: The detonator used by the demo squad has a plunger, onto which Nicholson falls as he dies.
  • PoW Camp: The Brits are at war with Japan, after all.
  • Principles Zealot: Col. Nicholson is so proud of the prowess and buildmanship of the British soldiers that he misses the view on the collaborating with the enemy picture.
  • The Punishment: More than one, notably the Punishment Box.
  • Punch Clock Hero: Shears gets roped unwillingly by Warden into the mission to destroy the bridge. All he wants to do is stay alive. He doesn't.
  • Punishment Box: The camp has a metal punishment box, or rather "punishment hut" as it's referred to in the film, that stands outside in the sun.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The bridge is destroyed, but most everybody dies to make it happen and, in the end, simply nobody cares anymore. It's in fitting with the film's themes. While militarily a victory, the audience and the surviving characters are all quite aware of how little the bridge's destruction actually matters, to the point of being an unambiguous Downer Ending.
  • Rated M for Manly
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: As has been noted, in Real Life conditions on the Burma railway were actually even worse than depicted in the film. Which isn't that hard to believe since the audience is only told that conditions are bad through exposition without actually being shown anything too graphic.
  • Real Song Theme Tune: The "Colonel Bogey March".
  • Redemption Equals Death: Nicholson.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Chapman, who dies shortly after his introduction.
  • Seppuku: Saito nearly does this after losing face to Nicholson. He changes his mind—but he might just be waiting until after the completion of the bridge, and he seems to be preparing to commit seppuku the night before the bridge is destroyed.
  • Shoot the Dog: Nicholson insists on having his men build a better bridge than the Japanese would have built themselves as a way of preserving a sense of order and discipline among the troops, even though it amounts to collaborating with the enemy. In the film's climax, Warden kills Nicholson, a fellow Allied soldier, with mortar fire as he tries to save the mission to blow up the bridge... a mission which Nicholson then completes for him as he dies.
  • Smug Snake: Colonel Saito, at first; he proudly tells the prisoners that the camp has no fence to prevent escape because, if the soldiers don't kill them, the jungle will. When Nicholson wins their initial war of nerves, Saito becomes much more subdued, and it is Nicholson who takes up this role instead.
  • Sole Survivor: Warden is the only character to survive the film's climax, as Clipton watches it unfold helplessly from afar.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The Downer Ending is contrasted by a cheerful military march tune during the Flyaway Shot at the end.
  • Spot of Tea: Englishman Warden is quite fond of his tea time.
  • The Squad: The commando team planning to blow up the bridge, consisting of Major Warden (The Leader and Demolitions Expert), "Major" Shears (The Smart Guy and The Heart), and Lieutenant Joyce (New Meat).
  • Staff of Authority: Colonel Nicholson is shown carrying a swagger stick in the early scene in the movie when he informs the Japanese commandant that according to the Geneva Conventions, officers cannot be required to perform manual labor. Colonel Saito snaps the stick in half in a fury, while informing him that he is not in command. After the scene where Colonel Saito gives the Colonel permission to assume command of the prisoners and get the bridge built his way, he replaces the original with a regualar tree branch of about the same length. After the bridge is completed, he drops it in the river while talking to Colonel Saito. Saito also carries a staff in a few scenes; another notable similarity he has with Nicholson.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: A major theme of the film. Lampshaded by Saito, who goes on a rant about how much he hates the British for their stubborn resolve.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: The bridge.
  • The Hero Dies: Shears.
  • Those Two Guys: Grogan and Baker, the two snarky enlisted men.
  • Throwing the Distraction: Warden throws a hand grenade past the Japanese soldiers to disorientate them before opening fire. Apparently it worked.
  • Title Confusion: The film is based on the book Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai, translated into English as The Bridge Over The River Kwai. Many people refer to the film by the English title of the book.
  • Tokyo Rose: After the demolition team performs Percussive Maintenance on the radio and get it working, this kind of personality is heard on it, broadcasting from Radio Tokyo, urging the soldiers to give up the war and go home. The team promptly turns the radio off.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The DVD cover shows the bridge getting blown up.
  • Trash the Set: The directors spent months and hundreds of man-hours engineering and building the eponymous bridge. Needless to say, the final scene required perfect acting and camera work.note 
  • The Trickster: Initially the British provoke all sorts of accidents to hinder the progress of the construction.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: British POWs were forced to build a bridge over the River Kwai, but that's just about the only thing in the film that wasn't made-up. The real bridge was in service for two years, until it was wrecked by an Allied bomber shortly before the end of the war.
  • Villain's Dying Grace: Collaborator Nicholson gets to redeem himself by detonating the bridge.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Warden and his squad.
  • What a Senseless Waste of Human Life: Major Clipton looking out over the dead soldiers from both sides in the end.
  • Where's the Kaboom?: Subverted in the ending; the detonator works just fine, the problem is that Colonel Nicholson betrays the Allied troops trying to blow up the bridge, causing them to be killed before they can activate it. After he finally realizes his treason he sets it off as he dies... although it's deliberately ambiguous as to whether Nicholson is trying to reach the detonator or just falls on it accidentally. Played perfectly straight in the novel, however.
  • Worthy Opponent: Saito and Nicholson come to see each other as this.
  • You! Exclamation: As the climactic firefight breaks out between Warden's commandos and the Japanese soldiers guarding the bridge, Shears swims to the bank to confront Nicholson over revealing the explosive charges to the Japanese. However, he is mortally wounded before he gets there, and the exchange consists of just two words:
    Nicholson: [stunned] You!?
    Shears: [venomously] YOU. [falls dead]

Alternative Title(s): The Bridge On The River Kwai