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Trivia / The Bridge on the River Kwai

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  • Acting in the Dark: Sessue Hayakawa edited his copy of the script to contain only his lines of dialogue. This way, he remained oblivious to the real nature of Saito's fate.
  • Actor-Inspired Element: It was Percy Herbert who suggested the idea of using Kenneth Alford's "Colonel Bogey March" to David Lean.
  • AFI's 100 Years... Series:
  • Approval of God: Pierre Boulle was very happy with the film; he only objected to the changed ending.
  • BFI Top 100 British Films: #11.
  • Backed by the Pentagon: The paratroopers in the movie were members of the Royal Air Force stationed in Sri Lanka.
  • Billing Displacement: While Alec Guinness' Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa's Saito are clearly the film's most important characters, Guinness is billed second beneath William Holden and Hayakawa is billed fourth beneath Holden, Guinness, and Jack Hawkins.
  • 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.
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  • Cast the Expert: Percy Herbert, who played the role of a prisoner of war in the film, actually spent four years as a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore.
  • Creative Differences: David Lean had plenty of these.
    • He and producer Sam Spiegel had different ideas as to what the story should focus on. Lean was more interested in the POW aspect, while Spiegel was more interested in the commando raid. The film is a compromise of both approaches.
    • Lean had a lengthy row with Alec Guinness over how to play Col. Nicholson - Guinness wanted to play the part with a sense of humour and sympathy, while Lean thought Nicholson should be "a bore."
  • Defictionalization: The Thai government renamed a stretch of the Mae Klong river the Khwae so that tourists could go see the bridge on it.
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  • Enforced Method Acting: 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.
  • Executive Meddling: While the commando plot was present in Pierre Boulle's novel, it was a minor subplot compared to the prison camp story. Hoping to boost box office appeal, producer Sam Spiegel (over David Lean's objections) beefed up this storyline. Shears, a British officer in the book, becomes an escaped American POW shanghaied into helping destroy the titular bridge. Spiegel also demanded Lean add not one but two token love interests: a British nurse Shears meets at a Ceylon hospital, and Siamese women who join the commando team. Spiegel's meddling certainly didn't ruin the film, though most critics consider the commando story weaker than the main plot. This was at least an improvement over Carl Foreman's early drafts, which featured more elaborate and outlandish action scenes like a submarine battle and elephant stampedes!
  • Fake Nationality: The Canadian Lieutenant Joyce was played by the American Geoffrey Thorne.
  • Hostility on the Set: David Lean clashed with his cast members on multiple occasions, particularly Alec Guinness and James Donald, who thought the novel was anti-British. Lean had a lengthy row with Guinness over how to play the role of Nicholson; Guinness wanted to play the part with a sense of humour and sympathy, while Lean thought Nicholson should be "a bore." On another occasion, Lean and Guinness argued over the scene where Nicholson reflects on his career in the army. Lean filmed the scene from behind Guinness, and exploded in anger when Guinness asked him why he was doing this. After Guinness was done with the scene, Lean said "Now you can all fuck off and go home, you English actors. Thank God that I'm starting work tomorrow with an American actor (William Holden)."
  • Method Acting: When Nicholson is released from the Punishment Box and walks back to Saito's place, Alec Guinness imitated the way his son Matthew walked when he was recovering from polio.
  • Money, Dear Boy: Around the time that he was offered this film, David Lean had little money—he was in the midst of a financially ruinous divorce—and was very much in need of a new project. He was contracted for $150,000 to be paid in installments. As soon as he signed, Lean borrowed $2000 from Columbia Pictures to get his teeth fixed.
  • Name's the Same: Stuntman Frankie Howard is NOT the British comedian of the same name. Despite the latter having just made The Ladykillers (1955) with Sir Alec.
  • One-Take Wonder: The crew had only one chance to destroy the titular bridge due to how long it took to build it and how expensive the set was (it featured an actual train getting destroyed as it crossed a collapsing bridge). If they messed it up, the film was ruined. But they got it right.
  • Playing Against Type: Sessue Hayakawa had been a popular romantic lead in his younger days, having been one of Hollywood's first sex symbols during the silent-movie era of the 1920s. Ironic that his best-remembered role is completely different.
  • The Red Stapler: Hundreds of tourists visited Thailand to find the river in the film, but no such river existed. So the Thai government renamed a stretch of the Mae Klong river into the river Khwae. The film's river is in Sri Lanka.
  • Troubled Production: Fittingly for a film that climaxes with a train wreck on a collapsing bridge, the production was a train wreck almost from the start.
    • The script was initially adapted by Carl Foreman from the book by French author Pierre Boulle. After David Lean was chosen to direct, producer Sam Spiegel brought Lean and Foreman together to work on the script, and was delighted to see the men take an almost instant dislike to each other, feeling that many great films were born from such animosity. Unfortunately, they hated each other so much that Foreman eventually resigned and was replaced by Michael Wilson. Since both Foreman and Wilson were on the Hollywood blacklist, the screenwriting credit (and Oscar) went to Boulle, who did not even speak English.note  When Columbia executives read the script, they objected to the lack of any romantic subplots, and Lean was forced to shoehorn in an affair between Commander Shears and a British nurse at the military hospital.
    • Lean and Spiegel differed widely over Kwai's focus. Lean was more interested in the prison camp rivalry between Nicholson and Saito; Spiegel felt the novel's action-adventure elements (namely the commando storyline, a subplot in the book) deserved more focus. Early scripts featured elaborate action scenes like an elephant stampede, an army ant attack, and even a submarine battle, which Lean adamantly vetoed. The finished film is a compromise, making the commando story more prominent without diminishing Nicholson and Saito's plot. Concerned about American box office, Spiegel changed Shears (a British character in the book) into an American POW who escapes from the camp, then is dragooned into helping destroy the bridge.
    • The role of Colonel Nicholson was offered to several actors, including Spencer Tracy (who declined as he felt the role had to be played by an English actor), Charles Laughton (who balked at the prospect of a location shoot in the tropical heat), and Laurence Olivier (who chose instead to direct The Prince and the Showgirl), before Alec Guinness was cast after a "summit meeting" with Spiegel and Lean. Guinness, at the time known more as a comic actor, was dismayed by the dull characterisation of Nicholson in the script and wanted to play the role as more light-hearted and sympathetic, while Lean insisted that he play Nicholson as written; the two men fought constantly over how the character should be portrayed. In the scene in which Nicholson reflects on his military career, Guinness felt that his face should be shot in closeup, and when he asked Lean why he decided instead to film Nicholson from behind, Lean exploded in anger.note 
    • Location scouts found that the actual River Kwai was a mere trickle, so, at Jack Hawkins' suggestion, production was set up near Kitulgala in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The remote location required special construction of a bungalow complex to house the cast and crew. Though Lean was right at home in the tropical climate, most of the other personnel suffered in the intense heat and humidity. They were frequently forced to call in sick, and had to share the area with snakes, leeches,note  and other wildlife. The slow pace of filming resulting from Lean's rampant perfectionism did not help. Furthermore, Spiegel did not allocate money for extras, so the British soldiers were mostly played by crew members and Ceylon natives wearing Caucasian makeup.
    • Although the river posing as the Kwai in the film may have made for a more photogenic location, the strong currents nearly claimed several lives. During shooting of a scene in which a Japanese soldier falls from the bridge, stuntman Frankie Howard was swept away by the strong current, as was prop technician Tommy Early when he dove in after Howard. Though both men were rescued, Howard contracted a stomach illness during the shoot and had to be flown to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London; sadly, he did not recover. Lean himself was also nearly swept away by a current when he went for a swim in the river during a break in filming; he had to be rescued by actor Geoffrey Horne (who played Lieutenant Joyce).
    • The spectacle of the construction and destruction of the bridge itself provided some of the film's most memorable images, as well as some of the production's most troublesome moments. In the film, the bridge is built in two months; the actual construction took eight months and required 500 men and 35 elephants. The elephants would take breaks every four hours to lie in the water, whatever the wishes of the construction crew. When the cameras were set up to film the bridge's destruction - with an audience including the Prime Minister of Ceylon - a cameraman was unable to get out of the way of the intended path of the explosion in time, and Lean halted filming. The train crossed the bridge safely, but crashed into a generator on the far side. The cameras were set up again the following day for the take that went into the finished film...
    • ... but it very nearly didn't make it into the film at all. Filming took place during the Suez Crisis in 1956, so equipment that would normally have been transported by sea instead had to be transported by air.note  The film of the bridge's destruction failed to arrive in London as scheduled, and a worldwide search was undertaken. To the crew's horror, the cans of film were eventually found in Cairo, where they had been sitting on the airport tarmac in the hot sun for a week. The prints should have been ruined, leaving the film without its climactic scene, but somehow they had survived undamaged.
    • Finally, Spiegel was determined to release the film before the end of 1957 to make it eligible for the year's Academy Awards. However, because of the chaotic production, by early December 1957, the film still had no music score - no-one had even been hired to compose it. The composer ultimately hired by Spiegel, Malcolm Arnold, had to write and record the score in just ten days.note 
  • What Could Have Been:
    • Laurence Olivier was offered the part of Col. Nicholson but turned it down in order to direct The Prince and the Showgirl instead. In retrospect, Olivier said that it was a sensible decision to go off and do love scenes with Marilyn Monroe rather than tough it out in the jungles of Ceylon with David Lean. Sam Spiegel tried to persuade Spencer Tracy to play the part of Col. Nicholson. Tracy had read the book and told Spiegel emphatically that the part must be played by an Englishman. Charles Laughton was announced as the star, but decided he couldn't handle the heat of Ceylon and withdrew. Among the actors considered as replacements were Ronald Colman, Noël Coward, James Mason, Ray Milland and Ralph Richardson.
    • Howard Hawks was asked to direct, but declined. After the box-office failure of Land Of The Pharaohs, he didn't want a second one in a row, and he thought the critics would love this movie but the public would stay away. One particular concern was the all-male lead roles. Other potential directors were John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles and William Wyler.
    • Cary Grant was considered for either Nicholson, Shears or Warden, but was ruled out when he had flopped in a serious role previously.
    • The role of Shears was originally written with Humphrey Bogart in mind. Rock Hudson turned it down in order to star in a poorly received adaptation of A Farewell to Arms.
    • Montgomery Clift was considered for Shears or Joyce. Lean and Spiegel offered him a role at a dinner, which went badly due to Clift's poor condition on account of drug use.
    • The role of Major Warden was originally meant for John Gielgud. He turned it down, saying that the part was anybody's.
  • Write What You Know: Original novelist Pierre Boulle actually had been a prisoner of war in Thailand. His creation of Colonel Nicholson was an amalgam of his memories of various French officers who collaborated with their captors.


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