Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

“Time is short; all men work!”

When a staunch British colonel (Alec Guinness) and his men are brought to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp run by no-nonsense Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), Guinness refuses to give into Saito’s demands that the men help build a bridge across the Kwai River, and is sent into solitary confinement before finally reaching a compromise and realizing that building the bridge will help his men’s morale. Meanwhile, an American soldier (William Holden) manages to escape, but ends up back near the camp supporting Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) and a young lieutenant (Geoffrey Horne) in an attempt to blow up the newly built bridge.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alec Guinness Films
  • David Lean Films
  • Jack Hawkins Films
  • Military
  • Prisoners of War
  • Ruthless Leaders
  • William Holden Films
  • World War Two

Response to Peary s Review:
Peary writes that this “epic war drama” by David Lean — which won no less than seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress in 1997 — is visually “still impressive” and “the lead actors… remain formidable” — but he argues that “the film’s weak structure and pointless ending” — which is “wild, confusing, [and] too heroic” — “betray its fascinating premise.” He specifically posits that it’s unfortunate we “leave behind the Guinness-Hayakawa relationship just when it gets interesting”:

… “and viewers are deprived of an awkward situation in which they’d have to decide whether to cheer or root against the British soldiers who are trying to build the bridge.”

I disagree with Peary’s complaints about this absorbing epic: the structure of the story — while lengthy — helps to weave together the original narrative from the camp:

… and the critical drama involving Holden’s back-story and redeployment into action.

Meanwhile, the ending is far from pointless; rather, it potently highlights the utter absurdity and waste of war — which none of us at this juncture in global history need any convincing of.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson
  • William Holden as Shears (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Jack Hawkins as Major Clipton
  • Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito
  • Jack Hildyard’s cinematography
  • Fine location shooting

Must See?
Yes, as an Oscar-winning classic.


  • Genuine Classic
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


2 thoughts on “Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

  1. (Rewatch 12/5/20). A once-must, for its place in cinema history.

    ~ but my enthusiasm is not strong.

    For a film so highly regarded, there is a marked absence of suspense, surprise, and even drama. The film hinges on one thing and, early on, it’s rather obvious what the conclusion will be; there are no sub-plots.

    The first half of the film has its focus on whether or not British officers will be involved in the building of the bridge – and the second half sees a plan for the bridge’s destruction. That’s it. Much of the film is static and talky.

    The performances are respectable though no one really has much of a chance at being a standout. Lean urged Guinness to play his role completely straight (which Guinness fought against but then accepted – and eventually approved in retrospect), and it won him an Oscar. It’s not among his best performances but it’s effective.

    The film itself was a massive commercial success and won an Oscar for Best Pic and for Lean as Best Director, among others and among many other awards in other races. That’s an achievement that does baffle me somewhat. I’m not saying it’s a bad film; it’s certainly watchable throughout – but I do think it’s overrated.

    That said… the film’s last 10-15 minutes are simply remarkable and they more than make-up for the long haul.

    Along related lines, I probably prefer Oshima’s ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ – which, even without the overriding ambition of a bridge, is a much more powerful film. I’d even put Forbes’ ‘King Rat’ above ‘Bridge’.

  2. To me it’s not at all obvious what the ending would be — in fact, I had to stop watching 10 minutes before the film was over (to head out on an errand) and was genuinely curious to get back to see what would happen (and I had even seen it before, a couple of times – just forgotten the specifics).

    But with that said, I can see this might be a once-must, or at least with big gaps in between viewings.

    The main thing turning me away from it as a personal favorite is existential depression about how things DO end. What a tragic waste war is, on so many counts.

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