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The 2nd Annual William Holden Blogathon: «The Bridge on the River Kwai» (1957)

Directed by David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) begins as a group of British World War II prisoners, including Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and Major Clipton (James Donald), arrive at a Japanese POW camp in Burma. The commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), informs them that all prisoners, regardless of rank, are to work on the construction of a railway bridge over the River Kwai, which will be a vital link for the Japanese in the war. Citing the Geneva Conventions, Nicholson defies Saito and orders his officers to remain behind while the enlisted men go to work. As punishment, Saito leaves the officers standing all day in the intense tropical heat and locks Nicholson in an iron box.
Meanwhile, three prisoners — among them United States Navy Commander Shears (William Holden) — attempt to escape. Two are shot dead, but Shears manages to get away, although badly wounded. He stumbles into a village of natives, who help him leave by boat. Back at the camp, the prisoners are working as little as possible and sabotaging whatever they can. Shocked by the poor job being done by his his men, Nicholson orders his officers to build a proper bridge, reasoning that it will raise the morale of the POWs.
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. (Commander Shears)
In the meantime, Shears is enjoying his stay in Ceylon when British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) orders him to join a commando mission to destroy the bridge before it is completed. Shears and Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) plant explosives on the bridge towers below the water line, but Nicholson spots the wire connecting them to the detonator and brings it to Saito's attention. Stunned that their own man is about to uncover the plot, Joyce breaks cover and stabs Saito to death. In the ensuing fight, Joyce, Shears and Nicholson are mortally wounded, the latter by a mortar fired by Warden. Nicholson then stumbles towards the bomb detonator and collapses on the plunger, blowing up the bridge.
Born in Avignon in 1912, Pierre Boulle enlisted with the French Army in Indochina at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. After German troops occupied France in 1940, he joined Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces in Singapore, where he received training as a spy and saboteur, learning the art of derailing trains and blowing up bridges from a British commando team named Force 136.
British troops surrender to the Japanese after the fall of Singapore
When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942, Boulle was ordered to return to Indochina, which was by then ruled by pro-Nazi Vichy France. He was assigned to establish contact with the French Resistance fighters there, but ended up being captured by Vichy partisans, after which he spent two years at a prisoner-of-war camp. He finally escaped in 1944 and, at the end of the war, was repatriated to France. In 1948, he moved to Paris and became a novelist. Years later, he reflected that his decision to pursue a writing career «still strikes me today as the worthy conclusion» of his wartime experiences. 

In 1952, Boulle published his third novel, Le Pont de la Rivière Kwaï, which was partly inspired by his own adventure as a POW, transposed to a Japanese prison camp. It also drew on the infamous Death Railway, the 300-mile long railway built between Thailand and Burma by the Empire of the Japan in 1943. Forced labor was used in the construction of the line, resulting in the loss of some 14,000 Allied prisoners. According to the author, the character of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson was modeled in part on the Vichy French officer who, after Boulle's capture, presided over this trial and sentenced him to hard labor. Published in Britain in 1954 with the title The Bridge on the River Kwai, the novel became a massive international best-seller, winning the French Prix-Sainte-Beuve.
Prisoners of war carrying railway sleepers in Burma

The Bridge on the River Kwai came to the attention of American screenwriter Carl Foreman, who had received an Academy Award nomination for penning the hugely successful High Noon (1952). At the time, Foreman was living in exile in England, having been blacklisted in Hollywood as a result of an investigation into Communist influences within the film industry. He was employed as a writer by London Films, the production company founded by Alexander Korda, who saw enough potential in the material to purchase the rights to The Bridge on the River Kwai.

After reading Foreman's script, however, Korda decided that the story of a British officer who collaborates with the Japanese would not succeed and sold the rights to Horizon Pictures, the company formed by Austrian-born American producer Sam Spiegel to make The African Queen (1951), with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Spiegel made a deal with Columbia Pictures to finance and distribute The Bridge on the River Kwai and set out to find a director.
David Lean and William Holden on the set of The Bridge on the River Kwai
Failing to interest such major figures as Howard Hawks, William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann and John Ford, Spiegel turned to English director David Lean, who had received Oscar nominations for Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946) and Summertime (1955). In trouble with British tax authorities and in the process of divorcing his second wife, Lean liked the story and the idea of shooting the film in a foreign land, but he loathed Foreman's script.
When Lean met Spiegel in New York, he assured the producer that he would «rescue Col. Nicholson from being depicted either as a lunatic or a traitor [...] and give his character a sympathetic and heroic dimension.» Spiegel then asked Foreman to write a second draft of the script, but Lean was still not satisfied with it. Ultimately, he decided to revise the screenplay himself, calling in the help of backlisted writer Michael Wilson, who had won an Oscar for penning the acclaimed drama A Place in the Sun (1951). In the end, however, Spiegel credited the film to neither Lean nor Wilson, but to Boulle, who did not speak a single word of English.

Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson
Several actors were approached to play the role of Colonel Nicholson, who oversees the construction of the bridge. Academy Award winner Charles Laughton was first proposed, but was ultimately deemed «too fat» to be credible as a half-starved prisoner of war. Noël Coward, Ralph Richardson, Anthony Quayle, Ray Milland, James Mason, Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were all suggested, but they were either unavailable, considered unsuitable for the part or simply turned down the offer. Spiegel then gave the role to Alec Guinness, but he initially declined.

Although Lean had previously directed Guinness in Great Expectations and Oliver Twist (1948), he was unenthusiastic about the Oscar-nominated actor. «I don't think he will give us the 'size' we need,» Lean said. «He could do it, of course, but in a different way from what we have visualized.» However, Spiegel persisted and over dinner persuaded Guinness to change his mind. The actor recalled, «I started out maintaining that I wouldn't play the role and by end of the evening we were discussing what kind of wig I would wear
William Holden as Commander Shearers

To enhance the film's potential in the United States market, a role was created for an American character, a naval prisoner-of-war named Shears, who escapes the camp only to be sent back on a mission to blow up the Kwai bridge. Spiegel originally offered the part to Cary Grant, but he did not give his answer right away. However, by the time Grant was ready to accept, William Holden, Lean's choice, had already been signed. Apparently, Grant was so heartbroken that he begged Holden to withdraw from the project.
Beginning his career playing the lead role in Golden Boy (1939), Holden rose to the top ranks of Hollywood stardom with acclaimed performances in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Stalag 17 (1953), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Because of his box-office popularity, Holden was hired for $300,000 plus ten percent of the profits, making him one of the most expensive actors at the time. Holden immediately accepted the role of Shears. «I'm like the chorus girl who was offered an apartment, a diamond necklace, and a mink coat,» he said.

David Lean, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayawaka on location in Ceylon
Spiegel coaxed the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa out of retirement to portray Colonel Saito, the commandant of the prison camp. As part of Famous Players-Lasky, Hayakawa had been a Hollywood star in the early silent era, appearing most notably in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915). In 1918, he became one of the first actors to form a production company, Haworth Pictures Corporation, which brought him even more fame and recognition. With the rise of «talkies,» however, his career slowed considerably and he made mostly European and Japanese films.

To play British medical officer Major Clipton, Lean brought in James Donald, whom he had directed in the patriotic war film In Which We Serve (1942). In turn, Spiegel hired newcomer Geoffrey Horne to play the young Lieutenant Joyce. Rounding out the cast was Jack Hawkins, who had become one of the most popular male stars in his native England as a result of his performance in another World War II picture, The Cruel Sea (1953).

Alec Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins
The Bridge on the River Kwai was shot on location in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) between November 1956 and May 1957. By all accounts, filming was an unpleasant experience for everyone involved. The heat, the humidity, the poisonous snakes and the logistical demands of building such a complex set in the middle of the jungle were made worse by ill-temper and bad luck. First, a car crash killed one of the assistant directors, broke the back of the make-up artist and seriously injured another assistant. Then half of a two-man crew working on the generator fell sick and the second man did the job alone, resulting in a union strike which had to be settled in London.
There were also major disagreements between Lean and Guinness over how the actor should play Nicholson. In fact, throughout filming, the relationship between the two degenerated to a point where they were not on speaking terms. The day before Holden's arrival on the set, Guinness had a bitter dispute with Lean about how a certain scene should be shot. After filming it, Lean said, «Now you can all fuck off and go home, you English actors. Thank God I'm starting work tomorrow with an American actor. It'll be such a pleasure to say good-bye to you guys.» On the other hand, Holden and Lean got on well from the start. The director later said that Holden was, «highly professional. Worked like hell, never late, knew his lines. [...] He had a huge talent and because it was apparently effortless, Bill never got the credit he deserved
David Lean, Alec Guinness and William Holden during filming
The film's climatic scene — the destruction of the Kwai bridge just as a train full of Japanese troops crosses it for the first time — was filmed on March 11, 1957. Standing 425 feet (129 meters) long and 90 feet (27 meters) high, the wooden bridge was designed by art director Donald Ashton, with the help of engineer Keith Nelson, and built at a cost of $52,085, a small part of the film's $2.8 million budget. As Ashton explained, «It was cheap because we used local labor and elephants; and the timber was cut nearby
The 65-year-old train, which Spiegel obtained from the Ceylonese government, had once belonged to an Indian maharaja. In order to capture the one-time event from different angles, five CinemaScope cameras were planted in dugouts at strategic points around the bridge. When Lean gave the order to detonate the explosives, big chunks of wood, travelling at 100 miles (160 kilometers) an hour, came hurtling through the air and the train plummeted into the ravine.
Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayawaka and the bridge on the Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai premiered in London on October 2, 1957 and in New York City on December 18. It was widely praised on both sides of the Atlantic and became the biggest moneymaker of 1958 in the United States, grossing $18,000,000 at the box-office.
At the 30th Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, in March 1958, the film was nominated in eight categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Guinness), Best Supporting Actor (Hayawaka), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography. It won every single award, except for Best Supporting Actor, which was given to Red Buttons for Sayonara (1957). Apparently, Guinness later admitted to feeling guilty by his win since he thought Holden was the real star of the film. Holden congratulated him, exclaiming, «You keep the Oscar, I will keep my ten percent!»

This post is my contribution to The 2nd Annual William Holden Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. To view all entries, click HERE.


Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography by Piers Paul Read (Simon & Schuster, 2003)
Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean by Gene D. Phillips (The University Press of Kentucky, 2006)
William Holden: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (McFarland & Company Inc., 2010)


  1. Great and well-researched article Cátia! I really enjoyed what I read. It was interesting and I learned a lot of stuff I didn't know about the film. Somehow I have some difficulties picturing Cary Grant in Bil's role O_o.
    Thanks so much for your participation to the blogathon!


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