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The Bridge on the River Kwai

Epic War Movie Shot in Ceylon

The Bridge on the River Kwai, British-American war film, released in 1957 and directed by David Lean, that was both a critical and popular success and became an enduring classic. The movie garnered seven Academy Awards, including that for best picture, as well as three Golden Globe Awards and four BAFTA awards.

The actual bridge on the River Kwai is located in Thailand, and stretches over a part of the Mae Klong river, which was renamed Khwae Yai (Thai for big tributary). The railway route, which ran through Burma and Thailand, had been planned by the British. The region was seized by the Japanese in 1942, and they then set about making preparations to build the railway.

The film was based on a French novel by Pierre Boulle. The movie, which depicts British prisoners of war forced by the Japanese to build a bridge on the Thailand-Burma railway, was filmed in Ceylon.

According to the story some prisoners escape from the camp and later come quietly to destroy the bridge by setting dynamite, while the train was passing over it. They manage to destroy both, the bridge and the train when it was passing over the bridge. Which is a thrilling story.

Directed by David Lean. It was initially scripted by screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was later replaced by Michael Wilson. Both writers had to work in secret, as they were on the Hollywood blacklist and had fled to the UK in order to continue working. As a result, Boulle, who did not speak English, was credited and received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; many years later, Foreman and Wilson posthumously received the Academy Award.

The film was an international co-production between companies in Britain and the United States. The film was entirely made in Ceylon with the help of the local people. The shooting happened between 1956 and 1957. The bridge in the film was near Kitulgala. The producer selected Sri Lanka’s Kitulgala, as Kitulgala had scenery similar to that of Siam in the story of the film. A beautiful bridge was constructed over Kitulgala Oya as part of the film.

David Lean bought an old railway engine (Class K1 No. 104) and some old discarded carriages from the railway department (Kelani Valley narrow gauge) junkyards for the train and made them run by motor. The original Kelani Valley train with its narrow gauge or baby train was an attraction in the valley. Originally, it ran from Colombo to Opanayaka.

The filming of the bridge explosion was to be done on 10 March 1957, in the presence of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister of Ceylon, and a team of government dignitaries. However, cameraman Freddy Ford was unable to get out of the way of the explosion in time, and Lean had to stop filming. The train crashed into a generator on the other side of the bridge and was wrecked. It was repaired and blown up a few days later.

Below is an interesting educational short film by William Holden for University of Southern California students in the 1950’s, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Filming Locations

  • Ambepussa
  • Kelani River
  • Colombo
  • Government Rest House, Kitulgala
  • Mount Lavinia Hotel
  • Peradeniya Botanical Gardens
  • Kandy
  • Kithulgala
  • Mount Lavinia
  • Mahara
  • Kalugamuwa
  • Gelioya

The producers nearly suffered a catastrophe following the filming of the bridge explosion. To ensure they captured the one-time event, multiple cameras from several angles were used. Ordinarily, the film would have been taken by boat to London, but due to the Suez crisis this was impossible; therefore the film was taken by air freight. When the shipment failed to arrive in London, a worldwide search was undertaken. To the producers’ horror, the film containers were found a week later on an airport tarmac in Cairo, sitting in the hot sun. Although it was not exposed to sunlight, the heat-sensitive colour film stock should have been hopelessly ruined; however, when processed the shots were perfect and appeared in the film.

The Storyline

The action of the movie takes place in a Japanese prisoner-of-war (POW) camp in Burma during World War II. As it opens, two POWs, the American navy commander Shears (William Holden) and an Australian, are digging graves for their companions. A regiment of British prisoners arrives, whistling the “Colonel Bogey March,” under the command of Colonel Nicholson (Sir Alec Guinness). The camp commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), informs the prisoners that they will all begin working on the building of a railway bridge the following day. Nicholson advises Saito that the officers cannot be required to do manual labour according to the Geneva Convention. When, the next morning, Saito orders all the British prisoners to begin building the bridge under the command of a Japanese engineer, Nicholson and the other officers refuse, even when Saito threatens to kill them. They remain standing at attention throughout the day. At the end of the day, the officers are imprisoned, and Nicholson is thrown into “the oven”—a small box made of corrugated metal. In the meantime, Shears manages to escape. After a few days, the British medical officer Major Clipton (James Donald) tries to persuade both Saito and Nicholson to compromise, but both are unyielding. The bridge construction is going badly, however, and Saito offers concessions to Nicholson in an effort to get the structure completed on schedule. Nicholson will not cooperate and finally insists that the bridge can be built only under his command.

Nicholson undertakes the construction of a well-made bridge, at first thinking it a good way to improve the morale and discipline of his regiment but gradually coming to regard the structure not as a part of the enemy war effort but as a monument to British ingenuity. Concurrently, Shears, after a harrowing journey in which he nearly loses his life more than once, is rescued by the British and then required to lead a group of commandoes headed by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) back to the POW camp that he escaped from in order to blow up the bridge. At the POW camp, Nicholson not only requires officers to work on the bridge but also pulls men from the hospital in order to meet Saito’s deadline for the project. The commandoes arrive for their mission as the finishing touches are being put on the bridge. While the British prisoners celebrate their accomplishment that night, the commandoes wire the bridge with explosives to be detonated by a plunger operated by a hidden soldier, timed to collapse the bridge just as an inaugural train carrying Japanese dignitaries is crossing it. When the sun rises, the commandoes realize that the water level in the river has fallen, exposing the explosives and wiring. After Saito cuts a ceremonial ribbon, Nicholson spots a detonator wire. As the train approaches, Nicholson frantically pulls up the wire, following it to find the detonator. When he asks for Saito’s help in cutting the wires, the hidden commando, Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne), leaps up and kills Saito. Nicholson desperately tries to keep Joyce from depressing the plunger, while Shears and Warden try to kill Nicholson. First Joyce and then Shears are killed in the ensuing gunfire. Nicholson suddenly realizes that his pride in the bridge’s construction has blinded him to his military duty. Mortally wounded, he falls onto the plunger, the bridge is blown up, and the train with the dignitaries falls into the river.

Cast

  • William Holden as Lieutenant Commander/Major Shears
  • Alec Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson
  • Jack Hawkins as Major Warden
  • Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito
  • James Donald as Major Clipton
  • Geoffrey Horne as Lieutenant Joyce
  • André Morell as Colonel Green
  • Peter Williams as Captain Reeves
  • John Boxer as Major Hughes
  • Percy Herbert as Private Grogan
  • Harold Goodwin as Private Baker
  • Ann Sears as Nurse
  • Henry Okawa as Captain Kanematsu
  • K. Katsumoto as Lieutenant Miura
  • M.R.B. Chakrabandhu as Yai

On 2 November 2010 Columbia Pictures released a newly restored The Bridge on the River Kwai for the first time on Blu-ray. According to Columbia Pictures, they followed an all-new 4K digital restoration from the original negative with newly restored 5.1 audio. Below is the ending scene extracted from the restored UHD movie.

In fact the bridge is no longer there as it was blown up after the film was finished, causing great distress to the unsuspecting villagers who’d helped construct it. The river has now become a tourist attraction for its white-water rapids.

Samuel Perera is the last remaining villager to have a connection with the film. He has played a jungle boy extra role. According to the locals, the remains of the train that blew up in the final scene can still be found in the Maskeliya river.

The interesting news is that during the last few years the Tourist Board of Sri Lanka has been considering the idea of building a replica of the bridge to epitomize the shooting location. With a little luck, visitors may soon get to walk the Bridge on the River Kwai as it was filmed. Until such time the location can still be visited, to create some wonderful memories and feel the emotions of the film more acutely.

Credit – Wikipedia, IMDB, 94 • LIFESTYLE, Britannica, BBC News, GW Johansson, FF Movie Clips, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Lakpura, Werner Herzogs, Nine World Adventures, Movie Locations, Kelani Valley Railway

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Written by Dinuka Lankaloka

A User Experience Designer. Elevating brand experiences through user-centric design.

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