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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!
You and 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!
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 World War Two POW film about the construction of the bridges over the River Kwai, although it's heavily fictionalised. It's based on a French novel The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle.
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. Saaito 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, 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.
This film is either a true tragedy or the blackest of Black Comedy.
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). 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 movie contains examples of:
- Artistic License Geography: The bridge that is blown up was filmed in Sri Lanka.
- Badass Crew: The demolition team.
- Billing Displacement: While Alec Guinness' Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa's Saito are clearly the film's most important characters, both are billed beneath William Holden (Shears) and Jack Hawkins (Warden).
- 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.
- Dead Person Impersonation: Shears. We never actually do learn what his real name is.
- Deadpan Snarker: Shears.
- Defictionalization: The Thai government renamed a stretch of the Mae Klong river the Khwae so that tourists could go see the bridge on it.
- 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.
- Downer Ending: Though it does a certain amount of irony to it.
- 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.
- Face Death with Dignity: Nicholson and the officers almost let the Japanese kill them rather than violate their ethics by working on the bridge.
- Finagle's Law
- Gambit Pileup: The bridge construction plan versus the demoltion plan.
- Holiday in Cambodia
- 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.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Warden after blowing up the bridge.
- Idiot Ball: The whole plan falls apart because Joyce doesn't blow the bridge the moment Nicholson and Saito spot the cable to the dynamite. Instead he just sits there until the two spot him.
- Imperial Japan
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: After starting out as a Complete Monster, by the end Saito has essentially been reduced to this.
- 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.
- Kavorka Man: Shears, it seems.
- Knight Templar: Saito and Warden are too concerned with doing their job to the point of hurting their comrades, though Saito at leat has the excuse that he would have to commit ritual suicide if he failed.
- Kill'Em All
- Know When to Fold'Em: Averted. Nicholson refuses to compromise his obedience to the letter of the Geneva Conventions (the Hague Convention and Nuremberg Principles also apply) 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: Col. Nicholson does not realize that he has become this.
- Made of Iron
- The Medic: Clipton.
- Mighty Whitey: Not so bad as other films of its kind, but the story does make a big deal out of the British being able to build a stronger bridge than the Japanese with their proud work ethic.
- 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.
- My God, What Have I Done?. The ending.
- 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: Nicolson and Saito come to realize that they are both similar with regards to being married to their work.
- Only Sane Man: Clipton, in the end.
- Parachute in a Tree: A fatal version.
- Patrick Stewart Speech
- Percussive Maintenance: Frustrated that the radio won't work, Shears kicks it ... and then it does.
- POW Camp: The Brits are at war with Japan, after all.
- The Punishment: More than one, notably the Punishment Box.
- Punishment Box: the camp has a metal punishment box that stands outside in the sun. Prisoners don't get any water.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: As has been noted, in Real Life conditions on the Burma railway were actually even worse than depicted in the film.
- Real Song Theme Tune
- Shoot the Dog
- Smug Snake: Colonel Saito.
- The Squad
- 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, the stick reappears. After the bridge is completed, he drops it in the river while talking to Colonel Saito.
- 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: For example, the bridge.
- Trailers Always Spoil: The DVD cover shows the bridge getting blown up.
- 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.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Warden and his squad.
- World War II
- Worthy Opponent: Saito and Nicholson come to see each other as this.
- Xanatos Roulette
- Yellow Peril