Film: The Bridge on the River Kwai

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the best films ever made, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, which previewed in Hollywood on October 31, 1957, and opened two days later in London. The film, a tremendous success with both audiences and critics, won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Lean, and Best Actor for Alec Guinness. The film established Guinness as one of the world’s foremost actors, and it elevated Lean to an elite class of international directors. Shot in CinemaScope, this epic war film was successful on many levels, but it’s particularly notable for Guinness’s astounding performance and for the decades-long scriptwriting controversy it generated.

Pierre Boulle’s novel Le Pont de la Riviére Kwaï (1952) was a satirical anti-war novel poking fun at English ob-sessions with order, rank, rules, and, as Lean put it, the British tendency to “make almost a fetish out of doing a job well done.” The story takes place in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Thailand during World War II where the prisoners are being used as slave laborers to construct railroad lines and bridges that are crucial to the Japanese war effort. The novel focuses on the war of wills that takes place between the Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito, and the highest-ranking British officer, Colonel Nicholson. When Nicholson eventually triumphs in his confrontation with Saito over the proprieties of the Geneva Convention, he then leads his men, with extraordinary effectiveness, in the construction of a railway bridge over the Kwai River.

In 1954, Boulle’s novel was translated into English and published as The Bridge on the River Kwai in England. The book greatly impressed the American screenwriter Carl Foreman, who immediately optioned the novel. Renowned as the author of Fred Zinnemann’s classic Hollywood Western High Noon (1952), Foreman was a blacklisted writer living in London and working for Alexander Korda’s London Films. When Korda passed on the novel, Sam Spiegel, the flamboyant independent producer of John Huston’s African Queen (1951) and Elia Kazan’s masterful On the Waterfront (1954), secured the film rights. Then Foreman adapted the novel, adding a major American character to the story and turning the novel into an adventure tale about a group of commandos assigned to destroy the bridge that Colonel Nicholson is building.

After Zinnemann refused to direct the film, it was rejected further by Howard Hawks and John Ford before Spiegel finally turned to David Lean. Lean was much admired for his “small” British adaptations of Noël Coward plays (particularly his exceptional Brief Encounter, 1945) and his re-creations of Dickens’s novels, including Oliver Twist (1948), which featured Guinness as Fagin. Nevertheless, Lean was generally considered an “art house” director, and he was now ready to expand his range. He much appreciated Boulle’s novel, and when he read Foreman’s adaptation he was horrified. Amid various expletives, he called it “awful” and “terrible,” telling Spiegel that the script needed to be “thrown out the window” and completely rewritten. Lean felt that Foreman had “vulgarized” Boulle’s “Shakespearean drama,” and he and his assistant (Norman Spencer) immediately wrote a new treatment. When Foreman’s subsequent rewrites also proved unacceptable to Lean, Foreman was removed from the picture. Eventually, another blacklisted writer, Michael Wilson, who’d won a screenwriting Oscar for A Place in the Sun (1951), was called in from Paris. From the very beginning, he and Lean worked well together, and Wilson wrote most of the final script.

Since both Foreman and Wilson were blacklisted, neither man was credited on the screen, and Boulle was listed as the film’s author. At the Oscar ceremony in March 1958, Boulle, who couldn’t speak English, accepted the Oscar for Best Screen- writing amid a whirl of controversy. The controversy raged for another 27 years until March 1985, after the deaths of both Foreman and Wilson, when their widows were presented with posthumous Oscars for their husbands’ work. Leftist Hollywood has always effused with outrage over this injustice of belated recognition, but it also fails to recognize a far greater irony. The Bridge on the River Kwai is often considered an anti-war film in the sense that it shows, as Lean fully intended, the “waste of war,” yet it’s far more complex than that. It’s also a highly patriotic film about a British officer who becomes so vainly obsessed with his own sense of propriety that he actually commits treason by collaborating with the enemy. The fact that the film was written by Foreman and Wilson, two blacklisted writers who adamantly refused to tes tify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and who never recanted their collaboration and fellow-traveling with revolutionary communism, is quite remarkable.

The overall effectiveness of this exceptional film was, of course, very much dependent on the outstanding performance by Guinness as the proud and self-blinded Colonel Nicholson. This period was an especially important time in the actor’s life, since he’d only recently converted to Roman Catholicism at the Church of St. Lawrence in Petersfield, England. After a long spiritual journey—toying with Marxism, Quakerism, and Buddhism along the way—the 41-year-old Guinness admitted, “Like countless converts before me and after me, I felt I had come home—’and known the place for the first time.”‘ He was now keenly aware of “the sheer kindness of God,” and he had a clear sense of “the actual presence of God on the altar.”

At the same time, of course, Guinness was dealing with the demanding role of the complex Colonel Nicholson. When he’d first arrived in Ceylon, despite all his past successes as an actor, he admitted, “I’ve decided I’m horribly bad at acting.” But once the shooting was under way, Guinness quickly regained his typical confident demeanor, and he had a number of sharp disagreements with Lean over how Nicholson should be played. Guinness, who was concerned that the colonel would seem boring to film audiences, wanted to add some humor to his character. But Lean was adamant that Nicholson should be played perfectly seriously. Despite their various arguments on the set, when the film was finally cut, Guinness was extremely gracious in a letter to Lean where he admitted that he’d been wrong and praised the director’s final result: “A wonderful film. Thank you for having me. As ever, Alec.”

For his performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guinness not only won the Oscar, but he received the New York Film Critics’ Award, the Golden Globe, the British Film Academy Award, and many others. He also appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which called him “the most gifted character actor in the English-speaking theater.” Years later, after many other successful roles, Guinness wrote in his final memoir, A Positively Final Appearance (1999): “If I have one regret (leaving aside a thousand failings as a person, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend—and my lazy, slapdash, selfish attitude as an actor) it would be that I didn’t take the decision to become a Catholic in my early twenties. That would have sorted out a lot of my life and sweetened it.”

As for The Bridge on the River Kwai, in his earlier thank-you letter to Lean, Guinness admitted only two regrets. One related to a bit of “actor’s business” in one of the hospital scenes; but the other, far more significant, was “not being definite enough” at the end of the picture, when Nicholson is finally faced with what he’s done. But despite his concerns, Guinness was “definite” enough: Colonel Nicholson’s horror at the sudden realization of his unforgivable collaboration with the enemy is perfectly clear, giving great depth to a great film.

  • William Baer

    William Baer is a graduate of U.S.C. Cinema where he received the Jack Nicholson Screening Award and taught in the Filmic Writing department. He currently teaches English and Film at the University of Evansville, Indiana and is a frequent contributor to Creative Screenwriting.

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