The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Critic Consensus: This complex war epic asks hard questions, resists easy answers, and boasts career-defining work from star Alec Guinness and director David Lean.

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The Bridge on the River Kwai opens in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma in 1943, where a battle of wills rages between camp commander Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and newly arrived British colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). Saito insists that Nicholson order his men to build a bridge over the river Kwai, which will be used to transport Japanese munitions. Nicholson refuses, despite all the various "persuasive" devices at Saito's disposal. Finally, Nicholson agrees, not so much to cooperate with his captor as to provide a morale-boosting project for the military engineers under his command. The colonel will prove that, by building a better bridge than Saito's men could build, the British soldier is a superior being even when under the thumb of the enemy. As the bridge goes up, Nicholson becomes obsessed with completing it to perfection, eventually losing sight of the fact that it will benefit the Japanese. Meanwhile, American POW Shears (William Holden), having escaped from the camp, agrees to save himself from a court martial by leading a group of British soldiers back to the camp to destroy Nicholson's bridge. Upon his return, Shears realizes that Nicholson's mania to complete his project has driven him mad. Filmed in Ceylon, Bridge on the River Kwai won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for the legendary British filmmaker David Lean, and Best Actor for Guinness. It also won Best Screenplay for Pierre Boulle, the author of the novel on which the film was based, even though the actual writers were blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who were given their Oscars under the table. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

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Critic Reviews for The Bridge on the River Kwai

All Critics (54) | Top Critics (11)

It is a stirring drama of World War II, in which Spiegel has had the excellent help of British director David Lean, in charge of the action, and of a fine company of international players.

Feb 23, 2015 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…

Has no one else found it highly peculiar that damn near everybody's choice for the best movie of (let's say) the decade should be dedicated, inferentially but absolutely, to the proposition that Courage is Madness and Cowardice is Best?

Feb 3, 2014 | Full Review…

Part of the success of The Bridge is that its courageous hero is shown from all angles, in all kinds of mirrors. He is strong, stubborn, fallible, maniacal, silly, and wise; and in the end he is pathetic, noble, and foolish.

Jan 23, 2013 | Full Review…

From sky to ground in two shots, and it already feels like we've traversed a great distance, with two and a half hours of skillful, suspenseful WWII adventure to go.

Sep 22, 2010 | Rating: 4/5 | Full Review…
Time Out
Top Critic

It is a whale of a story, and in the telling of it, British Director David Lean does a whale of a job.

Feb 18, 2009 | Full Review…
TIME Magazine
Top Critic

A gripping drama, expertly put together and handled with skill in all departments.

Feb 19, 2008 | Full Review…
Variety
Top Critic

Audience Reviews for The Bridge on the River Kwai

An excellent war movie focused on characters rather than on battles, with an intense Oscar-winning performance by Alec Guinness. The cinematography is not flawless, with some scenes visibly filmed during the day and darkened to appear as night, but this is compensated by a suspenseful climax that is unforgettable.

Carlos Magalhães
Carlos Magalhães

Super Reviewer

A battalion of British POWs are forced to build a bridge while an American soldier is charged with blowing it up. Exquisitely plotted, this film is remarkably compelling from beginning to end. At almost three hours, the film's run time is typical of David Lean, who doesn't care how long a film is; he cares how long it's good. The performance by Alec Guinness is the strongest, as he's able to convey his character's journey subtly, and William Holden is as charmingly surly as William Holden has always been. The film's themes of ambition and the need for purpose come through, and the cinematography is beautiful. Overall, this film is a classic for good reason.

Jim Hunter
Jim Hunter

Super Reviewer

Powerful film about an aspect of WWII not many people learn about any more. Excellent performances all around, but particularly striking performance from the idealistic martinet Guinness.

Christian C
Christian C

Super Reviewer

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a near flawless war drama based on the fiction book by French author Pierre Boulle. I thought that this was a great film, but it wasn't as flawless as many critics have said it was. I found myself enjoying the film, but at times I felt that the film could have been a lot more authentic and showed what life was really like in the POW camps. Directed by director David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a well made film that does have great performances, but is not without its flaws. Alec Guinness is wonderful as the insane Col. Nicholson and the movie displays his downward spiral into madness, and he delivers in his role. The plot itself is wonderful, and has something to offer classic war film fans. Like I said, this is not a perfect film, and it could have been better in some areas. David Lean would go on to direct Lawrence of Arabia, a far more superior drama and it would be a much grander picture in scope and execution. This is nonetheless a great film, but compared to The Great Escape, and Lawrence of Arabia, it really isn't as strong due to its portrayal of the lead characters being in league with the Japanese, and that's something that disturbed me. This is a brilliant film and it is a must see classic for fans of old War drama films. Like I said, the film is not perfect, but is a necessary film to watch if you're a fan of cinema. Alec Guinness is great, and he plays the character in such a way that you don't know whether to like him or not, which is a nice touch. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a flawed, but very good film, and if you've enjoyed this film or not, you definitely should check out David Lean's other war drama, Lawrence of Arabia, which is filmmaking at its finest. If you love David Lean's work, then give this one a shot, one of the classic war films that have had a profound impact on the genre for years to come.

Alex roy
Alex roy

Super Reviewer

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