Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

In David Lean's acclaimed, all-time great WWII epic drama, and Best Picture-winning film about British P.O.W.'s forced to construct a railway bridge in the Asian jungle of Burma from 1942-1943, to connect the rail-line from Bangkok to Rangoon:

  • the opening title sequence was of the British soldiers arrogantly marching into a sweltering jungle prison camp to the whistling tune of the "Colonel Bogey March"
  • Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) delivered opening words to the POWs and their British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) about Camp 16 in the jungle: ("There is no barbed wire. No stockade. No watchtower. They are not necessary. We are an island in the jungle. Escape is impossible. You would die. Today you rest. Tomorrow you will begin. Let me remind you of General Yamashita's motto: 'Be happy in your work.' Dismissed!")
  • there was a battle to a standoff throughout the film of the two stubborn wills of indomitable British Colonel Nicholson and the Japanese Colonel Saito, about whether officers should work along with the other men - after Nicholson called his attention to Article 27 of the Geneva Convention and insisted: ("Belligerents may employ as workmen prisoners of war who are physically fit, other than officers...") - Saito responded harshly with a slap: "You speak to me of Code? What 'Code'? The coward's code! What do you know of the soldier's code? Of bushido? Nothing! You are unworthy of command!"; Nicholson persisted and refused to comply: "My officers will not do manual labour"; Saito also stated: "Do not speak to me of rules. This is war. This is not a game of cricket"
  • in a late night supper scene, camp commandant Saito invited Nicholson into his quarters for a meal, and offered a compromise: ("I have been thinking the matter over and have decided to put majors and above on administrative duties, leaving only the junior officers to lend a hand") regarding the labor required to build a bridge over the River Kwai to connect the rail-line from Bangkok to Rangoon; Nicholson promptly refused: "I'm afraid not. The Convention's quite clear on that point"
  • in a triumphant scene, Nicholson was removed from a sweat-box and made an unsteady walk on his own rubbery legs to speak to Saito, who had given in and declared - "You and your officers may return to your quarters. As part of this amnesty, it will not be necessary for officers to do manual labor"; Nicholson had won his freedom from the hot torture oven as a mass rush of troops congratulated him: ("He's done it!") after he had forced Saito to accept his terms
  • during the building of the bridge, Nicholson had a serious discussion with Major Clipton (James Donald) - expressing his delusionary belief that he was serving a higher good and purpose: "A good idea? Take another look. You don't agree that the men's morale is high? Discipline has been restored? Their condition has been improved? Are they a happier lot or aren't they?... They feed better and they are no longer abused or maltreated... Honestly, Clipton, there are times when I don't understand you at all"; Clipton believed otherwise: "The fact is, what we're doing could be construed as - forgive me, sir, collaboration with the enemy, perhaps even treasonable activity... must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built for themselves?"; Nicholson ended the conversation with his statement of pride in the bridge: "Would you have it said that our chaps can't do a proper job? Don't you realize how important it is to show these people that they can't break us in body or in spirit. Take a good look, Clipton. One day the war will be over. I hope that the people who 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're a fine doctor, Clipton, but you've a lot to learn about the army"
  • Nicholson and Saito met mid-span on the beautifully engineered, completed bridge as the sun set, exchanging views and reflecting on its magnificent beauty: Nicholson: "I've been thinking. Tomorrow it will be 28 years to the day that I've been in the service, 28 years in peace and war. I don't suppose I've been at home more than ten months in all that time. Still, it's been a good life. I love India. I wouldn't have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents, what difference your being there at any time made to anything, or if it made any difference at all really. Particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I've had some thoughts on those lines from time to time"
  • in the suspenseful finale, Nicholson discovered uncovered dynamite wires that had been secretly planted by his Allied commando forces, led by cynical American ex-prisoner and heroic escapee Commander Shears (William Holden) and British commando Major Warden (Jack Hawkins).
  • there was unbearable tension as the Japanese troop train was heard approaching the bridge and the commandos prepared to blow up the bridge
  • Nicholson attempted to save his bridge, and uttered his moral dilemma ("What have I done?"), and then fell lethally-wounded on the dynamite plunger; the question arose: Had he deliberately fallen on the plunger or was it accidental?
Nicholson's Last Words: "What have I done?"
  • the railroad bridge and the train were climactically destroyed, with the film's final words spoken by Clipton: "Madness...madness, madness."

Stand-Off Between Two Commanders

Late Night Dinner Scene Between Nicholson and Saito

Col. Nicholson's Triumphant Release: "He's Done It!"

Major Clipton Discussing Bridge Building With Nicholson

Nicholson Meeting Saito on Completed Bridge


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