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The working title of the film was The Bridge Over the River Kwai, which was the English translation of the title of Pierre Boulle's novel. The opening and closing cast credits differ slightly in order. In the opening credits, Geoffrey Horne's name is proceeded by the phrase "and introducing." However, Horne had previously appeared in the 1957 film The Strange One (see below). In the onscreen credits, the credit for chief sound editor is followed by the word "with" and a list of all the sound editors. The film closes with the following written acknowledgment: "The producers gratefully acknowledge the co-operation and help extended to them by the various departments of the government of Ceylon during the course of the production of this film." The film was shot entirely on location in Sri Lanka, which was then known as Ceylon. The film's signature tune, "Colonel Bogey March," which is whistled by "Nicholson" and his troops at the film's opening, became an immensely popular hit and an iconographic musical theme.
The action in the film roughly parallels that of the Boulle novel on which it was based. One major difference, however, is that in the novel, the character of "Shears" is British, not American. The novel features an epilogue in which "Warden" returns to the commando school and reports that the damaged bridge was still intact and that "Joyce" and Shears, injured by enemy fire, were killed by mortar fire delivered by Warden in order to save them from Japanese capture. Boulle's book was inspired by the stretch of railway from Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar) known as "The Death Railway." The corridor was built by the Axis powers during World War II to transport Japanese troops and supplies to Burma. Approximately 100,000 conscripted Asian laborers and 16,000 Allied prisoners of war died while working on the project. The construction of the railway became necessary when Allied troops mined the sea route through the Strait of Malacca, the main route by which Japanese support troops were transported to Burma.
The project was started in June 1942. The wooden bridge over the River Kwae Yai, which in Boulle's book was called the River Kwai, was completed in February 1943, followed by a concrete and steel bridge completed in June 1943. Both bridges were destroyed by Allied bombers on 2 April 1945, although they had been damaged and repaired several times before. Although as many of the film reviews noted, the film's Japanese prison camp was in Burma, while the actual bridge over the Kwae Yai River is in Thailand.
In 1943, Boulle himself was captured by Vichy French loyalists on the Mekong River and sentenced to a life of hard labor at a prison camp in Saigon. After escaping in 1944, Boulle served with British Special Forces until the end of the war. Although several newspaper articles, including an October 1997 article in The Observer (London), noted similarities between "Col. Nicholson" and the real-life Lt. Col. Philip Toosey, a British officer serving in Singapore who was captured by the Japanese in 1942 and forced to help build the bridge, Boulle claimed that he based Nicholson on two officers he had known in Indochina. Unlike Nicholson, Toosey was not an upper-class career officer, but a Territorial Army Officer.
^Although modern sources have mentioned several actors that were considered for the parts of Nicholson and Shears, IHR news items have substantiated the following information about the production: In April 1956, it was announced that Charles Laughton was to appear as Nicholson. Although a November 1956 news item announced that Brenda Marshall was cast in a featured role opposite her then real-life husband, William Holden, Marshall does not appear in the film. A December 1956 news item announced that 2d assistant director John Kerrison was killed on 2 December in an auto accident. According to studio publicity contained in the film's production file at the AMPAS Library, location filming was done at the Kelani River in Sri Lanka. A November 1956 news item described the 400-foot wooden bridge that was constructed for the production. The bridge, which was as tall as a six-story building, required the labor of twenty-five elephants and hundreds of native workers, and took six months to complete, according to studio publicity.
Studio publicity also noted that the train in the film was a sixty-year-old locomotive that once served an Indian maharajah. Producer Sam Spiegel bought the train from the Ceylonese government so that he could blow it up. The paratroopers in the film were members of the RAF stationed in Sri Lanka, according to studio publicity. A December 1956 news item explained that in order to film the paratroopers jumping from their plane, director of photography Jack Hildyard lashed himself to the wing of the British military plane carrying the paratroopers and shot the jump with a handheld 16mm camera. A January 1957 news item noted that actor Percy Herbert, who played the role of a prisoner of war in the film, actually spent four years as a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore. Although an April 1957 Hollywood Reporter production chart places Pom Prom in the cast, Prom's appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. According to a February 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item actor William Holden received ten percent of the film's gross, which, according to modern sources, made him the highest paid film star at the time and represented a ground-breaking financial agreement.
The Variety review noted that author Boulle, who spoke no English, did an "excellent job of screenwriting, (particularly because it marked [his] debut in the medium)." In reality, the screenplay was written by blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. They were posthumously awarded an Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium in 1985, and their screenwriting credit was restored by the WGA in 2000. The question of the screenplay's authorship was addressed several times in Hollywood Reporter columns in 1957 and 1958. Although Foreman and Wilson received no screen credit, a January 17, 1957 "Rambling Reporter" news item noted that Foreman wrote the screenplay and owned a "big chunk" of the production. This assertion was immediately denied by Spiegel in a January 21, 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item. In a February 1958 "Broadway Ballyhoo" column, Holden called the reports about Foreman writing the screenplay "hogwash." According to a February 1958 "Rambling Reporter" item, when Boulle was presented the British Film Academy's award for Best Screenplay, he announced that he did not write the screenplay. Spiegel then clarified that the screenplay was written by several people, among them director David Lean, Boulle and Spiegel himself, who decided to credit only Boulle onscreen.
According to a modern source, Foreman optioned Boulle's novel, hoping that Zoltan Korda would direct it. When Zoltan's brother Alexander criticized the script as being anti-British, Foreman formed a partnership with Spiegel and Korda left the project. Lean reportedly hated Foreman's original version of the screenplay and asked producer Norman Spencer, who worked with the director on the 1955 film Summertime (see below) to help write a new treatment. Foreman then rewrote the script, but Spiegel was unhappy with the finished product and asked writer Calder Willingham to work on script revisions. Although an August 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item confirmed that Willingham was working on script revisions, the modern source notes that Lean was unhappy with his work and Wilson was then brought in to work with Lean on the script. The extent of Willingham's contribution to the final script, if any, has not been determined.
Modern sources add the following production credits: Eddie Fowlie (Prop master); Keith Best (Const eng); Gerry Fisher (Camera Operator); Tommy Early (Props); Frankie Howard (Stunts); Tommy Nichol (Assistant Camera); Freddy Ford (2d unit cam); and Fred Lane (Carpenter). According to a December 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item, Red Skelton and Sessue Hayakawa were to appear in feature-length satire of The Bridge on the River Kwai entitled The Tunnel of Kwai, which would be filmed in Japan and "scheduled for release only to the Orient with Japanese dialogue." However, no additional information on the film has been located.
In addition to the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Bridge on the River Kwai won the following Academy Awards: Alec Guinness, Best Actor; Jack Hildyard, Best Cinematography; David Lean, Best Director; Peter Taylor, Best Film Editing; Malcolm Arnold, Best Music Scoring and producer Sam Spiegel for Best Picture. Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The film also won a Golden Globe for Best Picture-Drama, Best Motion Picture Actor in a Drama (Guinness) and Best Director. Among other honors garnered by the film was the DGA Award for Best Director, the National Board of Review for Best Actor (Guinness), Best Director, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Hayakawa) and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor (Guinness), Best Director and Best Film.