Based on Pierre Boulle’s novel and directed by David Lean, British prisoners of war during World War II build a bridge for the Japanese while an American escapes and joins a team assigned to destroy the bridge.
Japanese soldiers guard prisoners of war who are working on a railroad line in the jungle. A group of prisoners led by Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) arrives at the camp. Shears (William Holden) and Corporal Weaver are digging graves. Shears gives a Japanese guard a cigarette lighter and persuades him to put them on the sick list. Shears says a cynical prayer for the man who died of beriberi.
Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is dressed in a robe in his house when he hears the whistling of more than a hundred prisoners who arrive and line up. Saito puts on his uniform. Shears and the other prisoner watch from the hospital. Saito comes out, and Nicholson salutes him. Saito stands on a box and welcomes the prisoners to Camp 16 by the great railroad to Rangoon. He says they have been chosen to build a great bridge, and officers must work with the men. If they work hard, they will be treated well. If not, they will be punished. He says escape is impossible, and so they have no fences. He advises them to be happy in their work. Nicholson salutes and orders his men to stand at ease. Nicholson tells Saito that he and his officers will be responsible for the conduct of their men. He reminds Saito that according to the Geneva Convention officers are not required to do manual labor. Saito declines to see it and walks away. It starts raining, and the British officers run into the barracks and then to the hospital. Nicholson talks with Major Clipton (James Donald) and meets Shears from the US Navy. Shears says many prisoners died of diseases and other causes. Dr. Clipton examines Shears. Nicholson asks if the officers had been doing manual labor, and Shears says yes. Nicholson says Saito seems reasonable.
At a meeting Saito consults with others with a map.
Nicholson and the officers meet, and he says escape is impossible. Shears says it is a hundred to one, but death in the camp is even more likely. Shears is hoping to escape. Nicholson says they were ordered to surrender and therefore escape may violate orders. Shears disagrees and says there is no civilization here. Nicholson says their men must feel they are always commanded by them and not by the Japanese. Otherwise they will feel like slaves. Shears says he is just a slave. Nicholson makes excuses for Shears because of his isolation for so long.
The next day the English prisoners are lined up. Saito orders them to finish the bridge by May. He advises them to live like a cooli rather than die like a hero. He orders them to pick up their tools, but Nicholson orders his men not to move. Saito asks why, and Nicholson shows him a copy of the Geneva Convention Article 27. Saito asks for the book and slaps him. He calls it a cowards’ code and throws it on the ground. He calls Nicholson unworthy of command. Nicholson says he and his officers will not work. Saito gives orders. The prisoners march off to work, but the nine officers remain. Nicholson refuses to order his officers to work. Saito has a truck with a machine gun brought there. Saito says he will give an order to fire after counting to three. Shears says he will do it. Nicholson warns Saito. Major Clipton runs over and is tackled by a Japanese officer. He stands up and lectures Saito about murdering unarmed men. Saito walks into his house.
The English officers and Clipton have been standing in the sun. Shears talks about the foolishness of Nicholson’s “guts.” In the late afternoon the prisoners return while the officers are still standing there. One officer is lying on the ground and is carried away. The other officers except for Nicholson are ordered to the punishment hut. Nicholson is brought into Saito’s house. The prisoners start shouting and shaking their fists. Nicholson is carried and dragged by two Japanese men, and Shears says they are going to put him in the oven. He is locked in a wooden box. The prisoners sing, “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and cheer. Two prisoners run off into the jungle, and one is shot dead. The other turns back to examine the man and is shot. Shears knifes the Japanese soldier who killed him. Shears jumps off a precipice into the river, and the two Japanese guards turn back. The bodies of the two prisoners are carried to the cemetery. Shears swims in the river at night and rests.
Prisoners are felling trees and working on the bridge under Japanese officers. They let go of ropes, and a large log falls on the Japanese. Clipton goes to Saito and says Nicholson has been shut up for three days. Saito says the third prisoner was drowned. Saito shows a model of the bridge and the progress he expects. He blames Nicholson for their being behind schedule. He says he could shoot them all. Clipton suggests they would work better under their own officers. Saito says this is war, not cricket. Saito says Nicholson is mad. Saito tells Clipton to tell Nicholson that if his officers do not work, the sick will work in their places and die. Clipton is taken to the oven, and the door is opened. Clipton gives Nicholson meat and a coconut. Clipton says Lt. Jennings, Corporal Weaver, and the American were killed trying to escape. Clipton treats Nicholson’s hair and says he can’t stand that much longer. Clipton says many will die if the officers do not work. Nicholson says it is a matter of principle. Clipton disagrees and urges him to give in. Clipton says they will try to get more food to him and leaves. Clipton shakes his head at the officers in a larger box. Clipton tells Saito that Nicholson will not give in to force. Saito says he is responsible and walks away. Clipton asks if they are both mad.
Shears sees vultures gathering and staggers on with an empty canteen. He collapses, sees a kite, and comes upon a village. People carry him.
Saito looks at the February calendar in his house and points to May 12. He goes out and tells the prisoners that their officers are lazy. Saito announces that he has removed Lt. Miura and will command the work himself. He gives them Red Cross packages. During work another part of the bridge falls over.
At night Japanese officers let Nicholson out and help him walk to Saito’s house. Nicholson is left alone with Saito, and they sit down. Saito offers him corned beef and whiskey, but Nicholson declines. Saito says he became an engineer. Nicholson says he will make a full report on the camp. Saito says his orders are to complete the bridge by May. Nicholson says officers will only work in an administrative capacity. Saito says Nicholson will not have to work, and only the junior officers will not have administrative duties. Nicholson refuses to compromise. Saito says if it is not finished on time, he will have to kill himself. He says others will die before him. Nicholson says he has a solution. They agree officers are to command. Nicholson says Miura cannot tackle the job, but his officers have built bridges in India. Saito says he is commanding the bridge now. Saito says he hates the British. Saito calls in three officers to take Nicholson back.
Shears has recovered and wears a native skirt and is given flowers as he boards a boat on the river. He paddles the sanpan alone. He gets tired, falls asleep, and the boat drifts to the ocean.
Saito commands his officers who are lined up while the prisoners sit on the ground. Nicholson is taken out of the oven and walks to Saito’s house while the prisoners salute him. Saito asks him what day it is. Saito says they are celebrating the anniversary of Japan’s victory over Russia, and he has given prisoners the day off. In commemoration officers will not have to do manual labor. Nicholson walks out of the house and is cheered and mobbed by his men. The other officers are released also. The men carry Nicholson on their shoulders. In his house Saito is crying.
Prisoners are working on the railroad under their own officers. Nicholson questions a corporal who says one man took time off because he is sick. Nicholson wants to know how many men he has. He tells his officers to stop the demonstrations. He asks Captain Reeves (Peter Williams) if he has constructed such a bridge and asks him how he would do it. Reeves says they are building it in the wrong place, and the piles will never hold. He suggests a different place. Nicholson asks Major Hughes (John Boxer) how he would use the men, and he suggests better teamwork. Nicholson says there is no discipline, and they must rebuild the battalion by using the bridge to show the Asians what the British can do. Evans asks if he really wants to build the bridge. Nicholson says they must keep the men occupied and take pride in their job. He suggests they draw up their plans.
Nicholson conducts a meeting of his officers with Saito and Japanese officers. He says they must change the location of the bridge. Reeves explains why. Nicholson asks for a cup of tea, and Saito orders it. Nicholson also suggests increasing the daily work of the men and has Hughes describe the improvement. Nicholson asks if they could work during dinner, and Saito orders a meal served. After they have eaten, Nicholson says they will not have enough men for the railway work, and he asks Saito to include some Japanese men for that work. Saito says he already ordered that. Nicholson asks for questions, and Saito asks if the bridge will be done in time. Nicholson doubts it and blames it on the disagreement for which he was not responsible. Outside Reeves tells Nicholson that the trees are similar to elms and could last six hundred years.
At a British hospital in Ceylon in the garden Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) is looking for Shears. He is at a beach with a nurse (Ann Sears) who kisses him and goes for a swim. Warden finds Shears and asks him to help them with that railroad. Shears agrees to attend a meeting the next morning.
Shears is brought in a jeep to Major Warden’s bungalow. He sees a training exercise in the jungle and is attacked by a man with a knife. Shears is rescued and taken to Warden who has completed a lecture with an explosion. Shears asks about the commando school. Warden says they are using plastic explosives. They go into Warden’s house. Warden says he taught Oriental languages before the war. Shears says his escape was lucky, and Warden shows him on a map where he was. Shears asks if they learned anything about Nicholson. Warden shows him the railway line. The Japanese want to open the Bangkok-Rangoon connection by May. He says they need first-hand knowledge. Warden says his team is going to go in and blow up the Kwai bridge. Warden asks if he would go back. Shears gets angry and says he is an American. Warden says he has already been transferred to them. Shears says he is not even an officer, but he told the Japanese that he was the commander who died. He let it ride to get advantages in the hospital. He says Shears does not exist, and he asks for a drink. He says he will apply for a medical discharge because he went insane in the jungle. Warden shows him a document with his photograph. His navy is in a difficult position because he impersonated an officer. Warden offers him the rank of major. Shears volunteers and is introduced to Col. Green (Andre Morell).
Prisoners are working on the new bridge as Saito watches. Nicholson examines a map and rides a cart on the railway to the bridge. Clipton asks about Saito, and Nicholson says he has become most reasonable since they took over. Clipton asks him if building the bridge is a good idea. Nicholson says the men are happier and are not maltreated, but Clipton says they are collaborating with the enemy. Nicholson says they do not have the right to refuse to work. He says they must show them what they can do, and it will be appreciated after the war. Nicholson says Clipton has much to learn about the army.
Warden sees the nurse coming from Shears’ house. Shears comes late to a meeting with Green and Warden. They interview Lt. Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) for the team. Joyce says he volunteered for more interesting duty. Green asks if he could kill with a knife, and Joyce says he is not sure. Green dismisses him, and Warden says he was honest. Shears says Joyce can take his place. Green approves him and says they will parachute. Shears has not had training, and they arrange it. Green tells Shears he is very useful to them. He gives him the L-pill so that he can kill himself if he is captured. Warden comes back and says they recommend Shears jump without training.
At night Warden, Shears, Joyce, and Chapman parachute into a jungle. Chapman lands in a tree, and they find him dead. Warden says they will have to take a different route with the local guide and women as bearers. The enemy is only three miles away so they are going to sleep in the jungle. Shears says he is no longer needed, but Warden says there is always the unexpected.
They hack their way through the jungle with machetes. Shears rests and is passed by the women. One gives Shears water. They slog through a swamp. Joyce carries a burden for a woman he calls “lovely.” In water they get leeches that are burned off with cigarettes. Joyce can’t get the radio to work, and Shears gets angry and knocks it over. Suddenly it is working. Joyce decodes a message about the railroad. They hope to get the bridge and a train at the same time. Warden is excited.
Nicholson is supervising the men working. He goes to the hospital and tells Clipton they need more men. The officers are working, and he asks for help from those on the sick list. They look at the men, and Clipton says what is wrong with them. Nicholson wants a man with an infected arm for “light work” on the bridge. He and another agree to work. Several them follow Nicholson to the job.
By a stream the team is resting while a woman washes Shears’ hair. Warden gives him ten minutes. A woman meets a Japanese soldier and screams. The men sneak up on them, and Warden throws a grenade at Japanese soldiers. Hundreds of birds take flight. The Japanese soldiers were killed, and Warden orders Shears to make sure they are dead. Warden tells Joyce to use his knife so they won’t shoot each other, and they search in the jungle. A Japanese soldier pops up in front of Joyce, and Warden stabs him to death. Warden has a wounded foot but says he can walk on it.
Warden is limping as they climb a hill. Warden’s foot is bleeding, and he removes the boot. He and a woman lag behind the others. They cross rough terrain by a waterfall. The guide and Shears stop under a big tree. Warden catches up and objects to stopping. Shears says he will bleed to death if he keeps walking. Warden tells him to leave him there. He says they must get there by sundown. Warden orders them to go on without him and puts Shears in command. Shears lectures Warden for playing a game and says he will not leave him there to die. Warden cannot walk anymore, and they put him on a stretcher.
Shears looks down and sees the bridge which he points out to Warden. Shears tells Warden that he is in command now. Warden is surprised at how good the bridge is. Joyce notices a British officer working on his knees.
Nicholson and the officers are erecting a plaque. Warden plans where to place the plastic explosives. He points out a hiding place on the other side of the river. Someone will have to swim back, and Joyce volunteers. Warden will set up a mortar where they are. They will start when it gets dark. They must build a raft, and he instructs the guide. Warden apologizes to Shears.
A woman is putting mud on the skin of Shears, and another woman helps Warden with the mortar. Nicholson is walking on the bridge alone. He is joined by Saito as the sun sets. They admire the bridge. Nicholson says he has been in the service for 28 years. He wonders what his life represents and whether he made a difference. He drops his stick in the water by accident. He tells Saito the men are preparing entertainment.
Men dressed as women dance on a stage.
At night Shears and Joyce swim behind the raft and float downstream.
Saito sitting in a robe has written a letter and cuts off his hair.
Japanese guards are on the bridge. Shears and Joyce take the raft under the bridge and lash explosives to the logs.
Nicholson goes on the stage and tells the men they will be moving on tomorrow. They will be able to transport the sick and disabled to the new camp by train. He thinks they may feel let down, but someday they will feel proud of what they achieved there. They have survived with honor and turned defeat into victory. The men applaud. They all stand and sing “God Save the King.”
Shears and Joyce move in the water with their materials to a beach where they set up the detonator. Shears says he will be across the river, and they shake hands. Shears swims across the river and returns to the others.
At dawn two women bring food to Warden who wakes up and asks what happened. They notice the river has gone down, and the wire to Joyce is exposed. Joyce throws sand on the wire near him. The men march to the bridge whistling, and they cross the bridge followed by the Japanese with rifles. Warden wants Joyce to do it now before the train comes. Clipton tells Nicholson he does not want to watch the ceremony from the bridge. Nicholson goes on the bridge and notices the river has gone down. Clipton sits on a tree trunk and watches. They hear the whistle of the train. Joyce and Warden get ready. Nicholson looks down and notices the wire under the bridge. He thinks and then sees the wire in the river. Nicholson tells Saito that they need to look around. He leads him down a slope to the river and tries to see where the wire is going. He walks toward Joyce who gets his rifle ready. Nicholson sees the wire in the sand and picks it up. He follows the wire toward Joyce as the train approaches. Nicholson and Saito wade through water following the wire. Shears draws his knife. Nicholson asks Saito for his knife, but Joyce runs over and knifes Saito. He tells Nicholson he is a British officer sent to blow up the bridge. Warden and Shears want Joyce to kill Nicholson. Shears swims across the river while Nicholson tries to stop Joyce who is killed by a bullet. Shears dodges a Japanese soldier and is wounded in the water. He and Nicholson recognize each other. Warden fires the mortar. Shears dies, and Nicholson asks what he has done. The train enters the bridge, and Nicholson falls on the detonator, causing the bridge to be destroyed with the train falling into the river. Clipton runs down. Warden tells the women that he had to do it because they might have been captured alive. He throws away the mortar and prepares to leave with the women. Clipton looks at the dead bodies of Nicholson, Shears, and Joyce and says, “Madness.”
Based on a true story, this prisoner-of-war drama explores the contrasting attitudes of Japanese and British officers in how they see their military duties. The cynical American who is on his own offers a counterpoint. The British habit of imperialist domination attempts to control the situation even when it is against their own interests in the war.