This epic war drama – Golden Globe for Best Picture Drama of the year in 1958 – became the first Golden Globe Award for British director David Lean: he would go on to win for Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Sir Alec Guinness won as Best Actor – Drama; many years later he was nominated by the HFPA for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977), and one last time for Little Dorrit (1987).
The HFPA didn't hesitate to recognize the greatness of this World War II drama, set on the Pacific Front: The Bridge on the River Kwai deals with British prisoners of war ordered by their Japanese captors to build a bridge for the Burma-Siam railway. Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) wants to build it as a symbol of British strength and morale, while the American allies (under the Commander played by William Holden) plan to sabotage it.
With River Kwai, David Lean experimented with his first actual widescreen epic, a film that was admired and studied by a new generation of viewers and filmmakers. For Lean, the film was also a sort of a training camp and launching pad – in terms of craftsmanship and scope – for his 1962 follow-up epic, the widely acclaimed Lawrence of Arabia. Lean would become the unmatched master of “epic” CinemaScope, Technicolor, 70mm films. The authenticity of the Burmese jungle was also impressive, though part of the production, for logistic problems, was shot in Sri Lanka. The budget, an estimated $3 million, was considered very big at that time, but the gross, in the US alone, was $45 million in its first run, and about the same in the rest of the world: a blockbuster that paved the way to David Lean and his grand requests for his future projects.
At the Golden Globe award ceremony, Lean paid tribute to every soldier who fought the war and endured harsh prison treatments (he didn't mention the word “Japanese” as a sign of respect for the horrible atomic punishment Japan suffered), all the while proudly celebrating the British grandeur. “I assume I have a little bit of that in my blood, as a filmmaker.”