The film deals with the situation of British prisoners of war during World War II who are ordered to build a bridge to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway. Their instinct is to sabotage the bridge but, under the leadership of Colonel Nicholson, they are persuaded that the bridge should be constructed as a symbol of British morale, spirit and dignity in adverse circumstances. At first, the prisoners admire Nicholson when he bravely endures torture rather than compromise his principles for the benefit of the Japanese commandant Saito.
This remarkable novel is set in a Japanese prison camp on the Burma-Siam railway, deep in the jungle. Colonel Nicholson—a man prepared to sacrifice his life but not his dignity—and his men are ordered by the Japanese to build a bridge over the River Kwai. The Colonel refuses. Through weeks of torture and solitary confinement, the British officer persists in his refusal, until the Japanese at last give way. But then, determined to show the superiority of the British, he drives his men on until a magnificent bridge awaits the passing of the first train on the new line. Meanwhile, the Special Service Branch has parachuted three men into Siam. As they watch the bridge being built and make their plans, the suspense builds up into a thrilling climax..