The Bridge On The River Kwai Won Alec Guinness An Oscar, But It Wasn't Always His Role

The World War II film "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is considered a classic, and for good reason. The prisoner of war story is based on a novel (written by an actual former POW, Pierre Boulle), and was inspired by a true story. It also boasts a tremendous cast that includes William Holden and Sir Alec Guinness. In fact, it's the film that won Guinness — who would go on to gain worldwide fame as Obi-Wan Kenobi — the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.

The film itself took home seven Oscars in all, including Best Picture, and has become so revered that it was selected to be part of the National Film Registry at the United States Library of Congress. It was acclaimed by both critics and audiences alike upon its release and continues to be revered to this day.

For those who have not seen it, the film is about prisoners of war in a camp in Burma being used as slave labor. Their task? Constructing a bridge that would enable Japanese trains to pass from Bangkok to Rangoon over — you guessed it — the River Kwai. Guinness plays a British officer named Nicholson, tasked with overseeing the construction of the bridge. Over the course of the movie, he becomes consumed by obsession and pride, wanting to build the best bridge possible, and forgetting what he's doing is actually aiding the enemy. Only at the end does he realize his mistake, uttering the famous line, "What have I done?" before blowing up the bridge just before his death.

It's a marvelous, star-making performance by Guinness. And amazingly, he wasn't the first choice. Given the fact that he also hated the original script, it's a wonder he ever played Nicholson at all.

The character nearly looked very, very different

While Guinness initially scoffed at the idea of playing Colonel Nicholson due to having some issues with the script, he wasn't even director David Lean's first choice for the role. In fact, it's hard to imagine a more physically different actor to Guinness in Lean's first choice, Charles Laughton. Laughton had famously portrayed the titular "Hunchback of Notre Dame" in 1939, and where Guinness was a very slender man, Laughton was decidedly... well, not that. His portly stature may have been one of the reasons he ultimately backed out of the role, given the toll he knew the climate during filming would take on him. As Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester wrote in her autobiography, Laughton "could not face the heat of the Ceylon location, the ants, and being cramped in a cage."

Fortunately for movie history, Lean ended up bringing Guinness on board, and the once and future Jedi Master turned in one of Hollywood's greatest and most measured performances. Interestingly, Guinness had served in World War II himself, though on the European front. But as an officer in the Royal Navy, he'd taken part in the invasion of Sicily as well as Normandy. Clearly, he knew how to walk the walk when it came to portraying a British officer, having been one himself, and that much becomes clear upon watching his Oscar-winning performance.

Laughton, meanwhile, only had a few credits from "The Bridge on the River Kwai" being released in 1957 and his death in 1962. It's an interesting thought experiment to wonder how much different the film would have looked had he proceeded with the role, but given the performance Guinness delivered, it's safe to say the role of Colonel Nicholson wound up in the correct hands.