The Bridge On The River Kwai

The bridge isn’t on the Kwai at all.

The upper stretch of the Mae Klong river in the Kanchanaburi district of Thailand that the bridge straddles, was renamed Khwae Yai in 1960. Three years after the release of the epic multi Oscar winning David Lean movie!  I was aware that the movie had been shot entirely on location in the hills of Sri Lanka and had assumed the location was chosen to match the original site. Wrong again!

Wait, there is more artistic license gone too far.

The bridge on the 'river Kwai'

The railway line & original bridge – bridges actually, since there were two – were built over a period of thirteen months, versus two as suggested in the movie (and five years as originally estimated by the Japanese!). The exemplary British colonel in charge, never did collaborate with his captors. Nor did the Japanese need Allied assistance or expertise to build that railway as insinuated in the film.

British engineers had apparently abandoned ambitious plans for a railway between Burma and China via Thailand much earlier for want of funds. When the Japanese gained control of the region in 1939, their strategy for the invasion of Burma, and ultimately India, included the building of the railway. By the end of 1942 the construction of the railway became a means of utilising the captive labour at their disposal in their prisoner of war camps.

The bridge wasn’t completely destroyed as shown in the climax of the film either. And certainly not by the POW’s. Although sporadically damaged by allied bombers, the concrete bridge continued to be functional up until 1947 when it was abandoned briefly before being reopened again in the ’50s. It continues to be in use to this day.

The single vein of truth that runs through the movie is the brutal conditions of these POW camps and the horrible suffering endured by the inmates. But that, according to most accounts, was underplayed. Possibly respecting viewer sensibilities of the time.

You wouldn’t believe how immense the toll of the inhuman drive to complete the ‘Death Railway‘ was, to see the almost carnival atmosphere at the bridge. There were balloon sellers and souvenir vendors and a rail-car for joy rides across the tracks with a “You rode on the Death Railway” certificate!

It felt terribly wrong.

I can’t say what disappointed me more…the fact that the movie I loved so much and believed to be based on historical fact was complete fiction or that the site felt so insensitive to the memory of those that perished in the railway camps.

The war cemetery (maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Association) and the Hellfire Pass museum are less visited but poignant memorials to the 16,000 young Allied victims – mostly British, Australian and Dutch – to disease, brutality and starvation.

Walking the solemn pathways between the simple gravestones drenched by the spray from a myriad sprinklers, we wondered why there was no memorial to the 90,000 unsung Burmese, Chinese, Malay and Tamil men who toiled and died alongside.

Note: Writing this, I never expected anyone in my circle of real or virtual friends to have any connection to those awful railway camps. Fellow blogger Eric Alagan’s heartbreaking account of his grandfather’s capture and deportation and the murder of an uncle, barely seventeen, proves how wrong I was. 

PS: The soundcloud is a version of the Colonel Bogey March (also the River Kwai March) which inspired the background score of the movie. According to Wikipedia, this tune was accidentally played by a military band during the Canadian visit of a Japanese premier!!

Related articles:
The Railway Man

Posted by

Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

72 thoughts on “The Bridge On The River Kwai

  1. Just found this one. Hellfire Pass is quite a distance from what is touted as the Bridge now exhibited and that’s where the action really was. Yes the maintained cemetery is impressive and sobering but it is slanted toward Europeans. What about all those Asians tricked into working on the track in the belief they’d earn their keep only to be worked to death and bulldozed into pits. Who cares enough to maintain their individual graves. I found that to be the most distressing thing I learned from my visit while acknowledging the suffering of all who were slaves on the track. Even more distressing is the fact that in todays world millions are perishing under just as brutal a rule. Makes me cynical about the education we now receive suggesting we are evolving into a hiigher form of intelligence.

    1. I so agree Ian. The majority does not care. The few who do and are brave enough to speak out, are bulldozed into silence. Here as well.

    1. Dallas, I am sorry your great uncle had to suffer such torture. I never expected to know anyone connected with this incident when I wrote this, but I am amazed by how it has resonated with so many.

      Apologies for the delay in responding. My time has been consumed with helping my sister arrange for the care of a long lost brother who has resurfaced with severe Alzheimer’s 😦

      1. I am so sorry to hear of your troubles Madhu, my Dad as you know is in a very similar situation at the moment having suffered brain damage as a result of a stroke so I truly know what struggles you are facing. I hope that life is kinder to us all and that we find a little peace within our situations

  2. Thanks for sharing this! I am visiting Bangkok in Oct, and was in 2 minds about going for this tour. But now I’m convinced I should go! 🙂

  3. I have always been very interested in history – not all history have happy endings and some parts were cruel – sometimes parts of the history being romanticized – I really enjoy when you are “moving your the historic corner” – great post… 🙂

  4. I’m beating myself up for not seeing this post before. Madhu, your posts are such eye openers. I always leave learning something new. This one in particular gave me goose bumps …. (Shame the track is not available any more). I know you were saddened and disappointed when you were there, but it did not stop you from taking terrific shots of it.

  5. It’s awesome that as may seem simple like bridges can have so much back stories and different stories and speculation thrown into it. Great stuffs!

  6. I was listening to this soundclip last week when mommy duty called. I’d let you know that I can barely finish this comment because my toddler is fascinated by the music and wants to scroll to the top. So, for him, I’ll end this post so he can listen. 🙂

  7. The song brought back a memory of a post I had intentions of posting a long time ago. I will have to look for it. Funny but the post has nothing to do with The Bridge On The River Kwai only about the fact that it’s a marching song. hahaha
    This is a very informative post. Thanks for telling us all about the bridge. I like the slide show. It helps to view the story through the slides especially after the reading of it is done. ~~~~ : – )

  8. How many who just watch film and don’t dig any deeper have a much skewed version of history. Thank you for this poignant post Madhu as I did not know all the facts of this time in history either. I was shocked to hear of the insensitivity to those who perished, very sad indeed.

  9. I remember watching the film with great enthusiasm. 🙂
    That aside, a beautiful piece. 🙂

  10. We visited the Bridge last year and were disgusted with the gross commercialism surrounding it. Sadly this is happening more and more in some places, but it is particularly sad here, because of the history. To gain because of the misery suffered is truly wrong. The cemetery, on the other hand, was magnificent.

  11. A very touching , moving post my friend. Thank you for sharing a beautiful tribute to the unsung heroes and people who suffered during these times. It is sad how people of today forget the sacrifices of so many so we now can enjoy the sweetness of freedom. How sad that people forget history and failed to learn from it. Your post is an eye opener and I hope people we learn and value the lessons of the past.

  12. I remember watching that movie – your comment ” viewer sensibilities of the time” … today’s version of that movie would probably be much more graphic as our sensibilities seem to have become dulled over time.

    1. It is a shame Angeline. Strangely I never read any accounts of it before my visit. An advanced search after my return, with search terms like ‘insensitive’ turned up a few!

  13. I will have to read Eric’s account. Thanks for putting the real story out there.I had no idea, Madhu. 90,000 unrecognized deaths is unconscionable. I am surprised an advocates group hasn’t rectified this.

    1. I cannot imagine anyone having to endure what Erics grandmother had to! Call me cynical if you will, but as long as no one stands to gain any political mileage, those deaths will remain unacknowledged Lynne.

  14. An elderly gentleman who lived near me was a Japanese prisoner of war and worked on the bridge. His health was very good considering the suffering he had to endure while a prisoner. He had some horrific stories but surprisingly did not have a hatred of the Japanese.

    War brings out the worst in some people. The Japanese were particularly brutal and one wonders how people can become so evil. I suppose the British were also bad to their prisoners and it was the British and not the Germans who introduced concentration camps.

    There was a book written by a Gordon Highlander in 2010 called The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart (Little Brown, £18.99)

    An extract of the horrors was printed in the British Daily Mail at:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1254168/Monsters-River-Kwai-One-British-POW-tells-horrifying-story.html

    1. The link to the ‘Railway Man’ above leads you to an article about one such survivor Jane. No nation is completely good or bad. It is isolated incidents that garner them that reputation. We have enough stories from the British Raj to prove the savage behaviour of some British officers. General Dyer was one. Try googling the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre. I was equally disappointed with that memorial.

      1. The Amritsar massacre was a terrible event in Indian history. General Dyer showed little remorse for his actions.

        The British Army officers up to the end of the First World War tended to be from the upper classes and many of their decisions were very questionable.

        British Officers also send a lot of British soldiers to their deaths. In the First World War Earl Haig or “Butcher Haig” was responsible for the two million British casualties under his command.

        He represented the very concept of class-based incompetent commanders.

        Some of my relations died horrific deaths during the Third Battle of Ypres in September 1917 as a result of inhaling mustard gas which was used by the Germans. Wilfred Owen wrote about the horrors of death from mustard gas in his poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est”

        If the British Officers had listened to the warnings given that the Germans were going to use mustard gas, the soldiers could have been provided with gas masks and protective clothing.

        If the British Officers treated their own soldiers like that then what hope had anyone else of being treated any better?

  15. Your pictures are beautiful, Madhu. I can’t believe that movie was such a fiction, but even worse, as you say, is the carnival atmosphere in a place that should be a somber memorial. I wonder too why there is no memorial to those other “90,000 unsung Burmese, Chinese, Malay and Tamil men.” Excellent post! You know Marianne of East of Malaga wrote about this in a travel blog she has too!

    1. Thank you Cathy. Haven’t read Marianne’s post, and can’t seem to find a link to it on her Malaga blog.

  16. While this is the real bridge over river Kwai, I’ve been to the place in Srilanka where the movie was shot and the scene that they show where the bridge gets blown away. It’s in a place called Kitugala! Always love reading your posts.

  17. Thank you for the tour, Madhu! I don’t hear this music often at all, when I do, I’m in tears…

    1. Ha ha, true, but there have been several, like Gandhi for example, that haven’t veered too far from the truth 🙂

  18. Wonderful photos. Thanks for the information on the bridge and the mockery made of the lost of life there.

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

  19. Beautiful post Madhu and interesting facts!

    We loved to march to the beat of “Colonels Bogey” in our training at the IMA 🙂 And the movie too is unforgettable.

    Thanks for stirring memories! 🙂

  20. rather sad and confusing to see celebrations and tourist operators where we expect solemnity and acknowledgment … well said madhu ….

    1. It is very disturbing Christine. I think the best way to visit places such as this would be to stay overnight and get there very early.

    1. Eric, your story was heartbreaking. Just added a link to your post at the end of my article. The Blue maiden chronicles are fascinating! Read the first, shall return to the rest at leisure.

  21. Behthareen aur bahut khoob… 2 thumbs up for well covered write-up ji

  22. It’s a good thing you weren’t there for the annual River Kwai Bridge Festival… from what I’ve heard there’s a large fair, plus a sound and light show with fireworks. What a shame about the lack of a memorial to remember the 90,000 Asian victims; it’s clear the death rate among these forced labourers was far higher than Allied POWs. Japan still has a lot to answer for what happened during those years… an official recognition of all its wartime atrocities would mean the world to so many of its neighbours.

    1. Yes – you’re right, it’s terrible the lack of recognition for these poor, “expendable” locals! I’m perhaps a cynic, but I wonder if it’s the fault of the Allies, which exacted such a humiliating capitulation on Japan that left no room for acknowledging the plight of others? Unfortunately it’s a legacy (the lack of recognition) which will blight Eastern diplomacy for decades.

    2. I was aghast when I heard of the festival James!
      As for the memorial, I wonder why we – Asians – don’t care enough for our dead. Is it because we can’t afford to or is it that ordinary people who don’t don uniforms are somehow ‘expendable’ as Meredith puts it? Just read this sad story in the New York Times.

  23. How very interesting!! It’s a film imprinted on the mind. think we know that stories are exagerated to make good movies but I didn’t realise quite so much! A bit of a shame for the real story – perhaps someone will do a remake 😉

    1. Perhaps. The romance of the original would be hard to match though. You will not believe how many local guides actually try to perpetuate the movie version of the story, even going so far as to pass off the site as the movie location!

  24. What a lovely bridge indeed Madhu and I loved the tour. Lovely shots and thanks for sharing hon. 😀 *hugs*

Comments are closed.