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!!

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The Railway Man