Monday, 23 November 2009


‘What a load of shite, eh?’ says Dick Lee, in a thick cockney accent. The octogenarian former-HQ dispatch rider is building up quite a head of steam about the seven-Oscar-winning Bridge on the River Kwai. It is 52 years since the movie premiered to worldwide acclaim, but he is not alone among ex-POWs who still voice their disenchantment.

A friend, Paul, remembers attending a screening for veterans in London in 1958 with his father, Captain Hugh Pilkington. ‘He turned to the doorman and said “what a lot of tripe”.’

But perhaps the biggest idea of how wide of the mark the script was comes from Colonel Philip Toosey, the commanding officer played by Alec Guinness. ‘He didn’t even recognise himself as the character portrayed in the movie,’ Julie Summers, Toosey’s grand-daughter and author of The Colonel of Tamarkan, tells me. ‘The film made millions of people think they were seeing something realistic when they were not.’ Unsuccessful entreaties were made to the film’s flamboyant producer, Sam Spiegel, to add a super-title that branded the movie ‘fiction’.

So where did the movie go wrong?

Bombshell: there never was a River Kwai. Blame Pierre Boulle. In 1952 the French author published his novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai. A POW himself, he’d heard survivors talk of building two bridges on Khwae Mae Klong; and many railway camps were along the adjoining Khwae Noi. The ‘khwae’ part obviously stuck in his head. But khwae is simply a Thai word for river. ‘So he inadvertently named it “River River”,’ laughs Summers.

In 1942, the Japanese desperately needed a railway link between Bangkok and Rangoon to fuel their push into India. Use was made of 60,000 Allied POWs in Singapore and Java, a windfall labour force. A further 200,000 native labourers were also chain-ganged.

With the route fording rugged terrain adjacent the Burma border, 688 bridges spanning nearly 13 kilometres were needed along the 415 kilometre sector that became notorious as ‘The Death Railway’.

One bridge had to span 378 metres across Khwae Mae Klong at the provincial town of Kanchanaburi (‘city of gold’). Tamarkan, on the south bank near the confluence, was historically where the Burmese crossed the river in their bid to sack the ancient kingdom. The POWs swelled the usual population of 5000 and local vendors enjoyed a boom, trading much-prized duck eggs which supplemented meager rice rations.

Kanchanaburi was also headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army 9th Railway Engineering Division. ‘They was no mugs, they knew what they was doing,’ Lee reckons. Some of the best minds behind the Thai-Burma Railway – including engineer Yoshihiko Futamatsu went on to design Japan’s ‘Bullet Train’.

For eight months POWs toiled in blistering sun and driving downpours to complete The Bridge, with little mechanical assistance. Materials from an 11-arched steel bridge in Java were shipped up, and British-laid railway tracks in Malaya were recycled.

While never sabotaged with explosives, quality control was deliberately lax, the admixture of the concrete pylons diluted when guards’ backs were turned. The wooden service bridge adjacent was also home to a fine colony of white ants, introduced by the very men who’d built it.

One humorous episode involved two Japanese guards who disappeared during a lunch break, presumably consumed by the setting concrete. They were subsequently found, AWOL with their local girlfriends!

Nine POWs lost their lives during construction, but a further 400 of 2600 Australians, English, Dutch, and Americans based at Tamarkan perished from disease, malnutrition, and wayward Allied bombs. (The attrition was low compared to 24% of all POWs who died in Japanese hands --12,800 Allies and up to 100,000 Asians died building the railway.) Credit to Toosey, a strict disciplinarian and stickler for maintaining hygiene and dignity. And, unlike in the movie, he did encourage – even covered for – one escape attempt.

With little or no fanfare, the bridge was completed at the end of April 1943. After a foot regiment, the first train crossed May 1. Many POWs probably willed The Bridge to come tumbling down. But it stood defiant.

Again, unlike in the movie, The Bridge did its job, enabling 1000 tons of goods and munitions each day to reach Japanese troops in Burma, despite the RAF and USAAF trying to blow it back to Indonesia. Hitting a narrow-gauge rail line from several thousand feet proved tricky, so American military boffins devised the Azon: radio-controlled bombs with adjustable fins. BOOM! On June 24 1945, three curved spans were blasted into the river. A couple of months before war’s end, The Bridge was out of action.

Post-war, the bridge was repaired. Two rectangular spans lend an awkward asymmetrical look. With the movie achieving ‘classic’ status, the Seventies saw a new army arriving in Kanchanaburi – backpackers. Lee says: ‘There was nothing there at the time except a couple of rooms and a shack.’ They all wanted to see the bridge on the River Kwai. But there was no such thing. So Thailand responded by changing the name from Mae Khlong to River Kwai. Happy now?

Kanchanaburi -- three hours northwest of Bangkok and gateway to Erawan Falls, the Tiger Temple and Hellfire Pass -- is a buzzing low-rise town where everything screams ‘tourism’ … T-shirt stalls, friendly but persuasive post-card vendors, T-shirts, pirated CDs, T-shirts, hawkers cooking Unidentified Frying Objects, T-shirts, and bars where you can ‘get shit-faced on a shoestring’ (as one sign exhorts) while watching screenings of The Movie. Cue infectious Colonel Bogey March soundtrack. Pencil-sharp V8-engined long-tail craft cannon along the river, dodging floating karaoke bars.

There is a dramatic beauty. Depending on the season, the backdrop is either the purple peaks of the Burma Ranges, or a hazy grey painterly rendition. But, no, Thailand was deemed not jungley enough -- the film was shot in Sri Lanka (Spiegel sending the footage home on five separate flights).

The train line insinuates itself into the burgeoning tapioca-and-sugar cane centre of 175,000 it helped foster. We hop off the third-class rattler at Kwai Bridge Station, where vintage locomotives and Japanese diesel truck-trains litter the station. We approach it side-on from water level for a more theatrical impression. ‘But that can’t be it … it’s metal,’ says John from Australia, derailed by the movie.

We walk the planks. They creak underfoot, as a scrum of tourists pick their way across the metal spans. When the train and tour buses arrive from Bangkok it is standing room only, as we sardine our way from one end of the bridge to the other. Yawning gaps open to a watery grave 20 metres below. ‘No Occupational Health & Safety issues here then,’ quips John.

TOOOOTTT!!! A short, sharp horn blast. Expletives deleted! A yellow-and-red loco chugs into view. Fortunately it stops at the platform. Relieved, nervous giggles. The train inches gingerly forward to the slaps and groans of displaced planks. Further horn blasts shoo stragglers. Beaming faces peer from open sash windows. Motor-drives click and whirr in syncopation with the train’s squeaking wheels. Two Muslim girls give a super-friendly wave.

The train clatters above umbrella-ed vendor carts, past tapioca fields, then swallowed by the jungle ...

‘I walked into the jungle where a bit of the old railway was still lying,’ Lee says. ‘It was so silent, you think, Did that all really happen? Like a bleedin’ dream.’

More like a recurrent nightmare. Which is why, to me, the most resonant line in the movie is when Alec Guinness says: ‘I hope in years to come, when the war is over, people remember who built it and how they built it.’ Amen. Ironically, certainly not by watching that movie.

Now, if I could just get that damn Colonel Bogey tune out of my head.

Question: Do you think this movie has done more good or more harm in telling the story of the POWs on the Death Railway? Leave your comments here.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Stu, It was amazing to be there with you on the bridge this year. Thanks for the great commentary. A very special day. Rod


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