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The Bridge Over The River (Not) Kwai

July 25, 2012

I visited the infamous bridge that inspired the Hollywood film and I found a new fact for the blogosphere. The bridge was actually not built over the River Kwae but was in fact built over the River Mae Klong which is a quite separate river nearby. In the 60s the Thais found themselves with a problem; tourists kept arriving at the River Kwae to see the bridge and finding nothing, so in the end they took the (ever pragmatic) decision to rename the river Mae Klong to Kwae so now there are two; Kwae Yai and Kwai Noi, Big Kwae and Little Kwae.

This is just the beginning of a whole host of misconceptions and factual inaccuracies in the Hollywood version. One of the most aggravating (and yet sadly predictable) is the extent to which the south-east Asian sacrifice is largely ignored on the silver-screen. Thailand wasn’t really involved in the Second World War, but it had the misfortune of being geographically between Japan and Burma/India, which meant that the Japanese supply line went right through it and picked itself up an entire army of peasant slave labourers. In the course of constructing Japan’s ‘Death Railway’ 13,000 British, American, Australian, Canadian and Dutch prisoners of war were killed, but 100,000 Thai, Malay and Burmese forced labourers also were and they don’t get much of a mention.

Actually, The Bridge Over the River Kwai must be one of the most watered down versions of events in the history of cinema. The film would have you believe that what happened to the prisoners of war was little more than a particularly gruelling Duke of Edinburgh award with a few deaths thrown in for spice. The reality is that the bridge they were tasked to make was being continually blown up and rebuilt by fresh prisoners and war slaves. The Japanese tried to prevent this by storing the prisoners of war in train carriage cells along the bridge itself in hopes that they would deter bombers. All that happened was that the Commonwealth and America blew up an awful lot of their own men in order to stop the Japanese from getting through to west Asia. At one point the river was so clogged with bodies that for three days no boats could cross.

There was also no silly British dilemma about wanting to do a good job for the sake of your stiff-upper-lipped pride; in the film of course, when the bridge explodes at the end (incidentally it was actually shot in Cambodia), you are torn because of course you don’t want the Japanese to get through but at the same time all your favourite characters worked so hard on it. The reality is that the POWs sabotaged as much as they built – even going so far as to collect wood-eating white ants and release them on the wooden supports.

Should you find yourself in Thailand I recommend swinging past the river and walking right the way across the bridge to the quiet part on the other side. From there you can contemplate the quantity of bones in the earth around you in the relative quiet of the temple away from the crowds. If you’re lucky you might even get to see a train cross.


One Comment leave one →
  1. July 31, 2012 3:55 pm

    Well, I did not know half of that and I am ashamed. I had never even thought of the bigger picture with regard to the building of the railway and yet such a knock on effect to the local population is blindingly obvious. I shall see the commemorative services in a new light now and hope that other readers of yours will do likewise.

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