Sold down the river

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 August, 2007, 12:00am

'What a load of s***e, eh?' says Dick Lee in a thick cockney accent. The octogenarian war veteran is building up a head of steam about the seven-Oscar-winning movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. It is 50 years since it was shown to worldwide acclaim but he is not alone among ex-prisoners of war who still express disenchantment.

A better insight into how wide of the mark the script was comes from the granddaughter of Colonel Philip Toosey, the commanding officer played as Colonel Nicholson by Alec Guinness. 'There was nothing in the film that led him to believe the character of Nicholson could have anything to do with him,' says Julie Summers, who is also author of The Colonel of Tamarkan. 'He described it as 'a good fun piece of fiction'. 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 subtitle 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 the novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai. A former prisoner of war (POW) himself, he'd heard survivors talking of building two bridges on Khwae Mae Klong, and many railway camps stood along the adjoining Khwae Noi. The khwae part obviously stuck in his head. But khwae is simply the Thai word for river.

'So he inadvertently named it 'River River',' says Summers with a laugh.

In 1942, the Japanese desperately needed a railway link between Bangkok and Rangoon (now known as Yangon) to fuel their push into India. Use was made of 60,000 Allied POWs from Singapore and Java - a windfall labour force. A further 200,000 native labourers were forced to work. The route forged through rugged terrain adjacent to the Burma (Myanmar) border; 688 bridges spanning nearly 13km completed the 415km line, which became known as the Death Railway.

One bridge had to span 378 metres across Khwae Mae Klong at the provincial town of Kanchanaburi ('city of gold', but notable for its paper mill). Tamarkan (Tamarind Wharf) on its south bank was historically known as the point where the Burmese crossed the river in their bid to sack the ancient kingdom. The crumbling walls of Old City Gate overlook the confluence. The presence of the POWs swelled the usual population of 5,000, but Kanchanaburi was also the headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army 9th Railway Engineering Division.

'They were no mugs, they knew what they were doing,' Lee reckons. Some of the best minds behind the Thai-Burma railway - including engineer Yoshihiko Futamatsu - went on to design the Shinkansen: Japan's bullet-train network.

For eight months, POWs toiled under the blistering sun and in monsoonal downpours to complete the bridge, with little mechanical assistance. Materials from an arched steel bridge in Java were shipped up and non-core sections of British-laid railway tracks in Malaya were recycled.

While never sabotaged with explosives, the quality of the cement pilings suffered because the mixture was diluted when guards' backs were turned.

Nine POWs lost their lives during construction, but a further 400, out of the 2,600 Australian, British, Dutch and American servicemen based at the Tamarkan camp, perished from disease and malnutrition. With little or no fanfare the bridge was completed at the end of April 1943. Following a foot regiment, the first train crossed on May 1. Many POWs probably willed the bridge to come tumbling down. But it stood defiant.

Unlike in the movie, the bridge did its job, enabling 1,000 tonnes of goods and munitions a day to reach Japanese troops in Burma, despite the best efforts of the British Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Forces to blow it to Indonesia.

Hitting a narrow-gauge rail line from several thousand metres proved tricky, so American military boffins devised the Azon, a radio-controlled bomb with adjustable fins.

On June 24, 1945, three curved spans of the bridge were blasted into the river; a couple of months before the war's end the bridge was irreparably out of action. Post-war, two rectangular spans were bolted into the gap, lending an awkward, asymmetrical look.

With the movie achieving 'classic' status, the 1970s 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.

The bridge remains one of the biggest drawcards in a kingdom with a royal flush of drawcards. Meanwhile, 'the movie keeps a very important episode in history alive and that must be a good thing,' concedes Summers.

KANCHANABURI, NORTHWEST OF Bangkok and capital of the province of the same name, is a buzzing town where everything screams, 'Tourism': T-shirt stalls, friendly but persuasive postcard vendors, pirated CDs and bars where you can watch screenings of the movie.

Pencil-sharp, V8-engined, long-tail craft cannon along the coffee-coloured river. Floating karaoke bars pump out insidious music every evening, surely a war crime in itself. But there is a dramatic beauty. Depending on the season, the backdrop is either the purple peaks of the Burma Ranges or a hazy grey rendition. But for the film Thailand was thought not jungle-heavy enough and shooting took place in Sri Lanka instead.

The train line insinuates itself into the burgeoning town of 175,000 people. We jump off the third-class rattler at River Kwai Bridge station, littered with vintage Japanese C-56 locomotives and diesel truck-trains.

'Do you think that's it?' my travel mate asks as we approach low matt-black arches. A scrum of tourists indicates it is. The bridge is not as heroic as it looks in the film. It does not have the iconic gravitas of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or London's Tower Bridge, mainly because it sits at street level.

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. Yawning gaps open to show churning eddies 20 metres below. One person a year falls off the bridge, according to the town's tourist police.

A short, sharp horn blast and a yellow and red locomotive shoots into view. Fortunately it stops at the platform; cue relieved, nervous giggles.

The train inches gingerly forward. Beaming faces peer from open sash windows while the engine clicks and whirs in syncopation with the train's squeaking wheels. The train clatters above vendor carts and past tapioca fields and is swallowed by jungle.

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

It is more like a recurrent nightmare for the POWs who constructed the bridge, which is why the most resonant line for me in the movie is when Guinness says: 'I hope in years to come, when the war is over, people remember who built it and how they built it.'

Certainly, but not through watching the movie. Now, if I can just shift that damn Colonel Bogey March soundtrack out of my head.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( and Thai Airways ( fly from Hong Kong to Bangkok, from where Kanchanaburi can be reached by train in about three hours.