The Bridge on the River Kwai

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 May, 2011, 12:00am


Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness
Director: David Lean
Year of original release: 1957

Set-up: This disturbing second world war epic is a British production directed by famous filmmaker David Lean. The screenplay was based on a novel by French writer Pierre Boule. The characters and the plot of The Bridge on the River Kwai are fictional, but the historical setting isn't. The atrocities that Japanese soldiers committed during the construction of the Burma Railway were all too real. Thousands of prisoners-of-war (PoWs) died of disease, hunger and abuse. The movie-makers toned down much of the brutality that actually took place when British PoWs were forced by their Japanese captors to build a railway bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand. The bridge was badly damaged in an Allied bombing raid towards the end of the war, but later it was repaired and restored. It still stands and remains a major tourist attraction in Thailand.

Plot: After the surrender of Singapore in 1942, a group of captured British soldiers is taken to a Japanese prison camp in western Thailand. There, they are chain-ganged into building a strategically vital bridge over the River Kwai. The unit's commander, Colonel Nicholson, immediately clashes with the camp's cruel leader, Colonel Saito, over the appalling conditions of the prisoners. Saito will have none of it. He is willing to do all it takes to complete the bridge as soon as possible. Many of the prisoners fall sick from overwork and abuse. Those that try to escape are shot. Under Nicholson's principled command, the prisoners complete the bridge on time. Yet the British are harbouring secret plans to sabotage the Japanese war effort in the end.

Hell on earth: Prisoners lived in appalling conditions in Japanese PoW camps. Men died daily from disease, malnutrition and exhaustion. The sick received no medical care. The Japanese focused all their energy on finishing their railway line and used prisoners as slave labourers. Their diet consisted of a twice-daily meal of plain rice with some vegetables. They were forced to work for 16 hours a day. They were beaten and tortured if they tried to resist or rest. Punishments included being made to kneel on sharp sticks while holding a rock in the air and being tied to a tree for days. Prisoners also suffered from the harsh climate: extreme heat on some days, pouring rain on others. It was truly hell on earth.

The Geneva Convention: In 1929, an international law was passed, laying down guidelines about the treatment of PoWs. Under the Geneva Convention, every PoW is entitled to adequate food, medical care and freedom from abuse during his captivity. In a POW camp, every inmate must follow rules of discipline and obey orders. Yet if a prisoner was captured while trying to escape, his captors could not punish him severely or execute him. The law stipulated that any prisoner required to do manual labour should be compensated. In 1929, the convention was signed by 47 countries, including Japan. Yet the Japanese army treated captured enemy soldiers during the second world war with appalling brutality.

Death railway: The railway covered a distance of more than 400km from Myanmar to northern Thailand. It played an essential part of the Japanese military's logistical plans to take full control of the region. More than 16,000 PoWs died during the construction of the railway - 38 deaths for every kilometre of track.

A terrible legacy: Much of the Death Railway had to be constructed on difficult terrain. Construction began in October 1942 and lasted until August 1943. Yet the hard work of the prisoners was not over. Some 30,000 of them were stationed in camps along the entire track and tasked with maintaining the line. Thousands of captive soldiers died in this dark chapter of the war in Asia. Many of them were in their late teens and early 20s. The bridge in Kanchanaburi province in Thailand is a monument to some people's capacity for cruelty - and to others' bravery in the face of evil.