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In 1957-58 the film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai‘ was ground breaking.  It was remarkable for being mainly shot on location (in Ceylon not Thailand) rather than in a studio and for involving the construction and demolition of a real, fully functioning rail bridge.   It's still regarded by many as one of the finest movies ever made. 

One of the things a tourist to Bangkok is encouraged to do is to take a day trip to the actual bridge.

I went to see the movie with my parents for its first release in Australia.  It was a major outing to one of the better theatres in the City involving getting dressed up in my suit, with short pants of course, long socks pulled-up, shoes polished.

I probably didn’t take it all in. It’s very long.  But I have seen it a couple of times since. 

The plot is relatively simple. A British Army Colonel (Alec Guinness) gets a bit too much sun and this, combined with a desire to help his men survive, makes him decide to order them to cooperate with the Japanese to build a bridge on the infamous Siam (Thai)-Burma ‘death’ railway. 

The Japs are obviously going about it all wrong and need British engineering knowhow. 

Somehow the film fails to mention that the Japanese had just wiped out the entire British Pacific fleet virtually without loss to themselves, had taken Singapore almost as easily, had developed the best aircraft and some of the best ships and that knocking up bridges was a relative walk in the park for them. 

In the film the British troops succeed with a heroic effort and even get the Japs to put their shoulder to the wheel to get the job done.  But some spoilsport Colonel Blimp back home wants to destroy their magnum opus.  There’s some trivial worry about the railway supplying the Japanese army for their planned push into India. 

So they send a reluctant, and pretending officer, William Holden in charge of a team of colourful misfits to blow it up.  Bill and team have a few adventures along the way and almost don’t make it.  In the end Alec, shell-shocked and/or realising the error of his ways, detonates the explosives himself just as the (real) first train is crossing.  Spectacular!

Having grown up with this heavily fictionalised version of the story I was amazed to see the real thing.  The first surprise was how flat the surrounding countryside is. 

 

The River Kwai

 

 

There is a wide flood plain on one side and a bit of a rise on the other. Much of the backbreaking work involved driving piles into the silt to create a solid bed for the railway.

Also there were two bridges, a temporary wooden trestle dismantled by the Japanese themselves and a steel truss and concrete bridge that still stands.

 

The two bridges

 

Neither William Holden nor any other Commando got anywhere near either bridge.  But both were repeatedly attacked from the air.

While strategic, the bridges were a relatively minor component of the total railway that required a great deal of earth and rock moving in addition to track laying over several hundred kilometres. 

The total length of the one metre gauge track linking the Siamese (Thai) rail network to the Burmese network was 419 km, most of it 304km in Thailand.  It took several hundred thousand workers almost exactly a year to complete.  60,000 prisoners of war made up the smaller part of this workforce.  Many were British and Australians captured with the fall of Singapore as well as Dutch troops from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

Several hundred captured Americans were also put to work.

Some 15,000 Prisoners of War died.  Around 100,000 ‘civilians’ enslaved by the Japanese also died.

 

 

POW statistics

 

The recent film ‘The Railway Man’ is a less fictionalised account of events around the railway.

6,800 of the Prisoners of War who died during the railway construction are buried at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.  The largest group is British the next Dutch then Australian.  It is extremely heart-wrenching to see those thousands of graves of young ‘servicemen and women of several different faiths and of none’, as the memorial plaque says.

 

 

Graves

 

I didn’t expect to see so many Dutch graves and there were several other surprises for me.

At the time the bridges were built the River was the Mae Klong and the Kwai was a tributary.  The name was erroneously attributed to the river under the bridge but the Thai Government fixed that up in 1960 after the success of the movie by simply renaming that stretch of the Mae Klong.

The present bridge is a composite.  It's a steel truss bridge on concrete piles.   

 

The Bridge

 

The curved-top spans were already second-hand when the bridge was built in 1942-3.  They were shipped in from a previously dismantled bridge in Java, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).   

 

The curved sections

 

In 1945 allied bombing destroyed three of the central spans and after the war the Japanese replaced these with two new longer spans of more conventional design as war reparations.

 

 

The new sections

 

Because they were built after the war to restore the railway the two more solid trapezoidal spans seem out of place. But it all adds drama to the story.  It's easy to imagine a WWII fighter-bomber coming down the river to take the bridge out, once the Japanese had lost air superiority.  And maybe they did line up civilian prisoners on the bridge in a vain attempt to ward the Allies off (see below).

 

The train

 

The railway still runs for tourists and we had a run on the train along the river.

On the 'death railway'

 

There is also a museum but it's very poorly conserved.   Quite a few of the exhibits are out of place so that objects from the 50’s or even the 60’s are in the same display case as wartime objects.  And some of the labelling in English, where it exists at all, is laughable. 

 

The museum

 

Nevertheless it's interesting to see the objects and equipment from the Japanese period and a model of the bridge and POW camp.

 

The museum

 

Having since looked up a number of more reliable sources on-line it's also clear that there are important omissions and errors in the material presented, in particular around the construction and removal of the temporary wooden trestle bridge that was used for a few months until the steel bridge was completed.

I have also been unable to find any verification for the claim in the museum that POWs or civilians were lined up on the bridge to unsuccessfully deter the American bombing raid that destroyed the central spans and that many were killed as a result, making the river red with blood. 

In the material on-line there is no reviling from the accidental killing of 19 POWs and 68 wounded during a five hour raid on the bridge and Ack-Ack defences on 5 February 1945 when three bombs overshot and hit the prisoner’s huts.  Indeed, there is a great deal of detail about how and when prisoners died.   But I could find no mention of the above incident.

 

In addition to visiting the bridge and museum and travelling on the train, mini-bus day tours from your hotel include lunch; rafting on the river; visiting a waterfall and a nearby memorial locomotive in a railway cutting; and elephant rides, for those who are amused by elephants gratuitously carrying flocks of tourists about. 

 

Rafting, elephants, waterfall, locomotive

 

These other entertainments consumed time that might have been spent exploring the bridge and surrounds more thoroughly.  But it beats driving there yourself.

As to the elephants, I can't really object, unless there's physical cruelty involved.  I loved riding the elephant at Taronga Zoo when I was a child.  And I suppose elephants can be likened to very big horses. 

It's said that these places provide work and income to keep the elephants, that are threatened with extinction and would otherwise be allowed to die out.  It's a bit like domestic beef cattle and most other domestic animals.  If we didn't eat them or exploit them in other ways, for example as pets, there wouldn't be any.

 

 

 

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