True Story of the Bridge on the River Kwai

True Story of the Bridge on the River Kwai (1996) Survivors of the Death Railway as they describe the 250-mile Bangkok-Rangoon railroad constructed by the Japanese during WW II, were shocked by the images portrayed in the Hollywood movie. In fact, the entire construction project cost the lives of perhaps 16,000 Allied POWs (about 30% death rate) and up-to-130,000 of the 250,000 Asian labor conscripts.

This was an extraordinary construction project (an earlier British plan had been abandoned, since the terrain was ‘impassable’) for which forced labor was used instead of heavy construction equipment. Moreover, as the Japanese began experiencing military setbacks, the unrealistic schedule for railroad completion was further accelerated.

None of the brutality, lack of food, and unbearable working and living conditions was portrayed in the film. Instead, the soldiers appeared adequately dressed [the actual POW attire was a G-string or lap thong and no shoes) and the image of soldiers marching smartly to music seemed absurd to the survivors.

Factually, the wrong bridge was portrayed: a temporary wooden bridge had been constructed, awaiting the completion of a huge steel and concrete structure. Moreover, Japanese engineers were well experienced in bridge building and required no advice from British engineers.

The survivors were aghast that, for many viewers, this movie reflected what occurred on the Death Railway. Photos and sketches in this documentary make a mockery of David Lean’s portrayal. In addition to the scarcity of food and medical supplies, the survivors repeatedly mentioned the cruelty of the guards, especially the Koreans.

The casualty rate at the River Kwai was significantly less than in the jungle and swamp portions of the rail construction. Reference was made to Lt. Colonel Philip Toosey, who did command British POWs on the River Kwai. He was admired for his vigorous efforts to obtain treatment accorded under the Geneva Convention and for the regular beatings he received for his persistence. (In 1929 Japan refused to sign the Geneva Convention.) The Allied commenced bombing the bridge in late 1943. Despite repeated bombing, it remained functioning until the war’s end.

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