to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

34.20 the Novel

In 1952, Pierre Boulle published the novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï. It was subsequently translated into many languages and was quite a literary success. The story is fictional but uses the construction of a bridge on the Thai-Burma Railway, in 1942–1943, as its historical setting. It is partly based on Boulle’s own life experiences working in Malaysia rubber plantations and later for the Allied Forces in French Indo-China. The novel deals with the plight of World War II British prisoners of war forced by the Imperial Japanese Army to build such a bridge. Boulle was in no way associated with the TBR nor did he ever claim to be writing anything but fiction. He says that he based the lead character of COL Nicholson on stories he had heard over the years.  

In 1957, David Lean released a movie adaptation of that story. In an attempt to ensure its box office success, he made liberal changes to the story as told in the book. He added an American said to be a survivor of the sinking of the USS HOUSTON and cast William Holden in the role. At the insistence of the producers, he also had to insert a superfluous romantic interlude so that a western female role was included. Even the spectacular destruction of the bridge and train as depicted in the movie is quite different than Boulle’s version.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who can identify the story of the Bridge on the River Kwai base their knowledge on this movie. It is great theater but horror history!

The true story of the bridge is actually much less dramatic than the fictional version. In Nov 1942, British POWs led by LtCol Toosey – who was an artilleryman not an engineer – were brought from the camp at NongPlaDuk and assigned the task of building the wood bridge. Then in Jan 43, thousands of Dutch POWs arrived from Java and they began working on the iron bridge that still stands today. After constructing the cement pillars, they re-assembled the iron portion that had been looted and shipped from Java via Bangkok.

One of the most common criticisms of both the book and movie is that they seem to show the POWs as well cared for. This, however, is reasonably accurate as far as the bridge builders were concerned. In the book, COL Nicholson comes close to “collaborating with the enemy” by offering to build a ‘better’ bridge. LtCol Toosey is remembered as a natural leader who knew how to pick his battles and who developed a working relationship with the Japanese Camp Commander but, never came close to ‘collaborating’. His primary mission was to protect his men. Because of this and the fact that they were co-located with the IJA HQ element, they suffered few of the hardships that the Death Railway is noted for. Reportedly, of the thousands of men there, only a few dozen died. They undoubtedly had the lowest death toll and one of the best POW experiences imaginable. Upon completion of the bridges, many of these men were sent back to NPD or on to build an airfield in Ubon. LtCol Toosey stayed in Kanchanaburi to oversee the building of a ‘hospital’. 

It is also not clear where Boulle got the name Kwai. In Thai, kwai (ควาย) is the word for water buffalo. In this tonal language, another similarly sounding word is ไขว้ meaning to cross or intersect. It is not thought that Boulle spoke any Thai. In the early 60s, tourists began arriving in Thailand looking for the bridge on the River Kwai. This confused the Thais because there was no such place as a River Kwai. They soon pieced together that they were seeking the WW2-era bridge in Kanchanaburi. Upon arrival, those tourists were often disappointed to find an iron bridge that looked nothing like the one depicted in the movie. Indeed, the original bamboo and wood bridge that Toosey’s men had built was heavily bomb damaged in June 1945 and was dismantled soon after the war. For one thing, it had completely obstructed navigation of the river. Period maps clearly show that river to be the Mae Klong. A short distance downstream, across from the walled city of Kanchanaburi, the Kwai Noi River joins the Mae Klong which proceeds on to the Gulf of Siam. Kwae Noi (แคว น้อย) literally means small tributary. Within a few years, the Thai government renamed the portion of the Mae Klong west of the city as the Kwae Yai (แคว ใหญ่) or Big Tributary. There has never been a river named Kwai!

On social media still today, there are (confused) tourists who insist that the largely wooden viaduct at WangPo that is part of the operating rail system is the actual bridge on the River Kwai. The word ‘over’ is often substituted for ‘on’ as in Bridge over the River Kwai. In point of fact, the existing viaduct overlooks the Kwae Noi but no part of the TBR actually crosses over it. The iron bridge spans the Kwae Yai. 

Another point of discussion is how David Lean decided what his movie prop bridge would look like. Apparently, the real wooden bridge was too “plain”. It is said that he held a competition and that a group of students from MIT sent in the winning design. Surprisingly though, the movie bridge looks a lot like one on the TBR in Sangklaburi near the Burmese border. It is doubtful, however, that those students would have had access to that information.

As for odd coincidences, there is another associated with this bridge. Although there were no US military POWs involved in the building of these bridges, there was one American citizen present. He was serving in the British Army and was one of Toosey’s staff. In the fictional account, US sailor CDR Shears escapes and then returns in order to blow up the bridge. Nothing even remotely similar ever occurred. In fact, we have only one account of a successful escape from any TBR camp and that occurred very late in war. Ironically, CPT Pomeroy, the American with Toosey, did attempt to escape but was re-captured and promptly executed by the Japanese. 

The book and movie were successful in bringing the story of the Thai-Burma Railway into the collective consciousness of the world. Unfortunately, this fictional account is far and away from the true story of the Thai-Burma Railway.