I believe that it can readily be acknowledged that the 1957 David Lean movie version of the 1952 book by Pierre Boulle is great theater but terrible history. Over the ensuing decades, it has received numerous awards. It was also a box office success. It was the highest-grossing film of 1957 in the USA and was also the most popular film at the British box office that year. In addition, when it was first broadcast on American TV in 1966, ABC paid a hefty $1.8m for the rights.
But having said that, Boulle’s story is pure fiction and even that wasn’t good enough for David Lean. He knew that in order for the movie to do well in the USA, it had to have an American star. History be damned; we need to make money! So he had the part of British officer Warden in the book re-written as CDR Shears from the USS HOUSTON. He then hired William Holden to play that part. No POW ever successfully escaped from the Kanchanaburi area.
Although the well-known British actor Alec Guinness was casted in the leading role, Lean had to defend himself in England for seemingly portraying COL Nichols as a ‘collaborator’! Lean also confirmed that Columbia Studios almost stopped filming after three weeks because there was no white woman in the film, forcing him to add what he called “a very terrible scene” between Holden and a nurse on the beach.
In short, there were no US POWs anywhere near the bridges during their construction. The vast majority of US POWs, including hundreds of HOUSTON survivors worked in Burma not Thailand. They were, however, later housed near those bridges in the ‘rest camps’ following the completion of the Railway. A few of them were later used to repair bomb damage on the wooden bridge.
There is even a minor controversy over the prop bridge that was built in Sri Lanka for the movie. Some say it was based on an actual Railway bridge near SangKlaBuri. But supposedly Lean offered a prize for the submission of plans from a wooden bridge. A group of students from MIT were said to have won. It is doubtful that in the mid-50s they would have had access to photos of the SangKlaBuri bridge on which to base their model. But it is not impossible.
Furthermore, when the film was released in Japan under the title Bridge Built on the Battlefield, it too was met with derision for portraying the Japanese Engineers as incompetent.
Perhaps The Bridge on the River Kwai should be for all of us a cautionary tale when we might be tempted to accept the Hollywood version of an event as actual history.