Like most people who have seen the 1957 film, any mention of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai conjures up images of leech-ridden swamps; a relentless, searing sun; and sweat-drenched prisoners marching back to camp in formation while whistling the Colonel Bogey March. With my knowledge admittedly stemming solely from the movie, I decided to take a day trip from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi to see if reality lived up to movie myth.
Based on a true-life story, the film depicts World War II British POW’s who were forced by the Japanese to build a bridge that would facilitate movement of supplies on the Burma Railroad. After a brief stop at the local War Museum, I slogged two blocks in oppressive heat to the foot of the iron trestle, gazed out over the placid stream and tried to imagine the torture prisoners had to endure in this unforgiving landscape. More than 100,000 conscripted laborers and 12,000 prisoners of war died during the project.
Stepping carefully between railroad ties and track, I crossed slowly to the other side, at one point scrunching to the railing to allow passage of a tourist-filled miniature steam locomotive that chugs across every few minutes. Although the movie ended with a spectacular explosion of the entire structure, the arched iron spans at either end are original, as are many of the iron tracks. In fact, I learned that the bridge was actually destroyed by bombers, not by explosive charges set by ground troops, as portrayed in the movie.
The list of inconsistencies and mistakes in the film is extensive but perhaps most glaring is that the river over which the bridge was built is not the Kwai. Kanchanaburi is located at the confluence of the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai Rivers and the bridge spans the Khwae Yai. Not unsurprisingly, British corrupted the word Khwae (correctly pronounced “kwhere“) to “kwai.” Kanchanaburi, hoping to capitalize on tourism and bowing to the power of the cinema, renamed the stretch where the bridge was built to River Kwai. Still, the movie’s mystique endures. I marched back to my minivan, accompanied by rhythmic marching and whistling carried on the winds of history.