Historical Fiction: The Bridge over the River Kwai, Thailand

Released in 1957 and based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai was an enormous critical and commercial success winning 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film’s success and its repeated airings on television, usually around Christmas, have lead to the misconception that it’s a true story.

It isn’t.  

Which is not to say there is no bridge on the River Kwai. It exists. But it’s made of steel not wood.

Here’s a poorly framed snapshot of it.
Kanchanaburi, Thailand

There is also a 415 km stretch of railway, built by allied prisoners of war, that joins Southern Thailand to what is now Myanmar. But you couldn’t make a movie about the reality of the “Death Railway” and the treatment of the prisoners of war who built it, because that movie is not one the average viewer could stomach.

Instead, author Pierre Boulle and director David Lean used the construction of the Thai-Burma railway as the setting for a story about obsession and madness. One in which British officer and stickler for rules and regulations, Colonel Nicholson, becomes so hung up on constructing a masterful piece of British engineering in the Thai jungle that he completely loses sight of the fact that his obsession:

a) will lead to the slaughter of British troops in Burma

b) is causing further suffering to his already sick, weak and malnourished men


c) has turned him into a war collaborator.

These points never cross his mind.

At least, not in the book.

In fact, in the book Nicholson unwaveringly dedicates himself to the completion of the bridge and encourages his men to take up the motto of their captors: “be happy in your work”

because, as Nicholson states –

“We shouldn’t hesitate to adopt a principle of the enemy’s if it happens to be a good one.”

Colonel Nicholson, pge 88.
Bridge on The River Kwai
Pierre Boulle, 1952

Boulle’s novel was a character study, drawn from his own experiences in WW2 as both a secret agent and a Japanese prisoner of war. And it was these experiences that imbued the novel with a level of authenticity that carried over to the film adaptation.

When David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai was released it upset and frustrated many of the surviving POWs who had worked on the railway. On the one hand the movie shed light on a part of the war unknown to a great many people, particularly in the US but on the other it was pure fiction. While the film alluded to the grim realities of the Burma Railway, and life as a POW, it only scratched the surface and didn’t show the true horror. Something that would have been unpalatable to moviegoers of the 1950s.

I can understand the discontent on the part of the soldiers, but I also understand the decision of the filmmakers. Having been to Kanchanaburi and having read about the Burma Railway and the men who suffered and died while building it, and the savagery of their Japanese captors, I know that the real story is a relentless depiction of cruelty and human suffering. A story with little in the way of relief, save for small acts of friendship, loyalty and tenderness, displayed between the POWs.

And while attempts have been made to tell the real story such as in 2013s The Railway Man, the fact is the story of the Burma Railway is not a crowd pleaser; it’s a horror show.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Lest We Forget.


Boulle, P. 1956, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Collins, Great Britain







  1. What a coincidence, I have just finished writing an article about these sights from my 2015 visit to Kanchanaburi. Nice write up, hope you enjoyed your visit as much as I did mine.

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