You are on page 1of 7

Bridging Fact and Fiction: A historical analysis of The Bridge on the River Kwai

During World War II, one of the main memories and themes that are remembered today are the prison camps that were put into use during the time. When the topic of WWII prison camps is brought up, the first image to come to mind is probably of the concentration camps used by the Nazis. The gruesome scenery of mistreated prisoners being overworked for their enemies benefit helps to cement these memories rather firmly. However this kind of scenery is not exclusive to the German Nazi prison camps, another of the Axis powers had a similar approach. This Axis power that I am referring to is Japan. Away from the war in Europe, the Japanese were fighting across the territories of East Asia. Like the Germans, the Japanese captured enemy soldiers for use in labor camps. The allied prisoners were used for hard manual labor and often treated quite badly. The movie The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film that focuses on one of these Japanese labor camps, and as the title would suggest, the prisoners are being forced to construct a bridge over the river Kwai in order to link the two parts of the Burma Railway. Like any historical movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai tries to appear accurate to try and best give a sense of what happened in these places at this time. As a result, some parts of the movie are quite true to the actual conditions and events, while some historical aspects were either overlooked or simply to difficult to include. One fine example of a logistical exclusion is the use of the names of the key characters. Several true historical figures are referenced and used, however the majority of the names and people are fictional. Despite being accurately set in the World War II time period and referencing an

actual bridge that was built over the Kwai River, most of this movie is very fictional and strays far from the actual truth of the matter. The setting of this movie is one of the few things that is accurate to the real history. The time during which the events in the movie take place is 1942-43. This is a valid time period for world war II because it took place from 1939-45. In addition to the time period, the geographical setting of the film is one which makes sense in the context of the war. It takes place in the jungles of East Asia, Thailand to be specific. This is plausible because at a point during the war Thailand became allied with Japan and the Axis forces. This specifically happened when the Phibun regime declared war on Britain and the United States in January 1942 and therefore Thailand was rewarded for Phibun's close cooperation with Japan during the early years of war. This cooperation then allowed Japan [to] station 150,000 troops on Thai soil and build the infamous "death railway" through Thailand using Allied prisoners of war. (Country Studies) It is this death railway, better known as Burma-Thailand railway that is the main focus of this movie. The reason that the railway was known as the death railway was because of the massive casualties that were suffered by the workforce. The laborers that were used were mostly prisoners of war, and based on figures and death statistics the conditions were horrible. Based on a report by Captain D. Nelson of the Australian army, 30,131 British prisoners of war served on railway building and 6,904 of them died. (Burma Road, 2004) When the total outcome of the railway is analyzed, sources estimate that around 13,000 total prisoners of war (all nationalities) were killed during the building. This clashes with the portrayal of the labor the labor camp in the movie, because we only see one prisoner die

from the conditions of the camp, and it isnt even when he is working on the railroad. Thus, the conditions in the movie hardly seem the match up with reality. Another aspect of the film that is inconsistent with reality was the actual physical condition that the prisoners are in. When we see them laboring during the movie, they appeared tanned, muscled and generally healthy. Whereas if we look at actual photographs and records of the prisoners who worked in the camps they appear very malnourished and even on the verge of death. In many of the Japanese prison camps, the prisoners had to survive on around 600 calories a day, mainly from rice, seaweed and other foods that were easily scavenged or found in the jungle. (Japanese prison camps, 1986) In addition to the physical condition of the prisoners in the camp was the mental and authoritative status of the Lt. Nicholson. In the film, he is able to rise up in the camp and become a figure of authority amongst the Japanese and British men. According to an account from a real prisoner, seen on the BBCs Timewatch program, such an ascent in the ranks would be implausible. According to the interviewed ex-prisoner, the other people in the camp would have even quietly eliminated anyone who appeared to be gaining such a position within the camp. (Timewatch: The true story of the bridge on the river Kwai, 1997) Despite all of the inaccuracies in the movie that would surely not appeal to a passionate historian, I think that they are a distinct representation of the directors style that appealed specifically to the audiences. By making this claim, the lack of accurate detail about the true atrocities of the camps becomes somewhat justified. After all, if one is to make a movie that will appeal to a wide audience, it can hardly have shocking displays of

violence and mistreatment as what really happened. Thus the true conditions have been dulled to some extent so as to make it less of a shocking film as one created for entertainment. Additionally, the director and producer of the film often strayed away from direct combat scenes. Really there are only two scenes in which we can see the violence taking place, and thus it really helps the audience to focus on the prison camp and the building of the bridge as opposed to the combat and violence of the war that was going on. The way that the script is written is in a way that can be seen in other films from the time period. The general progression of the film is that a person is captured, stands up to the torture and then rises up to a position of power and influence again. In the case of the movie specifically, the Lt. Colonel Nicholson of the British army is the man who fits in this general scheme. When him and his men are brought in, he refuses to back down and is eventually granted a position of influence by the Japanese. In a way, this would bring the audiences support for him and allow people to see him as the hero of the film. An aspect of the filmmakers vision is also the turn of fate that comes to Nicholson. When he begins to cooperate with the enemy, he goes from the audiences hero to the enemy, while the American man, Commander Schears is able to escape and present a plan to sabotage the work of Nicholson and the Japanese. Through each of the characters' own agendas and ideals, three different competing personalities emerge. We have Commander Schears who really wants to just go home and leave the war behind. Through that desire, the audience comes to see that Schears has values quite different from the British and Japanese. He often sees things in the most rational way and thereby favors practicality over principle. One of the most potent

examples of this is when Schears is returning to the bridge with the British commando squad and one of the British soldiers is wounded. The other British soldiers want to leave him behind to reach the objective, and because that's what they were told to do earlier. However, Schears appears to be the only clear headed one and demands that the injured soldier be brought along on a stretcher, emphasizing that no man gets left behind. Where the British were very insistent on rules and principle, Schears was thinking in the most practical and compassionate manner. The third personality that is thrown into the mix is that of Colonel Saito, the Japanese leader of the camp. We learn in the movie that if the bridge isn't finished by May 12th he will have to commit suicide, thus his demands that the officers will work as well as foot soldiers to create the largest workforce. Thus through this abandonment of the traditional rules and principle, he hopes that he can save his life. This clashes with the character of Nicholson who would favor principle and rules over everything else. Eventually in the movie, Nicholson's desire to adhere to rules overcomes Saito's command for all men to work. However the bridge does end up being built on schedule, and therefore Saito's life is spared. By creating these three competing characters, the director creates a deeper plot line than what could otherwise be accomplished. In this instance the viewpoint of the director is clear to see, but not so overpowering that it subtracts from the movie. In fact, it adds to the movie in several positive ways by showing some of the true beliefs held by soldiers but also by keeping the watchers interested. While it was a movie produced to be entertaining, I do think hat I have learned a few things from the film and from research. I hate to admit it, but I never really thought

about the Japanese prison camps before. After all the main focus of prison camps during world war II was on the concentration camps in Germany, and thus it was easy to overlook the Japanese ones. This movie didn't portray the conditions of the camp as well as a history book probably would, however it provided the spark for me to research these camps more. Through looking at pictures and documents concerning the camps, some of them were just as bad as the German ones. Thus there is a whole section of World War II history that I had previously overlooked. In that respect, even though the movie alone didn't make me learn about the true condition and even existence of such prison camps, the research that went along with this project was really eye opening. In conclusion, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a moving story and is certainly a glimpse into some aspects of the Asian side of World War II. However, some of the accuracy of events and setting have been omitted from the film in favor of more cinematic and appealing elements. This does make sense in the context of the movie industry though, because the main goal of writers and producers is to make money, and if a film doesnt appeal to the audience it wont sell. For this reason we can see some of the bias of the writers and producers in the portrayal of the American soldier as the true hero. So even though the atmosphere and events of the movie seem realistic and plausible, one must not forget that it is still just a movie; and it was made to be entertaining for an audience. So even though it probably couldnt be used as a source for a research paper, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a riveting and exciting movie, and an excellent example of World War II film.

Works Cited: Elston, Paul, prod. "TIMEWATCH: The TRUE STORY OF THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI." Timewatch. The BBC: 10 Oct 1997. Television. "Burma Road." World Book. 2004 ed. 2. Chicago: World Book inc., 2004. Print. "Japanese Prison Camps." The world almanac of world war II. 1st. Toronto, Canada: Random House, 1986. Print. . "Thailand: World War II." Country Studies. U.S. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 25 May 2012. <>. Lean, David, dir. The Bridge on the River Kwai. Columbia, 1957. Film.