If the Remagen bridge no longer exists, the no less famous and legendary one over the Kwai River that we all have in our heads straightened with the martial whistles of Colonel Bogey’s March never existed. That does not mean that you can not visit it. I know it sounds weird, but that’s the way it is.
The bridge over the river Kwai, from the 1957 film by David Lean of the same name, awarded with seven Oscars, is, in fact, a fiction imagined by the author of the novel on which the film is based, the Frenchman Pierre Boulle. There was never such a bridge, in particular, the object of the struggle between the Japanese Colonel Saito and the stubborn British Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson.
But the desire of the many fans of that film, one of the best in the film industry of all times, managed to materialize the bridge. On the Kwai River (Khwae in Thai) there was none that could be fully identified with the cinematographic, in whose search the travelers went, which indicated that there was a business there, so in a remarkable exercise of tourist empiricism, Thai Government decided.
In 1960, that since there was a nice bridge of the Second World War in Tamarkán, on Mae Klong, the name of the river was changed to Kwai, and everyone was so happy. I hope I’m not giving Arran clues so that now in a turistófila action we mount commands like the one of William Holden and Jack Hawkins of the film and we fly the bridge.
That bridge of 346 meters that the traveler can see in comfortable excursions from Bangkok on the renamed Kwai, in the vicinity of Kanchanaburi, is a metallic one that the Japanese brought from Java. During the war it coexisted with another of wood built by hand by the suffering prisoners of the cruel Japanese Army, which was about five hundred meters away and looked more like the movie and our imagination. Both were bombed and sunk by British aviation in 1945, but only the metallic one (numbered 227) was rebuilt again.
Pierre Boulle, born in 1912 in Avignon, which perhaps predisposed him to bridges, was a renowned author of novels (including The Planet of the Apes, on which the film was based). He had his first great success with Le Pont de la rivière Kwai (1952), which has become an international bestseller, especially after the English translation by former British commandos Xan Fielding, a great friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor, At the same time, I also commando and my friend.
Gives me another link with the bridge of the Kwai, apart from having been the happy child possessor of the unforgettable scale model of Jecsan and the matching plastic figurines of prisoners in rags. Fielding and Paddy could not help but identify with Shears and Warden, the commandos sent to destroy the bridge.
Boulle himself had been a secret agent of Free France in Singapore and Indochina before being caught by the Vichy police and sentenced to forced labor in the Mekong, an experience he used for his novel, transferring it to the construction of a bridge over the Kwai. (to finish it rolling, it turns out that there are two Kwai rivers, which converge, the Kwai Yai and the Kwai Noi). Since he had not been in the area and seeing on the map that the railroad was passing by the river, he put his bridge on it and it was so quiet. Although then the Kwai had to be moved so that everything coincided.
Boulle did not bother just the picky geographers, but the British Army, some of whose commanders felt that the fictional Nicholson’s portrait was offensive to their traditions and values. It is true that first the guy seems admirable in his courage and tenacity, but then the pot goes away when deciding that he is going to build the railroad bridge to demonstrate the technical and moral (and racial) superiority of his men.
The real lieutenant colonel in charge of the prisoners who built the bridges of Tamarkán, Philip Toosey, got angry and said that neither he nor any British soldier ever collaborated with the Japanese on the railway line, but on the contrary they did everything possible always to delay the works, even putting termites on the bridge (the wooden one, I imagine).
The Japanese were also not happy and stressed that their engineers were very good and had not needed any European to give them lessons. How the Japanese, who behaved atrociously on the road in a real orgy of brutality and bushido and still have not apologized, are able to claim their engineers is a mystery to me.
The bridge over the Kwai River – the novel and the film – is based on real events. The construction of the so-called Death Railway, a 415-kilometer stretch (between Banpang and Thanbyuzayat), including numerous viaducts and bridges (more than 600), to complete the railway from Bangkok to Rangoon and serve as a land artery (more secure than maritime) for the transport of troops and supplies to the Japanese Imperial Army that had invaded Burma.
The line ended earlier than planned and worked very well: the trains brought 500,000 tons of material and two entire divisions, and several wagons of sex slaves for the soldiers. The Japanese used forced labor for the daunting task of creating the road, which required breaking through the virgin forest, full of vermin and dangers (as if the Japanese guards and their Korean henchmen were not enough).
More than 60,000 Allied prisoners and 180,000 Asian civilians, especially Malaysian Tamils, suffered the unspeakable under inhuman conditions, enduring hunger, disease, beatings and continuous humiliation; 12,000 of the first and half of the second died in what is considered one of the war crimes of the Japanese Army.
There was no convention in Geneva that was worth, or tintin, as Gila said. 000 of the first and half of the second died in what is considered one of the war crimes of the Japanese Army. There was no convention in Geneva that was worth, or tintin, as Gila said. 000 of the first and half of the second died in what is considered one of the war crimes of the Japanese Army. There was no convention in Geneva that was worth, or tintin, as Gila said.
After the war, the line built with so much pain was abandoned, and the jungle regained what was theirs. Today some sections have been reopened for tourism. “Of imperial dreams and dead men, only the tall grass was left”, writes Richard Flanagan in which is one of the most powerful evocations of that episode, his novel The narrow way to the deep north (Random House, 2013).
Among the testimonies of the Death Railway, it is especially remarkable the one of the soldier of the Leicerstershire Regiment (the famous Tigers) Reg Twigg, captured after the fall of Singapore in 1941, who suffered three years of slavery in the construction and maintenance of the railway line together al Kwai.
Skeptical, little friend of the authority (he said he did not see any officer work, except the self-sacrificing doctors) and a born survivor who was an ax hunting lizards to add some substance to the meager ration of a bowl of rice day, Twigg wrote Survivor on the River Kwai , an enthralling memoir published in 2013, two weeks after his death, about to turn one hundred.
His story collects with all the creepy details what was that of the Kwai, much worse than what Boulle and Lean told us. Prisoners converted into human skeletons identical to those of the Nazi camps, systematic liquidation of those too weak to work, atrocious corporal punishments, dysentery, cholera, malaria, ulcers.
Twigg was in the worst scenarios of the line, of Tamarkan he worked there the two bridges, with water around their necks and Tarso (Nam Tok) to Konyo, in the fifth ditto, and Hellfire Pass, where the forced ones died like flies. He saw how they decapitated a prisoner with a Catana, another drowned in the overflowing crap of the latrines, saw the crosses in the jungle grow along the devil’s way, while it was advancing, rail by rail, and the Japanese ate at your own pet monkey.
“We were not heroes and some of us could not even remember that we had been soldiers,” writes Twigg, who adds: “When a comrade died, a little of you died with him each time.” There was no more epic than that of survival and endurance that terrible time on the muddy shores of the Kwai.