Bridge on the River Kwai

Bridge On the River Kwai

      I thought you might find this article interesting. I found it while searching for some information. My dad hated 'THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI' film, it is worth seeing another point of view, doesn't mean to say you have to agree with the views cast.

      It was first written for the JAPAN ECHO Vol. 26, No. 6, December 1999

      Prisoners in Burma


      by HIRAKAWA Sukehiro

      With the passage of half a century since World War II, we might hope for a convergence of views on the hostilities of the 1940s. Concerning the war fought between the British and Japanese in Southeast Asia, however, a shared understanding has not been attained. Even among Japanese there are opinions ranging from, on the left, Marxist views holding to Japanese imperialistic aggression and, on the right, nationalistic justifications of the cause of the war. There are also differences in states of knowledge. In English one finds such books as Christopher Thorne's Allies of a Kind--The United States, Britain, and the War Against Japan, 1941-1945.1 Although his analysis is familiar to Japanese scholars, similar expressions of Japanese views are generally ignored in the West. My aim in what follows lies less in historical details themselves than in the views held and in the knowledge of those views.

      As a sample, there are three works (of which I will discuss two later in detail) that have fixed images of the Anglo-Japanese hostilities in Japanese minds. The first work is a film, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), produced by Sam Spiegel and directed by David Lean. The immense popularity of the film has made it widely familiar. It deals with the notorious construction of the Burma-Siam railway by British prisoners of war in 1942-43. The British virtues of perseverance, inventiveness, and human dignity are personified by Alec Guinness in his unforgettable role as Colonel Nicholson. The hell of cruelties in the Japanese camps is memorably depicted. This film was based on a novel, Le pont de la rivière Kwaï.2 For many years this was prescribed as a text for the A-level examination in French in Britain, both reflecting and sustaining the popularity of the novel in that country.


      What I have roughly sketched is a historical background of the development of the Japanese perspective on attitudes that led to the Anglo-Japanese conflict. I have not touched upon the problems of justice or injustice of the two parties' conduct in Southeast Asia.

      In the film The Bridge on the River Kwai Japanese atrocities were vividly depicted. Yet I imagine that the reality of the British prisoners of war in the hell of a Japanese labor camp was even more gruesome than shown in the film. The only point I might make in defense of the Japanese of the war years is that the atrocities they committed differ qualitatively from the organized atrocities of Nazis in German-controlled areas, such as the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people. Wartime Japan was equated with Nazi Germany by the Allied nations. Having little knowledge, Westerners were obliged to understand "fascist" Japan by analogies. I am afraid, however, that superficial analogies and easy generalizations tend to give misleading ideas.

      What has been discussed prepares the way for analysis. We may start with some basically mistaken conceptions perpetuated by the British film. The Bridge on the River Kwai deals with the recovery of faith in British virtues of perseverance and inventiveness. In short, it is a glorification of the superiority of Western civilization. The fall of Singapore in February 1942 was a national humiliation for the British, one that was taken to heart by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his colleagues.11 The British officers and soldiers taken prisoner there were later mobilized by the Japanese army to finish the nearly 300 miles of the Burma-Siam railway in less than a year over a route that Western engineers had pronounced insuperably difficult. In the film Colonel Nicholson could successfully defy Japanese orders because he had a trump card: the British ability to do what the Japanese army could not, namely, build the bridge over the River Kwai. In the book written by Boulle, the bridge built by Japanese engineers was described in these terms:

      On this uncouth superstructure, which sometimes reached an enormous height, thick beams were laid in two parallel rows; and on top of these, the only timber to be more or less properly shaped, went the rails themselves. The bridge was then considered to be finished. It fulfilled the need of the hour. There was no parapet, no footpath. The only way to walk across was to step from one beam to another, balancing above the chasm--a feat at which the Japanese were adept. (Fielding translation, p. 60)

      The insinuation that the Japanese are apelike or antlike continues.

      The first convoy would go jolting across at low speed. The engine sometimes came off the rails at the point where the bank met the bridge, but a gang of soldiers armed with crowbars usually managed to heave it upright again. The train would then move on. If the bridge was damaged at all more bits of timber would be added to the structure. And the next convoy would cross in the same way. The scaffolding would last a few days, a few weeks, sometimes even a few months, after which a flood would sweep it away, or else a series of more than usually violent jolts would make it capsize. (P. 60)

      In the novel and film alike, every time the Japanese rebuilt the bridge, it would become unusable after a short time. Colonel Saitô, the Japanese commander, was obliged to ask the help of British engineers among the prisoners. So began the reversal of relations. The British prisoners were now becoming masters of the situation. Boulle can explain the secret of the superiority of the methods of Western civilization (his Captain Reeves was formerly a civil engineer):

      The methods of Western civilisation, of course, are not so elementary. Captain Reeves represented an essential element of that civilisation--the mechanical--and would never have dreamed of being guided by such primitive empiricism.

      But when it comes to bridge-building, Western mechanical procedure entails a lot of gruelling preliminaries, which swell and multiply the number of operations leading up to the actual construction. . . . These figures in their turn, depend on co-efficients worked out according to "standard patterns," which in the civilised world are given in the form of mathematical tables. Mechanics, in fact, entail a complete a priori knowledge; and this mental creation, which precedes the material creation, is not the least important of the many achievements of Western genius. (Pp. 60-61)

      Pierre Boulle, it seems, was under the influence of Paul Valéry and his conquête méthodique. His explanation is very Cartesian.

      The successful defiance by the British prisoners, with their superior technological ability, makes a highly interesting story. However, as Ian Watt, one of the former British prisoners recollects, it certainly seemed odd that Boulle should base his plot on the illusion that the West still had a monopoly of technological skill.12 Culturally speaking, one of the lessons to be learned from the Japanese capture of Singapore should have been that the myth of Western superiority in technology had already been dispelled, and needless to say, nothing much like Colonel Nicholson's successful defiance had actually taken place along the Burma-Siam railway. There was a self-complacency both in the filmmaker and in the audiences enjoying the film.

      There are some sentimental fallacies, too. In the film Siamese girls are depicted as if they volunteered to help Allied commandos. But during the conflict, the poor villagers of Southeast Asia had no notion whatever of wanting to devote their lives to either the support of Western democracy or to the cause of the Greater East Asia War. Their daily life inevitably imposed on them a much more limited and self-interested horizon.

      Local inhabitants of many areas of wartime Southeast Asia disliked the Japanese, although the degree and nature of the hostility differed considerably from one region to another. In the Philippines, for example, where battles were fought bitterly from October 1944 through August 1945, many civilians were killed and the animosity toward the Japanese grew very strong. But in the Dutch East Indies and Malaya, where the Japanese army had quickly swept away the Dutch and British forces, the inhabitants were friendly toward the Japanese liberators. In some places the degree of hostility varied among different races of the local population. In Singapore, for example, there was a sharp contrast between the inhabitants of Chinese ancestry and those of Malay or Indian ancestry, since the former suffered during the Japanese occupation because of their pro-China or pro-communist attitudes.

      It is of course an illusion that Japanese forces were welcomed as liberators. It is, however, equally an illusion to think that after Japan's defeat former colonial masters were welcomed back to Southeast Asia. The power vacuum following the successive defeats of the two imperialistic powers, Britain and Japan, gave Asians the chance to become independent earlier than expected.

      These are observations occasioned by The Bridge on the River Kwai. The more successful the film was, the wider became the discrepancy between the myth of Western superiority in technology and the British industrial reality. The belief that the British were the leading bridge builders of the world was severely shaken in 1985 when a Japanese company underbid them for the construction of a second bridge linking Europe and Asia at the Bosporus. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who suspected at first that the Japanese company had secretly dealt with the Turkish government by unfair means, seems finally to have discovered that Japan had made progress during the preceding century.


      Janet Jacobs - Ron, my old chap hated the film too, the only thing he didn't hate was that at least some of the horrors were sorta depicted.

      How I wish I had Hirakawa Sukehiro's address to reply, I fear it could well be the shortest email I would ever send and wouldn't need alot of translation.

      Thanks for your great work on this site.

      Tim Richard Niles - Ron, thanks for the article. In places it almost makes me laugh. In the video I did with Jim Whittaker - which dealt in a LOT more of the gruesome details of the POW experience - he always made it clear that the reason that so many of the local SE Asains who were dragooned by the Japanese as slave labor died, and died quickly, versus the British military, was because there was order to the POW brought by structured hierarchy. The locals were completely unorganized.

      Of course the side that wins a war is always going to portray itself as somehow superior to the losing side. In the case of WWII, not only the prosecution of the war but also the following peace - when both Japan and Germany were aided in reconstruction - demonstrates clear superiority.

      Hirakawa started with a focus too much on the technological superiority. No one who examines the history of Japan can fail to be impressed by how quickly they came out of a low level feudalism, absorbed world technology, and then were able to act militarily against the West. They had grown technologically, but not ethically, not as a civilization within a world order.

      The Japanese used their power to brutalize any neighboring peoples, subjugating them for the greater power of the Japanese state.

      A year ago I was working with a relatively recent emigre from Shanghai, China, and somehow the topic of the atomic bomb came up - I think that there was some Japanese protest re nuclear power or American nuclear submarines near their ports - and he said this: "Do you know what the Chinese people think about the atomic bombing of Japan? That they deserved it." This was from a guy who was only 35 or so; I can only assume that the Chinese population remembers the actions of the Japanese very very well, and unlike the Japanese, don't intend to forget it for any reason.

      I haven't completed the whole article yet, but I presume that one of his main points is that the film is an absolute representation of the British attitudes that 'forced' Japan to defend itself by starting the war. Movies are a confection to sell tickets (and now videos, T-shirts, videogames, and software), not to deal with the details of history or
      political predispositions.

      Anyway, I monitor the FEPOW email periodocally, and even if I don't contribute, I still learn.

      Ron Taylor - Good to hear from you again Tim. Hope Jim is O.K.

      If you are going to do another feature on Jim, don't forget to let me have a tape. If the material can be put on the web, I would like to get it on the site for all to read.

      The article I posted shows the difference in the two countries culture, although the Japanese are now more westernised their business ventures still show they are very aggressive.

      The Radio & Television trade in this country has been slowly taken over by the Japanese manufacturers over the last fifty years.

      When I was an apprentice back in the 1960's, the British manufacturers flourished. Then the Japanese started to make cheap imports.

      The British used old established ways of manufacturing in a factory environment. Working a different line for each model and stock piling the finished sets in a warehouse.

      To combat the Japanese threat, they lowered the price to release the built up stock and like Pye, did not fully test the finished article to a high standard. Within a year most British Manufacturers were in trouble and the banks started pulling out, the large overheads of running their old fashioned production lines overcome them, within ten years all had gone.

      The Japanese learnt quickly and produced one model at a time, making sure orders were in for that model first. This way cash flow was no problem. Their next step was to go for the high quality market that the British manufacturers had now left open.

      Sony and Hitachi took over as British top selling brands and our British industry, was no more.

      As a shop it was found, when the country was buoyant and buying Japanese they backed us all the way, when the world economy tightened, about ten years ago, they became very ruthless and we saw their true colours, very aggressive with no loyalty, moving into any market as long as they could sell Japanese.

      In the last ten years the British government has laid out large sums of money to get the Japanese to open factories in Britain, we should have put money into the restructuring of our British manufacturers back in the 1980's.

      Our British manufacturers equipment would then still be on the shelves, instead of just a name being put on a foreign imports.

      It doesn't stop there, we are now on the next stage. There are now no apprenticeships on leaving school. The school leaver is pushed towards college and then on to University, when they finish their learning process at twenty-one, they naturally want to start earning money. This is effecting the service industry and skilled engineers are becoming a rare breed.

      Back in the 1960's when colour television started in Britain a set cost £599. Go into a food store now and pick up a similar set for £200-300. With the cost of living spiralling in that time you can see why customers are now replacing and not repairing their sets.

      The Japanese have been slowly pushing the replacement market over the last ten years by pricing their spare parts too high, making it uneconomical to repair. We are now an aggressive, throw away society, fortunately our business still survives on old fashioned service, but for how long, time will tell.

      I'll get off the soapbox now, and away from the present day guerrilla tactics of the Japanese, as this is a WW2 Fepow list.


Search Box

The Monthly Revue now covers over 150 pages, a search box has been added to help search for a topic.

This search can also be directed at the Fepow Community or London Gazette, selecting one of these limits the topic searched to that particular area of the site.

Search for
Get a Free Search Engine for Your Web Site


Sharing Information


Sharing information with others is rewarding in itself, the pieces from the jigsaw start to fit together and a picture begins to appear. Improve your knowledge and help make the Fepow Story an everlasting memorial to their memory.


The questions and answers from the emails sent in and the Message Board will be collated, any Leggies, including pictures or further information please send to:


Subscribe to Fepow-Community
Powered by