… as for the bridge on the River Kwai, it crossed the river only in the imagination of its author.
[Ronald Searle, To the Kwai and Back: War drawings 1939–45, London, Collins, 1986, 104]
'The Bridge on the River Kwai' is now the best-known site on the Burma-Thailand railway but its fame is due more to a fictional film than its significance in World War II.
Spanning the River Kwae Yai in Kanchanaburi, the bridge was built in 1942–43 by British prisoners of war based at Tha Markam. It consisted of eleven steel spans on concrete pillars. Materials were sourced from Java and this was the only steel bridge built by the Japanese in Thailand.
The fame of the bridge is due to the 1957 film by David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Based on a 1952 French novel by Pierre Boulle, the film features an unhinged British POW commander Captain Nicholson (Alec Guinness) who takes such pride in British technical expertise that he cooperates with the Japanese commander Saito in building a towering wooden bridge. When an Allied commando mission (led by William Holden) tries to sabotage the bridge Nicholson almost foils them. The bridge is finally destroyed as Nicolson, wounded in the shoot-out between the Japanese and the commandos, falls onto the detonator bringing the bridge, and the train crossing it, crashing into the river.
The plot is entirely fictional, though Nicholson was supposedly based on the British colonel at Tha Markam, Philip Toosey.
The bridge in the film also looks nothing like the steel bridge at Kanchanaburi. In fact there were no bridges built across the River Kwae during World War II. At that time the stretch of river that 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' spans was called the Mae Klong (Mae Khlaung).
However, the film was such an international success—it won seven Oscars—that tourists came flocking to Thailand searching for 'The Bridge on the River Kwai'. In 1960 the town of Kanchanaburi changed the name of the Mae Klong river in the vicinity of the bridge to the Kwae Yai (or Greater tributary).
Thus 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' was created. The tune whistled by the POWs in the film, Colonel Bogey's march, is played today by buskers on the bridge.
One hundred metres downstream there was a second bridge during World War II. This was a wooden bridge which could carry light diesel rail trucks transporting construction materials while the main bridge was being built.
Both bridges were regularly bombed by Allied aircraft from December 1944 to June 1945. Several spans of the steel bridge were destroyed. The wooden bridge, which could be more easily repaired, filled the gap to some extent.
The bombings also killed and injured Thai civilians and Allied POWs at Tha Markam. The worst attack on 29 November 1944 killed nineteen prisoners and wounded sixty-eight. A further fifteen prisoners were injured on 5 February 1945. The Japanese then evacuated the prisoners to Chungkai further downstream.
The bridge on the River Kwai is now a major tourist attraction and the hub of intense commercial activity.
Memorials to the war and locomotives sit almost unnoticed among market stalls selling clothing, jewellery, souvenirs, mementoes, trivia and faded wartime photos. Tourists can 'Ride the Death Railway' to Nam Tok or take a toy train for a shorter ride across the bridge and back.
The memory of war has become 'commodified'. Each November a major Sound & Light show commemorates the bombing of the bridge in 1944–45. The bridge explodes again—but this time in fireworks. A steam train crosses the bridge hooting electrifyingly into the night.
The bombing of the bridge is also represented in murals and graphic dioramas in the World War II and JEATH museum near the bridge.
Nothing remains of the Tha Markam camp. The car park behind the market in Mainamkwai Road marks its location. In the war years the town of Kanchanaburi ended some five kilometres to the south of the bridge.