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Hollywood vs. History: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Join us for a special Greatest Generation Live WWII Roundtable on Tuesday, March 16 at 7:00pm as we discuss The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean’s 1957 epic masterpiece about the Japanese effort to build a jungle railway in 1942-1943 using hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners and slave laborers. Starring Alec Guinness and William Holden, the movie won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is considered one of the greatest of all time. 

A different view comes from a former British POW who toiled on the “Death Railway” for over three years. The Bridge on the River Kwai, he said, “was a load of high-toned codswallop.”

Though the movie depicts the Japanese as brutal slave masters, the truth was far worse, so bad they would have been near impossible to depict on screen. Out of the 262,000 or so people conscripted to do the work (62,000 Allied POWs and 200,000 Asian civilians), well over 100,000 died on the job, about one for every railroad tie laid between Bangkok and Rangoon. 

The bridge in the movie as just one small part of an ambitious project to build a supply route between Thailand and Burma that would allow the Japanese to expand their Southeast Asian empire and threaten British India. The bridge was, in fact, one of 688 crossing the many rivers and streams on the route.

Join us on Tuesday night, March 16, as we discuss both the movie and the history behind it. Film expert Elaine Wertheim will talk about the making of the movie, the key themes of the story, and the puzzling meaning of the film’s final words: “Madness! Madness … madness!” 

Historian Glenn Flickinger will lead a conversation about the real bridge (concrete and metal, not wood), the real river (Mae Klong, not Kwai), and the real “Death Railway” (finished in 18 months, not the failure depicted in the movie). 

You may want to watch this excellent History Channel documentary about the River Kwai Bridge or this excellent lecture by our friend from Texas Tech Kelly Crager, who spoke to our other friend Don Patton’s WWII Rountable in Minnesota several years ago.

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