For quite a while on the Death Railway before you reach The Bridge, you might be able to see a river to the South and West – this is the infamous River Kwai… or is it?
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a wonderful Academy Award winning film released in 1957 starring Sir Alec Guiness. It is based on a book by a Frenchman named Pierre Boulle. Boulle was trained in Avignon as an enginneer, which taught him a lot about how to construct bridges. In 1935 he travelled to Malaya to be a rubber planter and when the Japanese came, he was trained as a sabateur, which taught him how to blow up bridges. He was also imprisoned, not by the Japanese, but by the Vichy French in Hanoi, which taught him a lot about being a prisoner of war. So Boulle had a lot of first hand experience which led to him writing such a compelling story. However, he had never been on the Thailand-Burma railway. The novel, and especially the later screenplay, was an amalgamation of his experiences, and the stories he and others heard from Malayan rubber plantation workers that did experience the ordeal first hand.
So we can forgive Boulle for making the slight blunder of geography in the naming of the film. The bridge that the movie is about was actually built on the Mae Klong, which is a river that will be in the middle distance out the left hand side for the next hour or so. The Kwai Noi – meaning Little Tributary in Thai – spills into the Mae Klong about 4km downstream from the Bridge. If you were to continue on the train, you will see plenty of the River Kwai Noi, again out the left hand side, as the train line runs alongside it. But never does the rail cross it. However, in the 1960s, due no doubt in small part to the success of the film, the upper part of the Mae Klong – above where the Kwai Noi joins – was renamed the River Kwai Yai or Big Tributary.
The River Kwai, or the Mae Klong, is also in a famous scene from another Academy Award winning film – the Deer Hunter. The bank of the River Kwai Yai that the first Russian Roulette scene was filmed with Robert Deniero and Christopher Walken. The Thai actor who played the vicious Viet Cong gamemaster was actually recruited from the local Thai village, and was the second choice. The brutal slaps the two hollywood stars endured from the Gamemaster in the scene had to be real, but the first actor couldn’t bring himself to do it. Luckily, they found a man who thought he would enjoy it, and the brutal scene still gives me goosebumps.