Bridge on the River Kwai

The Academy Award-winning film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, is about British prisoners of war during World War II who are forced by their Japanese captors to help build a railway bridge connecting Burma and Siam. One of the characters in the film is a British officer named Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) who, instead of joining his troops in sabotaging the bridge, uses thin rationalizations about troop morale as an excuse for collaborating with the Japanese.

Unfortunately, Nicholson is based upon a real person named Philip Toosey, and Toosey’s real background and personality could not be further from the one portrayed in the movie.

Those who actually served under Colonel Toosey were deeply offended by how the film portrayed the man who was their commanding officer during what had to be the worst ordeal of their lives. Just how bad was it? I’ll put it this way: the railway between Bangkok and Rangoon cost the lives of at least 100,000 conscripted Asian laborers, as well as at least 12,000 Allied prisoners of war. Philip Toosey himself was whittled from 175 pounds down to 105 pounds during his time as a prisoner, and was tortured regularly for sticking up for his men.

Unlike the character played by Alec Guinness, Toosey did everything he could to make the bridge over the River Kwai the worst structure ever built. In the movie, he is portrayed as an egomaniac who is eager to build a fine bridge for the Japanese in order to prove the superiority of British engineering over Japanese ineptitude. In reality, the Japanese army had fantastic engineers, and Toosey encouraged his men to mix bad concrete; and to gather termites to infest the wooden foundations of the bridge.

I would be remiss not to also mention that Colonel Saito, the Japanese Commandant portrayed in the film as a slave-driver, was actually very kind compared to other camp commandants. After the war, Colonel Toosey defended Saito during his war crimes trial, and eventually the two became good friends. Saito had this to say about Colonel Toosey:

“He showed me what a human being should be, and he changed the philosophy of my life.”

Toosey was a modest man, and refused repeated requests from his men to denounce the film. Finally, his men persuaded him to write a letter to the Daily Telegraph newspaper in order to set the record straight, but it should be no surprise that the impact of a single letter pales in comparison to that of an Academy Award-winning film.

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