The Bridge On The River Kwai | 1957
The first of David Lean’s large-scale epics, The Bridge On The River Kwai was filmed not in Thailand, where the real bridge still stands, but on location in Sri Lanka, the large island in the Indian Ocean off the southern coast of India.
425 feet long, rising 90 feet above the water and supposedly costing a phenomenal quarter of a million dollars, Lean’s bridge was built at a small community called Kitulgala on the Masleliya Oya, a tributary of the Kelani River, between the Sri Lankan capital Colombo and Kandy.
The concrete foundations built for the production can still be seen on the river bank. After controversial plans to build a dam in the area were revealed, there are plans to minimise potential damage to tourism by rebuilding the bridge set, using original drawings and photos.
Local man Samuel Perera, who featured as a boy in the film, and his wife Chandra, are enthusiastic guides, happy to point out the exact spots on the river.
The cast and crew stayed at the Government Rest House in Kitulgala, which overlooks the site of the bridge. Rather than bring in hordes of expensive Western extras, this must be one of the few occasions in movies that financial considerations reversed the old convention, with Sinhalese locals being made up to play British POWs.
The British HQ, from which Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) leads a force to blow up the bridge, is the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens on the western outskirts of Kandy, where Lord Mountbatten did indeed have his station command from 1943 to 1945.
Similarly, the film’s military hospital did fulfill that function during WWII, though in reality it’s now a luxury hotel. It’s the Mount Lavinia Hotel, 100 Hotel Road, the Governor’s Mansion in Colonial times, on the beachfront in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.
The real River Kwai, and its bridge, is in what was then Siam, now Thailand. The name ‘River Kwai’ refers to the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai rivers in western Thailand, which converge to become the Mae Klong river at Kanchanaburi, about 70 miles northwest of Bangkok, and it was across the Mae Klong that the infamous bridge was built. Kanchanaburi is served by a rail service from Bangkok Noi Railway Station.
There were in fact two bridges, one of which still stands. You can visit the River Kwai Bridge at Tha Ma Kham, just northwest of Kanchanaburi. It’s a concrete and girder structure which looks nothing like Lean’s photogenic wooden version.
There are also two museums (the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum opened and the JEATH War Museum) at Kanchanaburi, and a memorial to commemorate the dead. The River Kwai Bridge Festival is celebrated annually at the end of November-early December, with a Sound & Light Show telling the history of the Death Railway, the Hellfire Pass and the Bridge on the River Kwai.