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Sitrep: Letters Show War Office Objection To 'Bridge On The River Kwai' Film

The portrayal of captured British personnel in David Lean's 1957 film, which starred Alec Guinness, was contested by UK officials.

Historic documents have shown behind-the-scenes friction between the British War Office and the filmmakers behind one of the most famous depictions of the war in the Far East.

'The Bridge on the River Kwai' was filmed in the 1950s and set in a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp in Burma.

The motion picture, based on a novel by Pierre Boule and filmed a decade after the end of the war, depicts captured Second World War soldiers set to work on a bridge to connect Bangkok and Rangoon.

Letters in the National Archives show the War Office was "not entirely happy" about the story, which shows British Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, strike a compromise with the Japanese camp commander.

Lt Col Nicholson was played by British star Alec Guinness in the film. 

He encourages his men to build the bridge well, demonstrating professionalism and high morale to their enemy.

In April 1955, the War Office’s Public Relations department was sent a preliminary script for the film, seeking support in their creative process.

"Initially, they thought they might want to film in Singapore, and there was a British military presence in Singapore," Sarah Castagnetti, Visual Collection Team manager at the National Archives, told the BFBS Sitrep podcast.

In September, Major A G Close wrote to Colonel L J Wood, Deputy Director of Public Relations, to say: "I do not think much of this story.

"In the first instance it is quite untrue and only very occasionally resembles the facts as they were at the time.

"I am perhaps biased as I worked for three and a half years on this particular railway.

"I have however asked independent people to read the script and they agree with me that it would not go down well with the British public."

William Holden and Anne Sears in a scene from 'Bridge on the River Kwai' (Picture: PA).

The UK officials were "quite sensitive" over the writing of the Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, which "they felt, really, made him look like a collaborator," said Ms Castagnetti.

Scriptwriter Carl Foreman assured Maj Close "changes to the script" would remove any "lingering doubts".

Official approval was granted one year later, securing the possibility of RAF support for the film, though assistant director of Public Relations, Lieutenant-Colonel J H S Martin maintained the story contained "inaccuracies".

Producer Sam Spiegel went on to use a former POW technical director, as advised by the War Office, in Major-General Lance Perowne, a former commander of the 17 Gurkha Division in Malaya.

However, news of the filming reached Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, chairman of the National Federation of Far Eastern Prisoners of War (FEPOW).

Concerned the public would view the depicted events as true and view the POW community differently, he told the War Office: "[FEPOW members] suffered a great deal for it and they would now deeply resent the presentation of any film which tended to misrepresent and cast aspersions on their conduct."

As Mr Spiegel defended the plot, Major-General Perowne rejected the idea audiences would mistake the events for the reality, which saw many prisoners sabotage forced construction.

An extract from a letter written by Sam Spiegel to Colonel Wood at the War Office, defending his script (Picture: National Archives).

The three parties attempted to compromise on a disclaimer stressing the fictional nature of the film.

The set had been switched from Singapore to Sri Lanka - Mr Spiegel no longer required War Office assistance, leaving the officials without leverage over the producer. 

Original, lengthy proposal drafts were rejected by the filmmakers, who opted for a brief on-screen statement ahead of the UK premiere, which angered the FEPOW.

"I'm not surprised Spiegel didn't use them because in many ways it took away from the effect of the film," said Ms Castagnetti.

"He agreed to that minimised line on the film, but then in end it was only shown briefly in London, perhaps for the first few weeks it wasn't shown anywhere outside of London and then they just stopped showing it altogether."

The film was a huge box office hit and won eight Academy Awards in 1958, including best director for David Lean and best actor for Alec Guinness.

Cover image: A War Office file on the 1957 film 'Bridge on the River Kwai' (Picture: National Archives).

Click here to listen to the full interview with Sarah Castagnetti on the latest episode of BFBS Sitrep, or choose one of the podcast links below.