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The "Colonel Bogey March" Was a Bit Bogus

February 25, 2021

I did not view the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai when it premiered in 1957 and won an Oscar for Best Picture. However, years later I did see it after having travelled the Kwai River in Thailand a number of times in the late sixties and early seventies. In those days, it was a very dangerous place given the numerous ethnic armies that moved back and forth across the river from Burma into Thailand as part of a significant drug trade specializing in opium, legitimatized in part to fund the illegal U.S. war in Laos. I went up and down the river in wood-burning trains and long-tail boats though the most adventurous trip was led by Colonel Chang of the Thai Communist Suppression Organization when we travelled by Land Rover. Colonel Chang was one of those "shoot first and ask questions later" kind of guys who acted with impunity. His leadership adage was "We must be strong-if they do not fear us, we will be dead by morning." His prophecy was proven correct, as the week following our departure, the local Thai guy was murdered. In actual fact, I did not think he was long for the world as he seemed about to succumb to tuberculosis.  

Nonetheless, leadership was important during my time, as well as during the World War II era. It was illustrated in the movie by the fictional leader of the British prisoners, Lt. Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness shown below. In actual fact, the movie was filmed in what is today Sri Lanka and not Thailand where some 13,000 Allied Prisoners of war and 80,000 civilians died under harsh conditions building a rail link between Burma and Thailand.  
The film may have been Hollywood at its best in that there was very little factual support behind the characters. Even the "eye watering" Colonel Bogey March song whistled by the prisoners to provide a march cadence was written in 1914 by a British military band conductor. Words were added by British troops during WWII to describe the body parts of the Nazi regime hence the whistle version only in the movie without any lyrics.  

The most startling revelation to me was that the book that formed the foundation for the movie is Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai (The Bridge over the River Kwai) which was written in 1952 by a French prisoner of the Japanese in Southeast Asia. It was based upon Pierre Boulle's personal experience with some French officers who openly collaborated with the Japanese. Interestingly, Pierre Boulle did not speak English and had no affiliation with the film. However, if any of you might like a good read in French, the book is shown below and can still be found in French bookstores. In actual fact, I ordered the book from a second-hand bookstore chain and started reading it in French once I received it from Paris. A glass of Bordeaux helps but, after less time than I would care to admit, I grew fatigued. Yes, I studied French for four years and used it in Laos and Vietnam when needed in the dark days of the 60s and 70s, but it takes some cultural immersion before it returns naturally.  
Pierre Boulle was an engineer in Singapore serving as a spy for The Free French Movement when he was captured by the Japanese and served two years in forced labor. As an author, he went on to also write Planet of the Apes which was made into another Academy Award winning film. He is shown below pondering his next move, if not movie. Perhaps he is the French Jean Le Carré.  
Following the acclaim of The Bridge Over the River Kwai, it is said Thailand was besieged by tourists looking for the River Kwai that actually was called the Mae Klong River where the bridge was constructed some five kilometers north of Kanchanaburi. The ever-accommodating Thai's renamed the river the "River Kwai" and allowed visitors to believe that the "Bridge Over the River Kwai" was the more modern version shown below in Kanchanaburi.  
Kanchanaburi has traditionally been an active tourist attraction and trading center offering products from what is now nearby Myanmar. Recently, The Bangkok Post published an article entitled River Kwai Bridge Vendors Bemoan Lack of Tourists indicating that tourism in Kanchanaburi has gone quiet since the provincial authorities ordered the closure of hotels and resorts to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Thailand has been spared the major impact of the pandemic experienced by other countries though returning Thai nationals from abroad seem to be causing an increase in the number of cases. Foreigners have been banned for a long time though life has been relatively normal among Thai nationals. However, commerce at the bridge requires tourists, be they Thai or foreign. Also, judging from the water level of the river shown below, there may be other forces at play impacting the ecosystem such as loss of river water upstream due to interference by the Chinese or even climate change on the levels of rainfall. Obviously, a drop in the water level does provide the vendors a rent-free space for their wares.  
In any event, things look pretty dismal from an economic standpoint today. The Burmese gemstones from across the river look attractive but they have to be sold and converted into Thai Baht to feed a family. Many of the vendors had received government aid which they used to experiment with other products such as vegetables and grilled fish balls though they were unsuccessful in those enterprises. Joey and I would be delighted to head their way and strengthen their personal efforts but we, too, are banned from Bangkok and beyond. However, when we all can go there, we will be there to greet you! The image below was taken on our first visit there together. We have been back many times and are anxious to return.  

The Sri Lanka Coin Bracelet

The coin bracelet represents colonial periods of rule of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)  ranging from Victoria in 1898, Edward VII in 1906, George V in 1914 and a commemorative Dutch coin for the period preceding British rule.

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