Myth Trivia: War is hell and so is shooting war movies

The bridge over the River Kwai in June 2004. The round truss spans are the originals; the angular replacements were supplied by the Japanese as war reparations. (Image and caption via Wikipedia entry on the topic)

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, June 1, 2016 – With the commemoration of Memorial Day summer has officially begun. But the just-concluded May holiday carries much greater significance than just a day off as our trivia entry today will explain.

1 – Origins of Memorial Day: On May 5, 1868, three years after the end of the American Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) established a day for the nation to decorate the graves of war dead with flowers. Known as Decoration Day in 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan changed its date to May 30th because, by then, flowers would be in full bloom throughout the United States.

Though several cities in both the North and South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day two years earlier in 1866, a century later President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York as the official site of origin because a ceremony was held there on May 5, 1866 to honor local veterans who had fought in the Civil War.

Memorial Day ceremonies were being held all across the country on May 30 by the end of the 19th century. But it was not until after World War I that the observances were expanded to pay tribute to soldiers who died in all American wars.

Memorial Day has only been a national holiday since 1971, when an act of Congress declared it to be held on the last Monday in May. Though it is officially known as Memorial Day, some places still prefer the term “Declaration Day.”

A crowd of approximately 5,000 people attended the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, and that number of annual observers remains consistent even today.

It was on that day at Arlington that the tradition of placing small American flags at each grave began, one that continues at many national cemeteries on special days even now.

2 – “The Bridge on the River Kwai”: Each year on Memorial Day weekend, Turner Classic Movies features famous war pictures to honor the memory of those who gave their lives to preserve our freedom. One of those films is the 1957 story of British prisoners of war who were employed as forced labor to build a strategic supply bridge for the Japanese during World War II.

The actual bridge on the “River Kwai” was a significant feat of engineering that spanned the Kwae Yai River just north of Kanchanaburi on the border between Thailand and Burma (today known as Myanmar). Because so many prisoners died during its construction, the route became known as the “Death Railway.”

Though the film was shot in Sri Lanka, the actual present day “bridge on the River Kwai” does exist and has become a popular tourist attraction in Thailand. In fact, tourism had such an impact on the location that the name of the river was changed from Kwae Yai to the River Kwai. Regular trains still carry passengers to the site which is slightly more than 100 miles from Bangkok. The terminus of the ride is Nam Tok.

Viewers familiar with the movie will remember the dramatic ending of the film in which Alec Guinness is shot and falls on the plunger that blows up the bridge just as a steam train is crossing the river.

What makes this trivia so fascinating is that there were no computer generated graphics in 1957 and, rather than use models, director David Lean chose to build an actual bridge and blow it up.

Figuring this to be a one-shot operation, five cameras were set up by Lean to capture all the action. Since the likely extent of the damage from the explosion was an unknown, the cameramen were told to signal when ready and then abandon their positions to a safe location. Unfortunately, one photographer forgot to give his signal in the excitement, and David Lean failed to detonate the explosives.

The train, which was real and engineered by someone who jumped off just before it reached the bridge, crashed leaving the crew and elephants with the task of hauling it out of the river and back onto the tracks.

Back to the drawing board where everything was restaged for a second time to capture the explosion and train wreck the following day. Thus one of the climactic scenes in the movie was shot twice.

A couple of other movie trivia notes. In one scene, Alec Guinness, who played Colonel Nicholson, is removed after being isolated for several days in a corrugated tin box. To achieve his memorable staggering walk, Guinness based his strides on his own son Matthew who was recovering from polio at the time. The actor regarded his “walk” as one of the finest performances in his career.

And finally, with the recent growth in Sri Lanka’s tourist industry, the country decided in 2014 to reconstruct an exact replica of the bridge as seen in the film.

It’s enough to make a river “Kwai.”


Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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