“Bridge over the River Kwai”: In Appreciation of Ian Watt’s Fictional Tale

Tony Donaldson, with underlining emphasis imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi

The essay “Bridges over the Kwai,” written by Ian Watt, a prisoner of war on the Burma-Siam railway in WW2, provides a perspective on the book and film from the perspective of an insider. It is well-known that Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge over the River Kwai was fictional, but here Watt suggests Boulle’s narrative had some basis in fact. Thus, a worthy read for those interested in the book, evaluations of the film, or WW2 history.


 The essay was published in Partisan Review in the Winter of 1959, a few years after David Lean made the film in Ceylon.  Partisan Review, a New York based journal, ran from 1934 to 2003, covering topics on politics, visual arts, music, theatre, essays, short stories, poems, by some of the leading commentators and writers of the day, among them Susan Sontag who wrote an article on pornography, or the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges whose short stories and books share much in common with Surrealism.

The first edition, published in 1934, was subtitled “A Bi-Monthly of Revolutionary Literature Published by the John Reed Club of New York.” An editorial statement in the first edition stated the aims of Partisan Review were “revolutionary,” in part to keep in check the excesses of capitalism and liberalism and to reaffirm human values in twentieth-century intellectual thought.  Though politically left, it still engaged with all streams of twentieth-century intellectual and political thought, including Liberalism, Fascism, National Socialism, Marxism, Socialism and Communism. Things have changed dramatically since then insofar as intellectual thought is much more controlled by the US government as we would no longer expect an American journal to advocate revolutionary ideas in US society today, which would no doubt invoke alarm and fear within right-wing think tanks and the allied US intelligence community. The editorial statement that appeared in the first edition of Partisan Review in 1934 is reproduced at the end of this essay, to give readers direct access into the aims of the journal, but also to consider how far the world has changed in the last 90 years in shutting down all intellectual thought that differs from neo-liberalism.

On first impressions, one may think politics and the arts are very separate. However, in the twentieth century, these two human creations came together in striking ways, for instance, in the way it produced Futurism – an ideological right wing art movement founded in 1909 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who later became cultural advisor to Mussolini. It was the only right-wing art movement to exist in human history, which coincided with the rise of Nazism and Mussolini, and it shared common interests with them.

In general, most art and literary movements and writers have tended to be on the left side of politics (as is still the case today). Some were openly Marxists, Communists, while among the Futurists, we can find artists and writers who were Fascist sympathisers, using the same kind of language and rhetoric exhibited in Trumpism today, such as his popular phrase “drain the swamp.” The Futurists talked about burning museums and “draining the Venice canals” because they belong to the past and no longer relevant.

This type of journal is rare to find in Western societies today as media and academic journals tend to avoid engaging with opposing views as they prefer to form their own single-minded publications for likeminded consumers, in which any opposing view is deemed stupid, nonsense, or even evil. It is refreshing to go back and read something with more balance than we find today.

On the visual arts side, there was a strong bias towards abstract art in the journal, mainly due to the influence of American art historian Clement Greenburg.  Greenburg had very narrow definitions concerning the concepts of modernist art and avant-garde. He was an apologist for Abstract art and Abstract Expressionism, and dismissed other art movements as old hat, which is very lopsided thinking about contemporary art practices.

One aspect of the journal that is annoying is that it viewed the major centres of intellectual thought in politics and the arts as located in specific cities in Europe and America, notably, Paris and New York, as if the rest of the world didn’t exist or didn’t matter. In other words, the weakness of the journal is that by focusing on specific cities as the world centres of major cultural and political thought of the twentieth century, other cultural traditions of thought in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East were marginalised as less important, and not worth knowing about. Still today, books on art history tend to gravitate to the centres of art existing in Paris, Berlin or New York. This needs to be rethought with greater emphasis on Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Oceania.

In the midst of all this however, we find some rare gems such as this piece on Kwai which circumvents the theoretical mindset of the timesEnjoy…

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Note Force 316 in the film and essay refers to Force 136. Aspects of Force 136 narrated in the book have some factual basis, though Force 136 never mounted such an operation.

Watt’s view of the film by David Lean makes for interesting reading. He observes that the film didn’t recreate the horror of life on the railway, except for a few scenes, but had sufficient humour and excitement to make him forget his initial disappointment and that he walked away from the film with a surprising feeling which you can read in the essay.

An easy and enjoyable read.

  **** *****


Editorial Statement published in Partisan Review, Vol 1 (No. 1) 1934

Partisan Review appears at a time when American literature is undergoing profound changes. The economic and political crisis of capitalism, the growth of the revolutionary movement the world over, and the successful building of socialism in the Soviet Union have deeply affected American life, thought and art. They have had far-reaching effects not only upon the political activities of writers and artists, but upon their writing and thinking as well. For the past four years the movement to create a revolutionary art, which for a decade was confined to a small group, has spread throughout the United States. A number of revolutionary magazines has sprung up which publish revolutionary fiction, poetry and criticism. Some of these are issued by the John Reed Clubs.

Partisan Review is the organ of the John Reed Club of New York, which is the oldest and largest Club in the country. As such it has a specific function to fulfil. It will publish the best creative work of its members as well as of non-members who share the literary aims of the John Reed Club.

We propose to concentrate on creative and critical literature, but we shall maintain a definite viewpoint – that of the revolutionary working class. Through our specific literary medium we shall participate in the struggle of the workers and sincere intellectuals against imperialist war, fascism, national and racial oppression, and for the abolition of the system which breeds these evils. The defence of the Soviet Union is one of our principal tasks.

We shall combat not only the decadent culture of the exploiting classes but also the debilitating liberalism which at times seeks into our writers through the pressure of class alien forces. Nor shall we forget to keep our own house in order. We shall resist every attempt to cripple our literature by narrow-minded, sectarian theories and practices.

We take this opportunity to greet the various magazines of Revolutionary literature already in the field, especially the New Masses whose appearance as a weekly, like the present issuance of Partisan Review, is evidence of the growth of the new within the old.


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