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Photograph of Philip Toosey taken in 1942

Philip Toosey

Bridge on the River Kwai

Brigadier Sir Philip John Denton Toosey, CBE, DSO, TD, JP, LL.D (Liverpool University) (12 August 190422 December 1975) was (as a Lieutenant-Colonel) the senior Allied officer in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp at Tha Maa Kham (known as Tamarkan) in Thailand during World War II. The men at this camp built the Bridge on the River Kwai which was described in a book by Pierre Boulle and later in an Oscar-winning film in which Alec Guinness played the senior British officer. Both the book and film outraged former prisoners because Toosey did not collaborate, unlike the fictional Colonel Nicholson.

Early life

Toosey was born in Upton Road, Oxton, Birkenhead. He was educated at home until the age of nine, then at Birkenhead School to the age of thirteen and then at Gresham’s School, Norfolk. His father forbade him from accepting a scholarship to Cambridge and so he was apprenticed to a firm of Liverpool cotton merchants. In 1927 he was commissioned into 59th (4th West Lancs) Medium Brigade RA of the Territorial Army. In 1929 he joined Baring Brothers, merchant bankers as Assistant Agent. His commanding officer in the TA, Colonel Alan Tod, was the Liverpool Agent at the time. He married Muriel Alexandra (Alex) Eccles on 27 July 1932 and they had two sons and a daughter.

Army career

In August 1939 he was mobilized and saw brief action in Belgium in May 1940 before retreating back into France. He was evacuated from Dunkirk. Following a course at the Senior Officers’ School, he commanded and trained a home defence battery at Cambridge. In 1941, promoted lieutenant-colonel, he was appointed to command the 135th Hertfordshire Yeomanry regiment. In October 1941, his unit was shipped to the Far East. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for heroism during the defence of Singapore. Because of his qualities of leadership, his superiors ordered him on 12 February 1942 to join the evacuation of Singapore, but Toosey refused so that he could remain with his men during their captivity.

Building the bridges

The round truss spans are the originals; the angular replacements were supplied by the Japanese as war reparations.

Toosey and his men were required (contrary to the Hague Convention) to build railway bridges over the Khwae Yai near where it joins the Khwae Noi to form the Mae Klong in Thailand.[1]. The Khwae Mae Khlong above the confluence was renamed the Khwae Yai in 1960. This was part of a project to link existing Thai and Burmese railway lines to create a route from Bangkok to Rangoon to support the Japanese occupation of Burma. About a hundred thousand conscripted Asian labourers and 12,000 prisoners of war died on the whole project, which was nicknamed the Death Railway.

A camp was established at Tamarkan, which is about five kilometres from Kanchanaburi. In the Tamarkan camp, Toosey worked courageously to ensure that as many as possible of the 2,000 Allied prisoners would survive. He endured regular beatings when he complained of ill-treatment of prisoners, but as a skilled negotiator he was able to win many concessions from the Japanese by convincing them that this would speed the completion of the work. Toosey also organised the smuggling in of food and medicine, working with Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu. Boonpong was a Thai merchant who supplied camps at the southern end of the railway taking great risks and was honoured after the war.

Toosey maintained discipline in the camp and, where possible, cleanliness and hygiene. His policy was of unity and equality and so refused to allow a separate officers’ mess or officers’ accommodation. He also ordered his officers to intervene if necessary to protect the men. For his conduct in the camp, he won the undying respect of his men. He was considered by many to be the outstanding British officer on the railway.

Behind the backs of the Japanese, Toosey did everything possible to delay and sabotage the construction without endangering his men. Refusal to work would have meant instant execution. White ants were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures and the concrete was badly mixed. Toosey also helped organise a daring escape, at considerable cost to himself. (In the film the fictional colonel forbids escapes.) The two escaping officers had been given a month’s rations and Toosey concealed their escape for 48 hours. After a month the two escapees were recaptured and bayoneted. Toosey was punished for concealing the escape.

The film portrays the Japanese as not being capable of designing a good bridge and so needed British expertise. This is incorrect; the Japanese army had excellent engineers who surprised their enemies by completing the railway within a year, albeit at vast human cost — British Army engineers had estimated five years. The Allies were just slave labourers.

Two bridges were built: a temporary wooden bridge and a few months later a permanent steel and concrete bridge which was completed in 1943. At the end of the film the wooden bridge is destroyed by a commando raid. Actually, both bridges were used for two years until they were destroyed by Allied aerial bombing, the steel bridge first in June 1945; there had been seven previous bombing missions. The steel bridge has been repaired and is still in use today.

After the bridges

After completion of the steel bridge the majority of fit men were moved to camps further up the line. Toosey was ordered to organize Tamarkan as a hospital, which he did despite difficulties including minimal food and medical supplies. The Japanese considered it the best-run prisoner-of-war camp on the railway and gave him considerable autonomy. In December 1943 he was transferred to help run Nong Pladuk camp, and in December 1944 he was moved to the allied officers’ camp at Kanchanaburi where he was the liaison officer with the Japanese.

He and some other officers had been separated from his men at Nakhon Nayok camp and was being held there as a hostage when Japan surrendered in August 1945. At that time, Toosey weighed 105 pounds (47 kg); before the war he weighed 175 pounds. Despite his weak state, Toosey insisted on travelling 300 miles (500 km) into the jungle to oversee the liberation of his men.

After the war

Phil Toosey in his study in the early 1970s at a time when he was recording his memoirs

After the war, Toosey saved the life of Sergeant-Major Saito (not a colonel as in the film). Saito was second in command at the camp and was thought to be not as bad as many of the guards. Toosey spoke up for him and as a result Saito did not stand trial. Over 200 Japanese were hanged for their crimes and many more served long prison sentences. Saito respected Toosey greatly and they corresponded after the war.

Saito said that “He showed me what a human being should be and he changed the philosophy of my life.” After Toosey died, Saito travelled from Japan to visit the grave. Only after Saito died in 1990 did even his family know that Saito had become a Christian.

After the war Toosey resumed his service with the Territorial Army and was promoted brigadier. He retired from the TA in 1954, and was awarded a CBE in 1955. Toosey also returned to banking with Barings in Liverpool and expanded their services greatly.

He worked for the veterans all his life, and in 1966 became President of the National Federation of Far Eastern Prisoners of War.

The film The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957. In the film, the senior officer British colonel was portrayed as working with the Japanese. This was regarded by many former prisoners of war as a gross travesty of the truth. Toosey initially refused repeated requests by the veterans to speak out against the film, being much too modest to seek any glory or recognition for himself. However he wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph causing several other veterans to emphasise the injustice that had occurred. The film was highly successful and so formed the public perception of events at Tamarkan. As a result Toosey agreed to be interviewed by Professor Peter Davies, providing 48 hours of taped interviews on the understanding that they were not to be published until after Toosey’s death. Eventually Davies documented Toosey’s achievements in a 1991 book entitled The Man Behind the Bridge (ISBN 0-485-11402-X) and a BBC Timewatch programme. A book by his oldest granddaughter, Julie Summers, The Colonel of Tamarkan, was published in 2005 (ISBN 0-7432-6350-2).

Toosey was a Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff of Lancashire, and raised funds for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. In 1974 he was awarded an honorary LLD by Liverpool University and was knighted. Phil Toosey died on 22nd December 1975. His ashes were buried in Landican Cemetery outside Birkenhead.


    map of death railway

Pierre Boulle

Pierre Boulle (20 February 191230 January 1994) was a French novelist largely known for two famous works, The Bridge over the River Kwai (1952) and Planet of the Apes (1963).


Born Pierre-François-Marie-Louis Boulle in Avignon, France. He was baptised and raised Roman Catholic, although later in life he would become an agnostic. He studied and later became an engineer. From 1936 to 1939, he worked as a technician on British rubber plantations in Malaya. While there he fell in love with a French woman who was separated from her husband. She became the love of his life. She later chose to return to her husband, who was a French official. During World War II she and her husband escaped into Malaysia and one of her children died in the process. Boulle would later meet her after the war on a platonic basis. At the outbreak of World War II, Boulle enlisted with the French army in French Indochina. After German troops occupied France, he joined the Free French Mission in Singapore. Pierre Boulle was a supporter of Charles de Gaulle during the Second World War.

Boulle served as a secret agent under the name Peter John Rule and helped the resistance movement in China, Burma, and French Indochina. In 1943, he was captured by the Vichy France loyalists on the Mekong River. While a prisoner, he was subjected to severe hardship and forced labour. He was made a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur and decorated with the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. He described his experiences in the war in the non-fiction My Own River Kwai (1967).

For a while after the war, Boulle returned to work in the rubber industry, but he later moved back to Paris and began to write. While in Paris he lived in a hotel due to a lack of funds in obtaining his own flat. He was quite poor at this point in his life. His recently widowed sister offered him the opportunity to live in her large apartment and he moved there. She had a daughter whom Pierre helped raise. There were plans for him to officially adopt her but they never materialized. He could never set himself to leave this family and form another one. While there he used his experiences in the war in writing Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï (1952; The Bridge over the River Kwai), which became a multi-million worldwide bestseller, winning the French “Prix Sainte-Beuve“. The book was a semi-fictional story based on the real plight of Allied POWs forced to build a 415-km (258-mile) railway which passed over the bridge, and which became known as the “Death Railway“. 16,000 prisoners and 100,000 Asian conscripts died during construction of the line. His character of Lt-Col. Nicholson was not based on the real Allied senior officer at the Kwai bridges, Philip Toosey, but was reportedly an amalgam of his memories of collaborating French officers.

Upon returning to France after the Second World War, he spent the rest of his life living with his sister and her daughter and husband. He continued to maintain close ties with his former friends who served with him during World War II. Pierre Boulle was a quiet, decent and tolerant man.


David Lean made Boulle’s story into a motion picture that won several 1957 Oscars, including the Best Picture, and Best Actor for Alec Guinness. Boulle himself won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay despite not having written the screenplay and not even speaking English. Boulle had been credited with the screenplay because the film’s actual writers, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, had been blacklisted. The Motion Picture Academy added their names to the award in 1984.

In 1963, following several other reasonably successful novels, Pierre Boulle published his other famous novel, Planet of the Apes, a classic science fiction piece in which Earth astronauts travel to a distant planet where apes rule and humans are mere animals. In 1968 this story was made into an Oscar-winning film, starring Charlton Heston, which inspired four sequels, one television series and an animated series. The film series have become cult classics with movie goers throughout the world. A remake of the original film was released and directed by Tim Burton in 2001.


A few months prior to his death a woman who was a former editor visited Boulle and his family in the hospital. She revealed to Boulle’s family that she was in love with Pierre Boulle and had been his lover before. Years before there were rumours that Pierre Boulle was seeing a French actress. He had never married due in large part to the fact that he had decided to take care of his sister and raise his niece as his own daughter. Pierre Boulle died in Paris, France on 30 January 1994.


  • Le sacrilège malais (1951)
  • Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï (1952; The Bridge over the River Kwai)
  • Le Bourreau (1954; US title The Executioner, UK title The Chinese Executioner) – philosophical tales in the manner of Voltaire inspired by legends from the Orient
  • Not The Glory (1955)
  • Saving Face (1956)
  • E=MC2 (1957)
  • Face of a Hero (1956)
  • The Test (1957)
  • Other Side of the Coin (1956)
  • Walt Disney’s Siam (1958)
  • S.O.P.H.I.A. (1959)
  • A Noble Profession (1960)
  • For a Noble Cause (1961)
  • La Planète des singes (1963; Planet of the Apes)
  • Garden on the Moon (1964)
  • The Photographer (1967)
  • Les Oreilles de jungle (1972; Ears of the Jungle) – story of the Vietnam war told from the perspective of a North Vietnamese commander
  • Les Vertus de’lenfer (1974; The Virtues of Hell)
  • Le Bon Léviathan (1978; The Good Leviathan)
  • Miroitements (1982; Mirrors of the Sun)
  • La Baleine des Malouines (1983; US title: The Whale of the Victoria Cross; UK title: The Falklands Whale)
  • Pour l’amour de l’art (1985; For the Love of Art)
  • Le Professeur Mortimer (1988)
  • A nous deux, Satan! (1992)


  • Contes de l’absurde (1953; “Stories of the Absurd”)
  • Histoires charitables (1965)
  • Quia absurdum (1966)
  • Time Out of Mind: And Other Stories (1966)
  • The Marvellous Palace: And Other Stories (1977)

The Bridge on the River Kwai is an Academy Award-winning 1957 World War II war film based on the novel Le Pont de la Rivière Kwaï by French writer Pierre Boulle. The film is fiction, but uses the historical construction of the Burma Railway in 194243 as its setting. It was directed by David Lean and stars Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins and William Holden.

In 1997, this film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry.


Two prisoners of war are burying a corpse in the graveyard of a Japanese World War II prison camp in southern Burma. One of them, American Navy Commander Shears (William Holden), routinely bribes the guards to ensure he gets sick duty, which allows him to avoid hard labour. A large contingent of British prisoners arrives, marching in defiantly whistling the Colonel Bogey March, under the leadership of Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness).

The camp commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), addresses them, informing them of his rules. He insists that all prisoners, regardless of rank, will work on the construction of a bridge over the Kwai River as part of a railroad that will link all of Burma.

The next morning, when Saito orders everyone to work, Nicholson commands his officers to stand fast. He points out that the Geneva Conventions state that captured officers are exempt from manual labour. Saito is infuriated and backhands Nicholson in the face, but the latter refuses to back down, even after Saito has a machine gun set up. Saito is dissuaded from shooting by Major Clipton (James Donald), the medical officer; instead, the Japanese commander leaves Nicholson and his officers standing in the intense heat. As the day wears on, one of them collapses, but Nicholson and the rest are still standing defiantly at attention when the men return from the day’s work. After Colonel Nicholson is beaten in Saito’s quarters, the British officers are sent into a punishment cage and Nicholson into his own box for solitary confinement.

When Clipton requests to be allowed to check the officers, Saito agrees on the condition that Clipton persuade Nicholson to change his mind. Nicholson, however, refuses to budge, saying “if we give in now there’ll be no end to it.” In the meantime, construction falls far behind schedule, due in part to many “accidents” arranged by the British.

Saito has a deadline; if he should fail to meet it, it would bring him great shame and oblige him to commit seppuku. So Saito reluctantly releases Nicholson, telling him that he has proclaimed an “amnesty” to commemorate the anniversary of Japan’s great victory in the Russo-Japanese War, using it as an excuse to exempt the officers from work. Upon their release, Nicholson and his officers proudly walk through a jubilant reception. Saito for his part breaks down in tears in private.

Having recovered from his ordeal physically, but mentally broken, Nicholson sets off on an inspection and is shocked to find disorganization, shirking and outright sabotage on the construction site. He decides to build a better bridge than the Japanese. He orders Captain Reeves (Peter Williams) and Major Hughes (John Boxer) to come up with designs for a proper bridge, despite its military value to the Japanese. He wants to show up his captors and keep his men busy.

Meanwhile, three men, one of them Shears, attempt to escape. Two are killed; Shears is shot, falls into the river and is swept downstream. After many days in the jungle, he stumbles into a Siamese village, whose residents help him get back to his side. Shears is shipped to a British hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka (at the time, Ceylon). While recuperating, he dallies with a lovely nurse.

Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), a member of the British Special Forces, asks to speak with him. He informs Shears that he is leading a small group of commandos on a mission to destroy the Kwai bridge. He asks Shears to volunteer, since he knows the area. Shears refuses, finally admitting that he is not Commander Shears at all, but a Navy enlisted man. Shears recounts that he and a Navy Commander survived the sinking of their ship, but the Commander was subsequently killed by a Japanese patrol. “Shears” switched dog tags with the dead officer, hoping to get preferential treatment in captivity. It didn’t work, but he then had no choice but to continue the impersonation. Warden tells him that they already knew this. To avoid bad publicity, the U.S. Navy is only too happy to loan him to the British. Warden offers him a deal: in exchange for his services, he will be given the “simulated rank” of major on the mission and avoid being charged. Shears reluctantly “volunteers”.

Back in the camp, Clipton watches in sheer bewilderment as Nicholson maniacally drives his men to complete the project by the deadline. Ironically, he even volunteers his junior officers to assist with the physical labor – provided that the Japanese officers are willing to pitch in as well. As the Japanese engineers had chosen a poor site, the original bridge is abandoned and construction of a whole new bridge is commenced 400 yards downriver.

Meanwhile, the commandos parachute in. One dies due to a bad landing. The rest make their way to the river, assisted by native women porters and their village chief, Yai (M.R.B. Chakrabandhu). As the camp celebrates the completion of the bridge on time, Shears and Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) wire explosives to it under cover of darkness. The next day, a Japanese train full of soldiers and important officials is scheduled to be the first to use the bridge; Warden wants to blow them both up.

As dawn approaches, Nicholson proudly walks up and down his bridge. As he makes a final inspection, the water level in the river has receded overnight and exposes the wiring connected to the explosives, as the train can be heard approaching. Nicholson and Saito hurry downstream, pulling up and following the wire towards Joyce. When they get too close, Joyce breaks cover and stabs Saito to death. Nicholson yells for help and then tries to stop the commando (who cannot bring himself to kill Nicholson) from getting to the detonator. A firefight erupts; Yai is killed. When Joyce is hit, Shears swims across the river to finish the job, but is killed just before he reaches the colonel.

Recognizing Shears, Nicholson suddenly comes to his senses and exclaims, “What have I done!?!” Mortally wounded, he stumbles over to the plunger and falls on it, just in time to blow up the bridge and send the train hurtling into the river. (A full-sized bridge and a real train were used, probably the first time this had been done without model shots since the silent film era. Buster Keaton‘s The General included an almost identical scene.)

His mission accomplished, Warden hobbles back into the jungle, aided by his porters. Clipton, who has witnessed the carnage, utters one of the most memorable last lines in the history of motion pictures, “Madness! … Madness!”.

Historical accuracy

(The round truss spans of the Bridge are the originals; the angular replacements were supplied by the Japanese as war reparations.)

The story is based on the building in 1943 of one of the railway bridges over the Mae Klong – renamed Khwae Yai in the 1960s – at a place called Tamarkan, five kilometres from the Thai town of Kanchanaburi. This was part of a project to link existing Thai and Burmese railway lines to create a route from Bangkok, Thailand to Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar) to support the Japanese occupation of Burma. About a hundred thousand conscripted Asian labourers and 12,000 prisoners of war died on the whole project.

Although the suffering caused by the building of the Burma Railway and its bridges is true, the incidents in the film are mostly fictional. The real senior Allied officer at the bridge was Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. Some consider the film to be an insulting parody of Toosey.[1] On a BBC Timewatch programme, a former prisoner at the camp states that it is unlikely that a man like the fictional Nicholson could have risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel; and if he had, he would have been “quietly eliminated” by the other prisoners. Julie Summers, in her book The Colonel of Tamarkan, writes that Pierre Boulle, who had been a prisoner of war in Thailand, created the fictional Nicholson character as an amalgam of his memories of collaborating French officers.

Toosey was very different to Nicholson and was certainly not a collaborator who felt obliged to work with the Japanese. Toosey in fact did much to delay the building of the bridge as much as possible. Whereas Nicholson disapproves of acts of sabotage and other deliberate attempts to delay progress, Toosey encouraged this: white ants were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures and the concrete was badly mixed.

The destruction of the bridge as depicted in the film is entirely fictional. In fact, two bridges were built: a temporary wooden bridge and a permanent steel and concrete bridge a few months later. Both bridges were used for two years until they were destroyed by Allied aerial bombing. The steel bridge was repaired and is still in use today.


2004 photo of Kitulgala in Sri Lanka, where the bridge was made for the film.


The screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, were on the Hollywood blacklist and could only work on the film in secret. The official credit was given to Pierre Boulle (who did not speak English), and the resulting Oscar was awarded to him. Only in 1984 did the Academy rectify the situation by retroactively awarding the Oscar to Foreman and Wilson, posthumously in both cases. At about the same time, a new release of the film finally gave them proper screen credit.

Reportedly, Sessue Hayakawa edited his copy of the script so that it only contained his own lines of dialogue; thus, he did not know that his character was to be killed off at the end of the film.


Many directors were considered for the project, among them John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Fred Zinnemann, and Orson Welles. Producer Sam Spiegel later said that David Lean, then virtually unknown outside of the United Kingdom, was chosen “in absence of anyone else.”

Alec Guinness later said that he subconsciously based his walk while emerging from “the Oven” on that of his son Matthew when he was recovering from polio. He called his walk from the Oven to Saito’s hut while being saluted by his men the “finest work I’d ever done”.

Lean nearly drowned when he was swept away by a river current during a break from filming; Geoffrey Horne saved his life.

The film was an international co-production between companies in the UK and the USA. It is set in Burma, but was filmed mostly near Kitulgala, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), with a few scenes shot in England.

The filming of the bridge explosion was to be done on March 10, 1957, in the presence of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister of Ceylon, and a team of government dignitaries. However, cameraman Freddy Ford was unable to get out of the way of the explosion in time, and Lean had to stop filming. The train crashed into a generator on the other side of the bridge and was wrecked. It was repaired in time to be blown up the next morning, with Bandaranaike and his entourage present.


A memorable feature of the movie is the tune that is whistled by the POWs — the Colonel Bogey March. This piece, originally written in 1914 by Kenneth Alford, was rearranged by Sir Malcolm Arnold and is now widely associated with the movie. The film won an academy award for its score.

Besides serving as an example of British fortitude and dignity in the face of privation, the Colonel Bogey March suggested (whether or not it was intended by the screenwriters) a specific symbol of defiance to older movie-goers; many World War II veterans and some of their baby boomer children associated the melody with a vulgar verse about Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany and Japan’s principal ally during the war. Although the mocking lyrics were not used in the film, audience members of the time knew them well enough to mentally sing along when the tune was heard.

The soundtrack of the film is largely diegetic; background music is not widely used. In many tense, dramatic scenes, only the sounds of nature are used. An example of this is when commandos Warden and Joyce hunt a fleeing Japanese soldier through the jungle, desperate to prevent him from alerting other troops.



Academy Awards

Award Person
Best Director David Lean
Best Actor Alec Guinness
Best Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Best Picture Sam Spiegel
Best Film Editing Peter Taylor
Best Music Malcolm Arnold
Best Adapted Screenplay Carl Foreman*
Michael Wilson*
Pierre Boulle
Best Supporting Actor Sessue Hayakawa

(* – Honored posthumously in 1984, see above

Philip Toosey

Bridge on the River Kwai

16,000 prisoners and 100,000 Asian conscripts died during construction of the line.

Bridge on the River Kwai

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