I was watching a film at Fort Canning Hill when I first came to know of The Battlebox. Currently a museum tucked away in Central Singapore, the Battlebox was originally a top-secret bunker that sheltered British troops during the Battle of Singapore (1942). It was here that the British decided to surrender Singapore to the Japanese, the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history.
My curiosity after taking the Battlebox tour led to me numerous personal accounts of British POWs who provided labour for building the Thai-Burma Railway under the Japanese Imperial Army. Both ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) and ‘The Railway Man’ (2013) were findings from that quest. These highly recommended anti-war films delve into the lives of the POWs in Japanese camps with the futility of war as the core theme.
While the Thai-Burma Railway is a character common to both films, they deal with two different periods in the life of the POWs. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ is a work of fiction based on French author Pierre Boulle’s 1954 novel of the same name and depicts the torture the prisoners were subjected to by the Japanese. The film is a commentary of the clash of two imperialistic powers personified by the protagonists – Colonel Nicholson and Colonel Saito, who make for a great study on military tradition, heroism and pride in war. ’The Railway Man’ makes for an appropriate subsequent watch (binge if you can). Based on the life of Eric Lomax, the film is a cinematic masterpiece about the torment of WWII soldiers with themes of guilt, isolation, revenge, confrontation and friendship are skilfully woven together.
Much has been written about the historical accuracy of these films. Claims that the Japanese have, in a way, been demonised by the West have been countered by others which argue that conditions in the camps were much worse than depicted. These are important conversations to be had about the representation of historical events. However, despite these criticisms, the two films have much to offer to cinema buffs and history geeks alike.
P.S. The Battlebox having remained unused since the War was opened for the public in 1997. The museum tour takes visitors through the history of the fall of Malaya and Singapore in WWII and explains how an underground command centre functioned during the War. Romen Bose’s ‘Secrets of the Battlebox’ is an excellent read on the role of command headquarters in the Second World War.