Sunday, 12 December 2010


By Vee8

I imagine there cannot be too many people reading this blog who haven’t at some point in their lives seen the 1957 classic film, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai.’ Based on a true story, and starring the late Alec Guinness, it tells of a group of British POW’s forced by their Japanese captors to construct a bridge over the forenamed river as part of the infamous Burma-Siam railway, nicknamed the ‘Railway of Death.’ A fierce personality struggle formed the backdrop of the film, with Guinness’ character refusing, even under threat of death, to follow the camp commandant’s orders that the officers will work alongside the men, as it was contrary to the Geneva convention. During the film one prisoner, an American, escapes and makes it back to Allied lines, and freedom. He is singularly unimpressed when he is press ganged into leading a team of commandos back to the bridge and help them destroy it! Via a series of dramatic scenes, both within the camp and the commando’s journey, the film reaches its explosive climax as a dying Guinness falls onto the demolition plunger, setting of the charges and destroying the bridge and the train travelling over it.

As I mentioned, the film is supposedly based on a true incident. But how close is this movie to historical fact? Well, there certainly was a Burma-Siam railway, constructed by slave labour and POW’s. During its construction 13,000 allied POW’s and as many as 100,000 civilians died, due to disease, starvation and torture by the Japanese. But the spectacular destruction of the bridge at the end of the film? Far from being blown to smithereens by the heroic commandos, the bridge not only survived the war, but is still in use to this day! The truth is that when asked why he deviated from history, the film’s director, David Lean said that he did not believe the paying audience would sit through his film without the ‘Payoff’ of seeing the cinematic spectacle of the bridge coming down in a welter of flying timbers and flame! In short, he used what is known as ‘Artistic licence’ or, what in layman’s terms we would call, ‘Sexing it up.’

Coming a little more up to date, and another film, also supposedly based on a true story, and we look at U571, filmed in 2000. This time the subject is the WWII German enigma coding device. A fiendishly clever encrypting machine, it scrambled any message sent through it, and was completely unintelligible to anyone who tried to read it without another enigma machine and the corresponding code to decipher the message. It was paramount to the Allies success in the war to break this code, and the Allies received a huge stroke of good fortune when, in May 1941 the crew of HMS Bulldog damaged a German U-boat, forcing it to the surface. Despite knowing the crew had set scuttling charges, a boarding party scrambled aboard the U-boat, and managed to retrieve a working enigma device with the latest codebook. This resulted in the Allies being able to read all the German signals throughout the rest of the war, something which saved a huge amount of lives, and that the Germans never once suspected. U571 tells this story.

Except, well, it doesn’t! This movie, again supposedly based on a true story, was on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism, at least in this country, because it bore no relation whatsoever to the truth. Yes, within the plot there was an enigma device, and a German submarine was involved, but that, as far as historical context goes, was it! In THIS film, it was not the British, but the Americans who mounted a daring mission to deliberately capture an enigma device from a U-boat, the U571 of the title, that had sent a radio message, (Presumably NOT encrypted by their enigma!) saying they had been damaged and were attempting to rendezvous with a supply ship to make repairs. An American submarine, disguised as the U-571 was to try to sink the real German sub and try to bluff their way aboard the repair ship and capture an enigma. I won’t go into any further details of the plot, suffice to say that, despite their plans falling apart several times they eventually succeed in their mission. As a former member of the British armed forces and a keen amateur military historian I have long refused to watch this film on principle, such is my disgust at the flagrant disregard of the true role played by the heroic crew of HMS Bulldog, let alone the perverse way the director has blatantly rewritten history.

So what is my point? Simply this; that Amaral claims his book is based on the original files of the McCann case. In other words, based on a true incident. But, as we are seeing, time and again, not only does Amaral’s book diverge from the files in many key areas, there are times where it completely contradicts them! Is this ‘Artistic licence’ on Amaral’s part? Is he ‘Sexing up’ his book to make it more appealing to the reader? If so, what is it that he considers a suitable ‘Payoff?’ I fear that, in my opinion, it is nothing less than an unjust conviction.

What we are showing you is that when a book, film or for that matter a TV programme claims to be based on a true incident, we cannot take it for granted that this work will necessarily pursue the true facts, no matter how loosely. The difference between films that re-write war history and what Amaral has done is that this is the current anguish and torment of the McCanns that Amaral's re-writing of the Madeleine investigation is exacerbating, not historical events of some 65 years ago.

Amaral’s work is far more U571 than Bridge on the River Kwai.

And we all know the fate of most of the German U-boat crews.

Further reading.

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