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Video Clip Synopsis:
Weary Dunlop and his elderly comrades return to the site of the Thai-Burma railway. As prisoners of war they each had to dig three cubic metres of earth a day, virtually with their bare hands.

2min 19sec

Return To The Thai-Burma Railway is an excerpt from the film Hellfire Pass (55 mins), produced in 1987.

Hellfire Pass: More than forty years after the notorious Thailand-Burma railway was completed, a group of Allied ex-servicemen, including an Australian contingent lead by Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, returned to Hellfire Pass in Thailand to dedicate a monument to the thousands who died during its construction.

Hellfire Pass is a Film Australia National Interest Program.

Study Module

Curriculum Focus: English
Year: 11-12
Theme: Wartime Work

Key Concepts

War; Identity; Image and reality; Commemoration

Curriculum Applicability Notes

ACT:English course framework (11-12) — responding critically and analytically to texts
NSW:English Stage 6: Close study of text, Texts and society
NT:English Stage 1 Texts and contexts
Qld:English senior syllabus: Texts in their contexts; textual features; Constructedness of texts
SA:English Stage 1 Texts and contexts
Tas:Senior Secondary English: Ideas and issues strand; Texts and contexts strand; Applications strand
Vic:English Language: Unit 3 — Language in society; Unit 4 — Language in use
WA:English Year 11 — Print texts (non fiction), Non-print texts
English Year 12 — Print texts (non-fiction), Non-print texts

Context / Background Information

In 1942 more than 20,000 Australians, together with large numbers of British and other allied troops, became prisoners of war after the fall of Singapore to the invading Japanese.

For the next four years most of these Australians were held at Changi prison, in difficult conditions. Some were sent to Japan to work in coalmines, and many were sent to work with other Allied soldiers and local conscripts on the building of a railway between Burma and Thailand. 330,000 worked on the line, including

250,000 Asian labourers and 61,000 Allied prisoners of war — 12,000 of these Australians taken from Singapore after the surrender. It is thought that about

90,000 of the 250,000 labourers from Malaya, Thailand, Burma and India died, together with about 13,000 Allied prisoners.

The building involved 415 kilometres of clearing ground in the jungle, cutting through hills of rock, and building bridges. There were 4 million cubic metres of earth to be moved, 3 million metres of rock to be broken and shifted, and 14 kilometres of bridges to be built. There was virtually no machinery available - only a few elephants, and a lot of men with basic hand tools. The short time-line meant that men had to be worked hard to complete their tasks. Camps were set up along the route, and men had certain quotas to complete by set dates. For the Japanese, there could be no delays, and no failure if they were to support their Burma army. The safety of their colleagues depended on building the line.

These men were appallingly mistreated, beaten, starved, denied medical supplies, and forced to live and work in primitive and physically destructive conditions. A large percentage died during this experience.

Discussion Pointers

  1. This extract is a representation of an aspect of the Australian experience of World War 2. How does the extract tell you about that experience? Consider what is shown, who is shown and interviewed, the sound effects in the film. Do you think it is an effective visual representation of that experience?
  2. The extract has a female narrator. Is this normal for war-related documentaries? Does it change the message and meaning of the film in any way?
  3. Every ANZAC Day we hear about the ANZAC tradition, the ANZAC spirit. Discuss and define what that is. Then consider if the prisoners of war are part of that image. For example, it is often defined as involving a fighting spirit — can it be said that prisoners, most of whom made no attempt to escape, had that spirit?
  4. Does the experience of the prisoners of war help us to distinguish between the image of ANZAC, and its reality?
  5. The events referred to in the extract occurred sixty years ago. They occurred in a world that was very different from our world today. Should we keep remembering them?
  6. List a number of words that describe your image of the Australian soldier. Now list the words that describe your image of the prisoners of war. Are they the same? Or is our image of the two different. If so, does this mean that the prisoners of war cannot be considered a legitimate part of the Anzac legend or tradition? Or does it mean that we need to re-define Anzac to accommodate a broader range of experiences than the most obvious ones?

Suggested Classroom Activities

  1. War can involve many ethical situations. Imagine that you are a prisoner of war. You have been ordered to build a railway that you know will help the enemy kill many of your fellow countrymen and allies. You know that you will be beaten, and perhaps even killed, if you do not do what you are told. Do you build it? Try to sabotage it as you go? Only pretend to work? Discuss the implications of each possible action.

Modules That Use This Clip

Science Year 9-10, English Year 11-12, SOSE/HSIE Year 9-10