This is a printer friendly page
Free for educational use

Return to the Thai-Burma Railway

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.
Year of production - 1987
Duration - 2min 19sec
Tags - commemoration, identity, World War 2, see all tags


Return to the Thai-Burma Railway

How to Download the Video Clip

To download a free copy of this Video Clip choose from the options below. These require the free Quicktime Player.

download clip icon Premium MP4 hellfire_pr.mp4 (17.1MB).

ipod icon Broadband MP4 hellfire_bb.mp4 (8.1MB), suitable for iPods and computer downloads.

Additional help.

buy iconYou can buy this clip on a compilation DVD.

buy iconYou can buy the program this clip comes from.

About the Video Clip


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.

Curriculum Focus


Historical Knowledge and understanding
At Level 6, students analyse events which contributed to Australia’s social, political and cultural development. These events could include: World War II. Students analyse the impact of some key wars in the twentieth century. They explain their influence on people’s lives, national events and international relations.

Historical reasoning and interpretation
At Level 6 students locate relevant resources, including inline resources. They identify, comprehend and evaluate a range of primary and secondary sources. They critically evaluate sources of evidence for context, information, reliability, completeness, objectivity and bias.

This material is an extract. Teachers and Students should consult the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority website for more information.

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 whom were Australians taken form Singapore after the surrender. It is thought that about 90,000 of the 250,000 labourers form Malaya, Thailand, Burma and India died, together with about 13,000 Allied prisoners.
The building of the railway involved 415 kilometers of clearing ground in the jungle cutting through hills of rock and builing 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 timeline 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.

The men who worked on the Burma/Thailand railway 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.

Classroom Activities

  1. This video clip is a representation of an aspect of the Australian experience of World War 2.
    1. How does the extract tell you about that experience? Consider what is shown, who is shown and interviewed, the sound effects in the clip.
    2. Do you think it is an effective visual representation of that experience?
  2. The video clip has a female narrator. Is this normal for war-related documentaries? Does it change the message and meaning of the video clip in any way?
  3. Every ANZAC Day we hear about the ANZAC tradition, the ANZAC spirit.
    1. Discuss and define what that is. Then consider if the prisoners of war are part of that image.
    2. Does the experience of the prisoners of war help us to distinguish between the image of ANZAC and its reality?
  4. The events referred to in the video clip occurred sixty years ago. They occurred in a world that was very different from our world today. Should we keep remembering them?
  5. List a number of words that describe your image of the Australian soldier as portrayed in the ANZAC legend.
    1. 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.
    2. 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?
  6. 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.

Further Resources


Go to the Operation Click: Anzac to Kokoda website