This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: USA 14).


The construction of a supply route through Burma's jungles and mountains by US troops under General Joseph Stilwell during the Second World War.

American film about the Allied victory in Burma, focussing primarily on the construction of the Ledo (Stilwell) Road in Northern Burma. Also explores other aspects of the campaign. Aerial shot through clouds towards a mountain range. Image replaced with a map; commentary outlines the need for a trade route through Burma to China ‘to keep that country alive in its struggle against Japan’. Details of Japanese capture of Burma in 1942 resulting in the destruction of the original supply route to China. Allied retreat, culminating with General Stilwell’s pledge to ‘go back and retake the place’. Background on Burma and its people, outlining the difficulties the country presents to Allied troops: fighting in jungle and mountain terrain; facing extremes of climate; succumbing to tropical diseases. General Stilwell plots the reopening of the land bridge. Stilwell forms the American command C.B.I. and enlists Chinese to help his aims. Depiction of British command, under Sir Archibald Wavell and General Sir Claude Auchinleck. Training of Indian troops in readiness for the defence of their home country. Depiction of other constituents of the ‘polyglot’ Allied army. Outlining of alternative supply routes, which have proved inadequate, providing the need to construct the Ledo Road. Beginnings of this operation. Footage of the Chindits, led by Major General Charles Orde Wingate, in an operation behind enemy lines. Footage of a conference between Roosevelt and Churchill regarding plans for the war against Japan. Leads to the formation of the joint South-East Asia Command, under Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten; General Stilwell appointed as deputy. Further building of the Ledo Road, along with the construction of a fuel pipeline from India to China. News on the malarial threat, with focus upon the work of the medical missionary Colonel Gordon Seagrave. Training for the re-conquest of Burma, including that given to Chinese and Indian personnel; Major General Frank Merrill’s Marauders; and Colonel Philip Cochran’s aerial supply team. Bombing of Japanese strongholds. Building of airbases by Asiatic labourers. Reinforcement of Japanese garrisons. Three of the campaigns against the Japanese: the British/Indian 14th Army in the Arakan peninsula; Stilwell drive in Mogaung and Myitkyina; Chindits in heart of Burma. Failed Japanese advances on Imphal and Kohima (captured Japanese film material used as part of this sequence). Capture of Mogaung. Thrust through the Salween River area by the Yunnan Chinese expeditionary force. American bombing of Japanese bases in Burma, Java, Manchuria and, eventually, Japan. Renewed Japanese offensive against China. Completion of the road. First convoy arriving in China, receiving the gratitude of the locals. Road is renamed the Stilwell Road ‘in tribute to the man who had dedicated himself to the building of this great project’. Film closes with an aerial shot of the road.


Shot list entry by Dr Richard Osborne, AHRC Colonial Film Database 2010.

Further production details [from Frank Capra and Leland A. Poague, Frank Capra: Interviews (Univ Press of Mississippi, 2004), p. xxxix] Producer: Col. Frank Capra Script. Capt. Oppenheimer, Lt. Col. Alex Bryce Editing: Maj. Ludwig. Stg. Mann [From Ian Jardine, ‘The Burma Campaign on Film: ‘Objective Burma’ (1945), ‘The Stilwell Road (1945) and ‘Burma Victory’ (1945)’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television v8. N1. 1988, 5-73 (p. 65)] Producer: Col. Robert Presnell Commentary written by: Col. Alex Bryce Commentary spoken by: Ronald Reagan Music: Franz Waxman



The American film The Stilwell Road has its origins in a project that was originally conceived in 1944 by the British Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, head of South-East Asia Command in World War II (Mackenzie, 2001, 126). Mountbatten wanted a documentary that would tell the story of Allied forces in South-East Asia in World War II. Ultimately this became a film about the Burmese Campaign. His project was complicated by his ambitions. Mountbatten stated that the film should cover ‘all the principal activities of South-East Asia Command’, adding that ‘As such a film will cover Allied troops it should be a joint production – British and American’ (Jardine, 1988, 60). This would be no simple feat. Not only did the USA have different reasons for being in Burma – a wish to reopen the land route to China as opposed to the need to recapture a British colony – they also had a specific desire how their actions should be perceived. The country resolutely did not wish to be seen to be supporting Britain’s imperial project (Stockwell, 2001, 476).

Mountbatten wrote to the Chief of Staff of the US Army, General George C. Marshall, about the film and requested that Frank Capra be assigned to it. Work commenced but parties in America remained uneasy about the project. A memo addressed to ‘American Officials Only’ stated that there would ‘seem to be a good deal to be said against continuing the attempt to produce a cinematic document purporting to show an identity of American and British interests and objectives in Southeast Asia’ (Jardine, 1988, 60). Marshall also desired a shorter film than the feature-length treatment that was being proposed by Mountbatten (Jardine, 1988, 62). Ultimately, the combined Anglo-American project collapsed. It was instead agreed to share the source material to create two separate films. The US film became The Stilwell Road, while the UK project was handed over to producer David Macdonald and director Roy Boulting, who created Burma Victory (1945).

The American film centred on the construction of the land supply route to China across northern Burma. Originally called the Ledo Road, this thoroughfare was renamed the Stilwell Road after the American General Joseph Stilwell who oversaw most of the operation. This huge project, lasting from December 1942 until January 1945, entailed the labour of 15,000 American soldiers and 35,000 predominantly Chinese volunteers (Sankar, 24 May 2008). Unfortunately, by the time the road was completed the need for it had diminished. Supplies getting through to China by aeroplane outnumbered those that were carried via the road. Moreover, the defeat of Japanese forces was no longer dependent on keeping China involved in the war (Allen, 1984, xv).

The American film of the Burmese campaign was similarly overshadowed. The project was turned over to the producer Col. Robert Presnell and the film was narrated by Ronald Reagan, whose War service was undertaken in the 1st Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Force. Both Burma Victory and The Stilwell Road were issued after the cessation of hostilities. It was the British film, however, that gained the most plaudits and attention. This was true in both the UK and the USA. In America Burma Victory was distributed by Warner Bros; the US military authorities meanwhile decided that The Stilwell Road should not be shown commercially (Jardine, 1988, 65).



Ian Jardine has claimed that in terms of their accurate depiction of the Burmese campaign The Stilwell Road and Burma Victory are ‘worse than useless’ (Jardine, 1988, 68). He argues that they teach ‘false things which have to be unlearned’ (Jardine, 1988, 68). This comes across most clearly when the films are viewed back-to-back. They tell different stories and reach different conclusions about the same campaign.

Outlining the plans for the Burma film, Lord Burnham, Director of Public Relations at the War Office, stated that ‘The picture must be good entertainment or it has failed before it starts. If it is not extensively booked and widely seen it has no value’ (Burnham). He was particularly conscious of the viewing practices of audiences in the USA, believing that ‘The American public are allergic to official material of any kind and a version of an official dispatch illustrated by indifferently relevant visual material would not go with a swing’ (Burnham). It is ironic, then, that out of the eventual two films it is The Stilwell Road that is more focussed upon official material. Although both documentaries employ maps and statistics to tell their tales, the American film goes to greater lengths in detailing the command structure and the military plans of the Burmese campaign. It is also careful to disclose its use of reconstructed footage. An early title card states that ‘Two close-ups of individuals have been re-enacted to permit live sound’. Meanwhile, Burma Victory does not admit to the fact that itfeatures a combination of Burmese footage (of both genuine and staged action) and of scenes created in Pinewood studios.

The Stilwell Road is less narrow than its title suggests – the film does pay attention to British-driven aspects of the campaign. Moreover, it is more accurate than Burma Victory in the way that it outlines the chronology of the Allied manoeuvres. It also gives more detail regarding the Japanese plan of attack and is alone in incorporating film material captured from the enemy. Nevertheless, The Stilwell Roadavoids any mention of the colonial status of Burma and it also largely devoid of any coverage of the British advance towards the capital, Rangoon. The Japanese invasion is portrayed as an attack upon the supply route to China, and it is the defeat of China that is outlined as presaging any advance towards India. ‘This is the story of a bridge, it is a land bridge to China and its name is Burma’, Reagan states at the start of the film. He adds that ‘This is the story of the destruction of that bridge and of the men who fought and died to rebuild it so that China could fight on’. All other aspects of the campaign are subordinated to this aim. In contrast to Burma Victory, which pointedly includes footage of the liberated Burmese, the American documentary climaxes with grateful Chinese citizens, celebrating the arrival of the first military convoy in their homeland.

Rather than showing the liberation of the Burmese, The Stilwell Road instead has footage of refugees from the country, pictured during the initial retreat from Burma. This ignominious part of the campaign is passed over in Burma Victory; it would have been undesirable for a British film to show the abandonment of a colony and of its people. In contradistinction, The Stilwell Roademphasises this withdrawal. The length of the retreat (in which no American forces were involved), makes the reopening of the land route appear all the more heroic.

A further contrast is provided by the way in which the films portray the people, culture and climate of Burma. The Stilwell Road features a brief segment in which Burma, ‘a land of legend’, is outlined. We get to see pagodas and Buddhas, as well as the country’s ‘strange and picturesque people’ (here we see a woman lighting a smoking device and then a different woman who wears multiple rings around her extended neck). Such exoticism is lampooned in Burma Victory. The British film opens with a soldier casting aside a travel brochure that has talked of the ‘romance’ and ‘sunshine’ of the country. The brochure is contrasted with the reality of the monsoon rains. It should be admitted, however, that The Stilwell Road also portrays the Allied forces in Burma facing a ‘perpetual struggle against nature’.

Ian Jardine is correct in his belief that the value of these films lies not in their historical accuracy, but instead in the way they ‘shed light on the position of mass media in democratic society during war time’ (Jardine, 1988, 68). Nevertheless, the emphases of The Stilwell Road and Burma Victory are sometimes surprising. For example, it is The Stilwell Road that takes the greatest pride in the ‘polyglot army’ that has been assembled to defend India, drawn as it is from the countries of the British Empire, allied with American and Chinese troops. The film features a roll call of ‘Scots, Irish, English, Welsh, Australian, New Zealander, Indian, Gurkha, Burman, African, Chinese, American’, which is matched with individually framed shots of soldiers from each of these nations. Burma Victory has a similar, but less overt sequence, in which the troops of various nations are shown listening to Mountbatten’s speeches; however, their countries of origin are not mentioned by name. Moreover, although the colonial status of Burma is not mentioned in The Stilwell Road, this film does describe Calcutta as being the ‘second largest city in the British Empire’. Britain’s Empire, meanwhile, is not mentioned in Burma Victory, an absence that can be attributed to the need to appeal to an American audience.

Richard Osborne (September 2009)


Works Cited

Allen, Louis, Burma: The Longest War 1941-5 (London and Melbourne: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1984).

Mackenzie, S. P., British War Films, 1939-1945: the Cinema and the Services (London: Continuum, 2001).

Jardine, Ian, ‘The Burma Campaign on Film: ‘Objective Burma’ (1945), ‘The Stilwell Road’ (1945) and ‘Burma Victory’ (1945)’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 8/1 (1988), 55-73.

Lord Burnham, letter to DDPR. C.C. Army Film and Photographic Centre, undated [documentation at Imperial War Museum].

Sankar, Anand, ‘On the Road to China’, Business Standard (24 May 2008), http.//

Stockwell, A. J., ‘Imperialism and Nationalism in South-East Asia’, The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume IV: The Twentieth Century, ed. by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 465-89.




Technical Data

Running Time:
50 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
1805 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
United States of America
Production company
US War Department