Some years ago, I did a one hour interview with Sir Alec Guinness and he spoke of a strange script he received in 1956. "It was one of the lead roles in a movie to be filmed in a jungle somewhere," he told me. "There were women with bananas on their heads or something," he recalled. "And I'd have had to be there for months. So I put it aside." Repeated calls from producer Sam Spiegel caused Guinness to re-read the script and sign on for Bridge on the River Kwai, one of the great films ever made. It would win seven Oscars including Best Picture and, for Guinness, Best Actor.
This true story depicts British prisoners of war confined to a camp commanded by the brutal Colonel Saito, played by Sessue Hiyakawa. "Be happy in your work" was his mantra. Guinness played an equally-strict Colonel Nichols in charge of the bedraggled brigade of prisoners. Citing the rules of the Geneva Convention (which Japan had refused to sign), Nichols refused to let his officers do manual labor to build a bridge over the Kwai river strong enough to sustain a railroad. For this he was tortured in a "hot box," a broiling cage encased in wood. He was unrelenting. His men cheered. William Holden co-starred as an American prisoner in the camp, looking for the right moment to escape.
With Japanese engineers in command, a rickety bridge and lackadaisical work by the POW soldiers proves inadequate and dooms the project. But under British engineers, a stronger bridge begins to take shape.
Taken from the book by Pierre Boulle and with a screenplay by Carl Foreman, it's a story of enduring courage. The majority of films about World War II deal with the European theater, but this movie is the finest one depicting the courageous actions of British troops half a world away. Its values — steely adherence to military regulations and traditions in the face of unbridled fanaticism — are still compelling, fifty-seven years later.
As with many movies, the story of the production was almost as interesting as the film itself. The real camp was in Thailand along the river Kwai, but the movie was filmed in Ceylon along a wide rushing stream near Kitulgala along dense jungle. As Col. Saito said: "There are no bars here. The jungle keeps you in."
Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, is half way around the world. The intense heat and humidity was a heavy burden on cast and crew alike. There was also the challenge just to reach the set, live there for weeks, and oh yes, make a movie. Producer Spiegel built bungalows, installed plumbing facilities, water filtering, even a gourmet food-catering service. (Government officials in Colombo soon heard about the French Chef on location, and soon trekked to join Spiegel for lavish lunches.) Spiegel's chauffeur-driven Jaguar took him as deep into the jungle as the roads would permit.)
He built miles of roads and cut through the mountains for the railroad tracks. Sixteen elephants hauled trees across the river for timber to build the bridge. The filmmakers used no special effects, building a bridge similar to the one in real life, and used few modern techniques to preserve authenticity. On a budget of just seven million dollars, that was a real challenge in and of itself. Today, computer animation would have created a railroad, but in Spiegel's time, he bought an old engine and six railroad cars, then cut them in two to transport them through the jungle, then had them re-assembled by welders.
But Director Sir David Lean couldn't quiet the numerous jungle birds whose squawks and chirping crickets before filming caused delay. Thus, just before rolling, he'd fire a gun in the air to scare them off.
At least Holden had no problem with his makeup; he'd leap into the muddy river to get dirty before each scene.
World War II movies need a technical advisor so a General of the British army was hired. He was a veteran of jungle warfare, and wore a monocle even to bed. He believed "every boy of 17 should be sent into the jungle with no food nor water and suffer a bit of pain. It would teach him so many things."
But not everyone was pleased to have the movie filmed in their country. The local press denounced Spiegel as a "Yankee imperialist" and "capitalistic exploiter." Holden –the George Clooney of the 1950’s – was attacked as "The Great White Star." A security guard was sent to mind the bridge, lest it be blown up prematurely. The troublemakers notified customs officials, saying the completed footage would contain diamonds and opium, hoping the ensuring inspection would spoil the negative. One night in Colombo, Lean and Spiegel were surrounded by men with knives yelling: "Money! Money! Money!" Spiegel, who'd fled the Nazis right after Anschulss engulfed his native Austria, would not be cowed. He placed his hand in his pocket and yelled: "Pistol! Pistol! Pistol!" The marauders dispersed.
Three Siamese actresses were hired, though they hadn't read the script. So they lugged along evening gowns, unaware their roles were porters carrying heavy equipment for the commandos sent to blow up the bridge.
The movie even created its own mini-zoo, thanks to animal lover and environmentalist Holden. There was a stray cat, two parrots, a monkey and a flightless owl which took a liking to Guiness. He'd feed it with an eye-dropper while it sat on the actor's shoulder. Guinness would coax it while feeding it, saying: "Come, come. Here's Mom."
Bridge on the River Kwai told a story which hadn't been widely known. In the recent movie "The Railway Man," a former POW working on the same railroad suffered the effects of Japanese torture four decades later. Both films show how courage in the face of evil can be one's finest saving grace.
Jeffrey Lyons is an author and one of America’s most well-known film critics.