THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)

A classic story of English POWs in Burma forced to build a bridge to aid the war effort of their Japanese captors. British and American intelligence officers conspire to blow up the structure, but Col. Nicholson , the commander who supervised the bridge’s construction, has acquired a sense of pride in his creation and tries to foil their plans. Shooting in the jungles of Ceylon was not always a happy experience for cast and crew. Living conditions were uncomfortable due to intense heat and humidity. The unit also had to co-exist with snakes, leeches and other indigenous creatures of the area. Illness was rampant. Adding to the discomfort was David Lean’s tendency to take many hours or even days to get a single shot. Carl Foreman wrote the screenplay with Humphrey Bogart in mind for the role of Shears, but Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn refused to allow Bogart out of another project. Cary Grant then was briefly considered to star as Shears, but his flop in a serious role in Crisis concerned the producer, Sam Spiegel. The role of Nicholson was offered to Laurence Olivier who turned it down. Alec Guinness was the next choice. At one point, Sam Spiegel wanted Humphrey Bogart to star and Nicholas Ray to direct. Howard Hawks was asked to direct, but declined. After the box-office failure of Land of the Pharaohs, he didn’t want a second one in a row, and he thought the critics would love this movie but the public would stay away. One particular concern was the all-male lead roles. Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman were on the blacklist of people with accused Communist ties at the time the film was made, and went uncredited. The sole writing credit, and therefore the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, went to Pierre Boulle, who wrote the original French novel but did not speak English. Clearly Pierre had not written the English script and this became a long-running controversy between the Academy and the actual authors to achieve recognition for their work. In 1984 the Academy retrospectively awarded the Oscar to Wilson and Foreman. Sadly Wilson did not live to see this; Foreman died the day after it was announced. When the film was restored, their names were added to the credits. When this film was first aired on commercial TV in the USA, on Sunday night, Sept. 25, 1966, ABC-TV pre-empted its entire evening’s schedule so the film could be aired in one night, as opposed to two parts on consecutive nights. This was considered a bold move at the time. It was the longest single network telecast of a film up to then (three hours and 10 minutes with commercials; Ford Motor Co. was the lone sponsor), beating the previous record set by Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, which was telecast by NBC over three hours on March 11, 1956. An estimated 60 million viewers watched the program. The title of the English translation of the French novel “Le pont de la rivière Kwai” was “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”. The actual Major Saito, unlike the character portrayed in the film by Sessue Hayakawa, was said by some to be one of the most reasonable and humane of all of the Japanese officers, usually willing to negotiate with the POWs in return for their labor. Such was the respect between Saito and the real-life Lieutenant-Colonel Toosey that Toosey spoke up on Saito’s behalf at the war-crimes tribunal after the war, saving him from the gallows. Ten years after Toosey’s 1975 death, Saito made a pilgrimage to England to visit his grave. The film’s story was loosely based on a true World War II incident, and the real-life character of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. One of a number of Allied POW’s, Toosey was in charge of his men from late 1942 through May 1943 when they were ordered to build two Kwai River bridges in Burma (one of steel, one of wood), to help move Japanese supplies and troops from Bangkok to Rangoon. In reality, the actual bridge took 8 months to build (rather than two months), and they were actually used for two years, and were only destroyed two years after their construction – in late June 1945. The memoirs of the ‘real’ Colonel Nicholson were compiled into a 1991 book by Peter Davies entitled The Man Behind the Bridge. The real life construction of the bridge over the River Kwai used about 100,000 conscripted Asian laborers. 12,000 prisoners of war died on the project. William Holden, then a major star, was brought into the project to provide “box office appeal” after Cary Grant turned down the role. He received $300,000 up front, and was guaranteed a 10% share of the profits, to be paid at the rate of $50,000 a year. This is one reason why Holden sued to stop the first American TV showing of the film in 1966, claiming it would hurt future box office receipts, on which he was dependent (The lawsuit was unsuccessful). Because the film made so much money, his shares eventually accumulated to the point where the studio was making more off the interest on the unpaid balance than Holden was paid per year. A settlement was reached where Holden was paid a lump sum, and any future payments were willed to a motion picture relief fund. After filming was completed on the exploding bridge sequence, which cost an enormous amount of money and time, rumor has it that the footage disappeared somewhere between Ceylon and London. It was finally discovered two weeks later, sitting in the intense heat out on the runway at the airport in Cairo, Egypt. Miraculously, the footage was undamaged.

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