Sri Lanka has been one of the best kept secrets among the film locations in South Asia. But it was not until 1956 that the teardrop shaped island with its white sand beaches, rainforests and jungles replete with exotic animals like leopards and elephants, had its breakthrough as a filming location.
In 1957, Sri Lanka – then known as Ceylon – was used as the backdrop for the movie classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. The film is based on the eponymous novel written by Pierre Boulle, a French writer who also authored Planet of the Apes. Boulle himself was captured by the Japanese during World War 2 and was forced to work on the death railway. He based the novel on his experiences during this time. The Bridge on the River Kwai was directed by David Lean, one of the influential directors of all time who also cemented his place in the annals of cinematic legend for his direction of the classic Lawrence of Arabia.
The Main Characters
- Alec Guiness as Colonel Nicholson
- Sessue Hyakawa as Colonel Saito
- William holden as Commander Shears
- Jack Hawkins as Major Warden
The movie opens with a platoon of British POW’s, led by Colonel Nicholson, arriving at a Japanese prison camp in Burma. The Japanese commander of the camp Colonel Saito informs them that they will be constructing a bridge across the great river Kwai for a railroad being built through the jungle. At first this idea is met with heavy resistance by Nicholson and his platoon. This makes Saito angry and he subjects Nicholson to various punishments. Commander Shears becomes the only one to escape the prison camp and makes his way to the British military headquarters in Ceylon.
When Saito realizes, Nicholson, even close to death, does not waver from his stance. This leads to Saito giving into the wishes of Nicholson, who gets himself and his platoon exempted from building the bridge. The bridge construction is slow and Nicholson insists they build a proper bridge for the Japanese to maintain the reputation and the professionalism of the British Army. Meanwhile Shears is enjoying his hospital stay in Ceylon and is approached by the British major warden since he has knowledge of the area. The warden wants him to join a commando team that is planning to blow up the bridge at Kwai. Their plan is to setup explosives at the base of the bridge and wait for the first Japanese train to cross next morning and blow up the bridge and the train, taking out important Japanese dignitaries.
- The eight months of filming began in October 1956. A scouting expedition of the real River Kwai
had shown that it was an unsuitable location for filming, as it appeared to be nothing more than
a trickling stream. The production finally settled on a tiny village called “Kitulgula” in Ceylon (now
Sri Lanka). The site was remote, so a compound of bungalows had to be built for the crew.
- To keep costs down, producer Sam Spiegel decided not to hire any extras, using crew members and Ceylon locals instead. This meant that some of the British prisoners were actually natives of the region wearing make-up to appear Caucasian.
- The elephants employed in helping build the bridge would take breaks every four hours and lie around in the water, whether the crew wanted them to or not.
- Producer Sam Spiegel bought the railroad train from the Ceylonese government. It had previously belonged to an Indian maharajah, and had seen sixty-five years of active service. Spiegel had it refurbished completely, and then had one mile of railway track laid for it.
- There were no facilities on the island of Ceylon to process film rushes, so the day’s filming had to be flown to London to be processed, and then flown back out to Ceylon.
- For one sunset scene, Sir David Lean specifically travelled 242 kilometers to capture it.
- It was Jack Hawkins’ (Major Warden) suggestion that the movie be shot in Ceylon, rather than Burma.
- The paratroopers in the movie were members of the Royal Air Force stationed in Sri Lanka.
- Indiana Jones and the temple of doom used some of the same locations as Bridge. Spielberg who is Leans’ biggest fan, was thrilled that he was shooting on the same spots.
Awards and Accolades
The Bridge on the River Kwai, was both a critical and commercial success that became an enduring
classic of cinema. The movie garnered seven Academy Awards, including that for best picture, as well as three Golden Globe Awards and four BAFTA awards.
The film has been praised for its complex story telling as the viewer follows four distinct storylines that are destined for a full-on collision course on the Kwai bridge, which is subsequently the name of the movie as well. This movie also presents an ending which is not easy to draw a specific conclusion from as the movie does not give an answer and is left for the audience to ponder about how they feel. Which is why Steven Spielberg named this as one of his favorite movies of all time.