Following the enormous success of his multi-award-winning film On the Waterfront (1954), independent producer Sam Spiegel searched long and hard for his next production.
He eventually chose The Strange One, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham based on his novel and Broadway play End as a Man. It was set in a Southern military academy whose code of honour fostered the corruption and brutalisation of the young cadets rather than protecting them. Spiegel’s intention had been to produce a movie that aligned with the then popular Teen-Pic genre. The resulting movie, however, became a mere horror story about the evil tricks of malevolent cadet Jocko De Paris (played by Ben Gazzara) wreaking havoc on the school and his classmates. Although most of the young cast and its director came from the New York Actors Studio, there was certainly no Marlon Brando or Elia Kazan amongst them. Consequently, their total lack of film experience was all too plain to see. The Strange One earned no laurels, least of all from Spiegel, who expunged it from his memory by never referring to it again.
Spiegel happened upon Pierre Boulle’s best-selling novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai (English translation: The Bridge Over the River Kwai) when his flight to London was delayed in Paris. Gripped by the storyline he made enquiries about the film rights, only to discover that screenwriter/producer Carl Foreman had already bought an option on the book.
Foreman was blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1950s because of his suspected Communist sympathy and membership in the Communist Party. Now exiled in England, Foreman had already tried to interest British film mogul Sir Alexander Korda in a joint film production of Boulle’s novel. But Korda turned him down, stating that the story was far too anti-British. Moreover, he considered that the British colonel who orders his PoWs to construct a bridge for the Japanese Death Railway was either insane or a traitor. Korda’s rejection allowed Spiegel to buy the film rights from Foreman, who he then immediately hired to write the first-draft screenplay. On Spiegel’s advice, Foreman wrote in a part for an American commando ordered to blow up the bridge, primarily so that Spiegel could interest Columbia Pictures in the project. However, he omitted to inform the studio on who was actually writing the script because they would never have accepted a screenwriter who was on the Hollywood blacklist.
Disillusioned by using a novice director for The Strange One, Spiegel sought the best for his new project and veteran director Howard Hawks was his first choice. Hawks was initially interested, but after reading the script he just didn’t see it as a big grossing film and suggested that Spiegel use a British cast, an all British crew and a limited budget. After considering John Ford, William Wyler and Nicholas Ray, Spiegel finally settled on English director David Lean, whose wartime films showed his admirable grasp of the British military mind. However, Lean did not like Foreman’s script, considering it be too melodramatic. Spiegel hired another Hollywood blacklisted writer, Michael Wilson, who together with Lean revamped Foreman’s screenplay.
There were numerous changes in the casting. Spiegel wanted Humphrey Bogart for the role of the American commando ordered to blow up the bridge, but he was already committed to another production for Columbia. Spiegel then tried for Cary Grant, who was also unavailable.
It was then offered to William Holden, who accepted the part. Charles Laughton was Lean’s first choice for the part of the military correct but maniacal Colonel Nicholson, but Laughton was too unfit to secure insurance. Sir Laurence Olivier was next but was too busy filming with Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). Lean then suggested Noel Coward – an idea that was not too absurd after his brilliant performance playing a surrogate Louis Mountbatten in Lean’s film In Which We Serve – but he too declined. A determined Spiegel now pursued Alec Guinness, then primarily known as a comedy actor in the Ealing Studio pictures. Guinness rejected the part three times as he found the fanatical bridge-builder Nicholson too blinkered for audiences to take seriously. Furthermore, he and David Lean did not like each other having clashed on Oliver Twist nine years earlier.
But Spiegel did what he always did best: he persisted. A worn down Guinness finally relented and signed up for the part. When the cast and crew arrived on location in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) the initial relationship between Lean and Guinness was indeed decidedly frosty, as the actor knew that Lean would have preferred Charles Laughton for the role. But as the production progressed Guinness came to admire Lean, describing him as “a man of genius cocooned with outrageous charm”. (They would go on to make a further three award-winning motion pictures together and Guinness came to recognise that he owed much of his international film career to David Lean.)
Shooting began in Ceylon in October 1956 and continued for eight arduous months. Lean was slow and meticulous and ran well over schedule and budget. Although the cast grumbled at the excessive number of takes, they sensed that the film was going to be special. The famous opening scene of the tattered PoWs, led by Colonel Nicholson marching into the Japanese prison camp defiantly whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” was suggested by character actor Percy Herbert, who played the part of prisoner Grogan. Herbert had been a real-life PoW, captured by the Japanese in Singapore and imprisoned for four years in the infamous Changi Prison. He told Lean that the Allied prisoners would sometimes whistle “Colonel Bogey” to annoy the Japanese guards.
The grand finale of the film was the blowing up of the bridge, which had taken over six months to prepare and build. Spiegel was later reproached for his extravagance in building a real railway bridge at a colossal cost, only to destroy it in half a minute. He addressed his critics that everything had to be in proportion, stating, “There is no story in Kwai without a bridge and the bridge acquires a meaning only when it’s destroyed. The question of the money spent in building the bridge is only a number on the cost sheet.” He then had a furious argument with Columbia chief Harry Cohn over the film’s extreme length of two hours and forty-one minutes. The fact that Spiegel had made the film his own way and his refusal to cut a single minute of it was proof of the growing power of independent producers and the diminishing control exercised by the heads of the Hollywood studios.
Following the film’s premiere and its subsequent success, Columbia Studios was keen to enter the film for Academy Award recognition. Spiegel realised that any hint of the blacklisted writers he had employed would be a disaster for his production. He believed the least incriminating way to handle the problem was to credit the author Pierre Boulle for Best Screenplay, which was exactly what the brazen Spiegel did. The Bridge on the River Kwai received eight nominations and won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture for Spiegel, Best Director for Lean, Best Actor for Alec Guinness and sure enough, a Best Screenplay Oscar for Pierre Boulle – who couldn’t speak or write a word of English. This injustice was finally resolved in 1985 when the Academy made amends in a private ceremony, at which the widows of the now exonerated Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were presented with the Oscars that their late husbands should have received almost thirty years before.