Posts Tagged ‘Pierre Boulle’

Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle ~ 1952. This edition: Fontana, 1968. Translated from the French by Xan Fielding. Paperback. 189 pages.

This is a spare, terse war novel, based on the French author’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, concerning the fictionalized building of a key bridge on the infamous 250-mile-long “Death Railway” (over 100,000 POWs and local conscripts died in its construction) between Siam and Burma during World War II.

British Colonel Nicholson, a stickler of a stiff upper lipper if ever there was one, insists his men abide by the rules when they are forced to surrender to the Japanese after the fall of Malaya. No one must attempt to escape, and the formal surrender must be done just so, rather to the bemusement of the Japanese invaders, headed by Colonel Saito, himself a strong believer in saving face.

When the “savage” Japs set the Brits to building a rail bridge across the River Kwai, Nicholson’s contempt for their incompetence gets the better of him. To prove British superiority, he convinces Saito to let the prisoners redesign the edifice, and it goes ahead with astonishing speed.

Colonel Nicholson seems to have forgotten that his country is at war, and he unwittingly turns collaborator, which will have tragic consequences when a small, secret team of British saboteurs arrive to knock the bridge out of action on its gala opening day.

This short novel was made into a very successful 1957 movie starring Alec Guinness; it won Best Picture for its year at the Academy Awards, and a whole slew of other prizes.

The tale itself is fictional, though it is based on a number of real scenarios. There was a wartime-built bridge over the River Kwai; it’s still there and very much in use, and apparently quite a tourist attraction. The British Colonel Nicholson was modelled by Boulle upon several of his French superiors during his own time in a Japanese POW camp; the composite portrait is not particularly flattering and led to some rather touchy Anglo-French relations when the book and then the movie achieved their astonishing success.

I found this novel to be a slightly uneven read. Due perhaps to its translation from the original French it was rather stilted at times, but the story was compelling and it was no hardship to follow it through to its rather shocking ending. (Having never seen the movie, I was unprepared for the violent dénouement.)

Heads up to modern readers: this tale is chock full of racial slurs directed mostly at the Japanese. (Not particularly unexpected in a book of this era and of its wartime subject.)

I was also interested to discover that this was not Pierre Boulle’s only bestseller. He also wrote a 1963 sci-fi novel titled La Planète des singes, or, in English, The Planet of the Apes. Anyone heard of that one?!

My rating: 6.5/10

An interesting read.

 

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