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13 Fascinating Facts About The Bridge on the River Kwai
By eric d snider | jul 7, 2016.
David Lean, director of such landmark epics as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago , didn't always make giant movies. His first epic was his twelfth film: The Bridge on the River Kwai , starring Alec Guinness and William Holden as P.O.W.'s working to build and/or destroy a bridge for the Japanese during World War II. The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Guinness), not to mention a handful of Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and even a Grammy nomination for its soundtrack. Put on your marching boots and whistle a jaunty tune as we investigate some behind-the-scenes facts about this enduring war film.
1. ITS OSCAR FOR BEST SCREENPLAY WENT TO SOMEONE WHO DIDN'T WRITE IT.
The process of adapting Pierre Boulle's French-language novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai was difficult (more on that later), but the two writers ultimately responsible for it were Carl Foreman ( High Noon ) and Michael Wilson ( A Place in the Sun ). Neither of them got credit, though, as The Bridge on the River Kwai was released during the three-year period when people who'd ever been Communists (or who refused to answer questions about it before Congress) were ineligible for Academy Awards. The screenplay was instead credited to the novelist, Boulle—which was quite a feat, since he didn’t speak or read English. (He didn't attend the Oscars, either.) In 1985, the Academy officially recognized Foreman and Wilson as the screenwriters and posthumously awarded the Oscar to them.
2. IT WAS LOOSELY BASED ON REAL EVENTS.
Boulle based his novel, published in 1952, on his own experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, and on an infamous construction project that he wasn't involved with. The Japanese did indeed force British, Dutch, Australian, and American prisoners to build the Burma Railway , resulting in some 13,000 POW deaths and at least 80,000 civilian deaths. By the way, the real Kwai River was just a trickle near Burma, where Boulle set his bridge; the actual bridge had been built 200 miles away, near Bangkok. A sketch of that bridge was used as the basis for the fictional one.
3. THE DIRECTOR HAD KATHARINE HEPBURN TO THANK FOR GETTING HIM THE JOB.
David Lean, a British director then in his late forties, had made 11 films, including well-received adaptations of Charles Dickens ( Great Expectations , Oliver Twist ) and Noel Coward ( Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter ). But he'd never made anything on an epic scale, wasn't well known outside of England, and wouldn't have been considered for The Bridge on the River Kwai if it weren't for Katharine Hepburn, the star of his 1955 film Summertime . She recommended Lean to producer Sam Spiegel, who'd been turned down by Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler, and Carol Reed, and offered the directing job to Lean as a last resort.
4. DAVID LEAN NEEDED THE WORK.
Though he'd already earned five Oscar nominations (three for directing, two for adapting the Dickens novels) and would soon be widely celebrated for Kwai , Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965), at this stage, Lean was in trouble. He'd just been through a costly divorce from actress Ann Todd. According to one biographer , he was "broke and needed work; he had even pawned his gold cigarette case." This, plus the fact that he loved to travel, plus the fact that shooting a film in Southeast Asia would be good for him tax-wise, motivated him to accept a project that was bound to be grueling.
5. GETTING THE SCREENPLAY WRITTEN WAS AN ORDEAL.
Spiegel, the producer, bought the film rights to the book (the English version of which was called The Bridge Over the River Kwai ) and hired Carl Foreman to write the script. Then he hired Lean to direct—and Lean didn't like Foreman's version. So Spiegel hired another writer, Calder Willingham, to give it a crack. Lean liked that draft even less. Spiegel finally sent Michael Wilson to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where Lean was in pre-production, and the two worked together to hammer out the final version. The finished screenplay had significant contributions from both Wilson and Foreman, though each went to his grave insisting he was the more important contributor .
6. IT WAS THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT THAT EVENTUALLY APPROVED THE SCRIPT.
Spiegel sent the screenplay to the Japanese government ahead of time, hoping to get their cooperation with the production. It worked. Persuaded that the film would be about the horror and folly of war, the Japanese government sent a military adviser to help with the camp scenes. (Spiegel got a British military adviser to help with that side of things, too.)
7. THE HEAD OF COLUMBIA PICTURES FORCED LEAN TO ADD A LOVE SCENE.
Harry Cohn, the vulgar (but successful) man who ran Columbia Pictures at the time, was furious when he read the script and saw no love interest. He insisted that Lean add a scene where Shears, the American played by William Holden, cozies up to a nurse (Ann Sears).
8. CHARLES LAUGHTON WAS TOO UNFIT TO PLAY THE LEAD.
Lean wanted Charles Laughton (who'd starred in his 1954 film Hobson's Choice ) to play Colonel Nicholson, the role that ultimately went to Alec Guinness. But Laughton, a fine actor with such credits as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) on his resume, was in poor physical shape—great for playing the corpulent Henry VIII in Young Bess (1953), not so great for playing a British military officer in a prison camp. Lean insisted that Laughton could lose weight before shooting began, but Columbia Pictures' insurance underwriters refused to cover him, saying he was too unhealthy to endure several months on location in the jungles of Ceylon. Laughton would die (of cancer) five years later, at the age of 63.
9. ALEC GUINNESS TURNED IT DOWN TWICE, THEN ALMOST QUIT THE MOMENT HE ARRIVED.
Guinness had appeared in Lean's Dickens films but had since made a name for himself doing goofy comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Lean feared Guinness' public persona had changed so much that audiences wouldn't buy him in this very dramatic role, but came around to the idea when the Laughton plan didn't work. Guinness, however, had his own reservations. He didn't like the screenplay because it reduced Nicholson to secondary status. He didn't like the next draft of the screenplay, either, because it made Nicholson "a blinkered character." He also didn't like hearing that he was Lean's second choice for the role, a fact made more awkward when he arrived in Ceylon and Lean greeted him with, "Of course, you know I really wanted Charles Laughton." Wrote Guinness: "I felt like turning around and getting back on the plane and paying my own fare home!" (Lean denied ever wanting Laughton for the role, despite abundant documented evidence to the contrary.)
10. WILLIAM HOLDEN GOT A BETTER DEAL THAN THE DIRECTOR.
Lean wanted Holden, a big star and recent Oscar winner (for Stalag 17 ), to play American prisoner Major Shears, over the objections of producer Spiegel, who wanted Cary Grant. Once Spiegel relented, he realized Holden was a box office draw and offered him a great deal: $300,000 salary (about $2.5 million in 2016 dollars), plus 10 percent of the gross. Lean only got $150,000 himself, but he always said Holden was worth it.
11. THE JAPANESE COMMANDER HAD BEEN ONE OF HOLLYWOOD'S FIRST MALE SEX SYMBOLS.
Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973) was a Japanese-born actor who came to Hollywood in the very early days of cinema—his first short, The Typhoon , was made in 1914—and quickly became a matinee idol, playing exotic villains and such. He was a huge star, drawing a weekly salary of $5000 in 1915 (adjusted for inflation: $119,000) and appearing in more than 60 films between 1914 and 1924. His career was hurt by the advent of sound, and then by increasing anti-Japanese sentiment in America. He had basically retired when Lean approached him to play Colonel Saito in Kwai , a performance that earned Hayakawa an Oscar nomination.
12. THE BRIDGE WAS BIG AND EXPENSIVE, BUT NOT AS MUCH AS THEY CLAIMED.
Lean and his production designer, Donald Ashton, were in Ceylon months ahead of time to construct the film's title character (the bridge, not the river). It was 425 feet long, 90 feet high, and cost $52,085 out of the film's $2 million budget. The producer's press release, though—wanting to emphasize that this was a Big Budget Hollywood Picture—claimed the bridge had cost $250,000. As Ashton explained , it was so cheap because "we used local labor and elephants; and the timber was cut nearby."
13. THE MOVIE'S FAMOUS TUNE WAS A WORLD WAR I MARCH THAT HAD NAUGHTY LYRICS.
The “Colonel Bogey March" was composed in 1914 by Kenneth Alford, a military band conductor. During World War II, British soldiers added lyrics to the tune that went approximately along these lines:
Hitler Has only got one ball! Goering Has two but they are small. Himmler Has something sim'lar But poor old Goebbels Has no balls At all.
(There were other verses, too, which treated in more depth the number, location, and status of Hitler's anatomy, but you get the idea.) Lean wanted to use the tune in Kwai , figured those lyrics wouldn't pass the censors (or the approval of the composer's widow), and opted to have the troops whistle it instead. Kwai 's composer, Malcolm Arnold, wove the march into his Oscar-winning score so seamlessly that modern viewers may assume it was original to the film.
Bridge On The River Kwai, The (1957) - (Movie Clip) Colonel Bogey March
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Colonel Bogey March
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- Once used (with a new text, obv.) for a German schnapps commercial. Hilarious if you know about the origin.
- Commercials for Indonesian pain relief medicine Bodrex use parts of this song as the jingle. It had its own lyrics in the 1990s, sang by the "Bodrex Army" while marching in the ads.
- In Ricky Gervais ' stand-up tour Fame, he speaks about the version of the song which refers to the Albert Hall. He states that when he went to the Albert Hall he couldn't find it and he had even looked for it which is "suspicious". Gervais continues stating that "if I had that, I'd have it in the foyer. On a plinth. In an eggcup". He ends it by questioning why "His mother has got the other", which would mean Hitler had three.
- The Jim Steranko History of Comics includes an anecdote about artists working on Captain Marvel who reworked the song to satirize the demands of the publishing house's censors: "Captain Marvel Has No Balls At All."
- A verse appears in the 2000 Vertigo miniseries Adventures in the Rifle Brigade by Garth Ennis and Carlos Ezquerra. The follow-on miniseries, Operation Bollock, uses the missing testicle as a central plot device.
- The main character of the 2003 movie Wondrous Oblivion , a British teen who is the son of Jewish Holocaust survivors, sings this song for a friend.
- The Hector Scott character (played by Donald Moffat) sings this ditty to Shirley MacLaine 's character in the movie The Evening Star (1993).
- The lyrics were sung in the 1972 film adaptation of the John Knowles novel A Separate Peace (although they are not in the book, and the tune to which they are sung in the film is not the "Colonel Bogey March").
- The song is sung in the Czech film Dark Blue World (2001).
- The song is used to harass a Jewish student in School Ties , a 1992 film.
- Bette Midler sang the lyrics in her concert film Divine Madness!
- Spaceballs : Dink dink, dink dink dink dink dink dink! Dink dink, dink dink dink dink dink dink!
- Briefly heard in Short Circuit : as Number Five leads the robots he's reprogrammed to the roadhouse, he's whistling it.
- Whistled by the students in detention during The Breakfast Club . It's an early indication of the group coming together.
- In The Parent Trap , the other girls at the camp whistle this as the twins are escorted to the Isolation Cabin.
- In V by Thomas Pynchon , British artillerymen on Malta sung it.
- The song was used in Episode 5 of Series 3 of The Armstrong and Miller Show , as it comically depicted the writing of it.
- In one of the 'Head-to-Head' dialogue sketches in the BBC comedy series Alas Smith and Jones , Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones reminisce about the war and about the songs of the era. Smith sentimentally and poignantly sings the opening lines of "White Cliffs of Dover", and "We'll Meet Again", and then (to avoid lowering the tone) has to interrupt Jones when he begins to sing, "Hitler has only got one..."
- In an episode of the BBC comedy programme 2point4 Children , the grandmother mentions Goebbels in conversation with a friend and — when queried — points out that "he was the one with no balls at all, if you remember".
- After accidentally sneaking into a POW camp in 'Allo 'Allo! , Captain Geering was taught the lyrics by a British POW and sings part of the first line to try and pass as a captured British airman.
- Desmond, Jin, Charlie, and Hurley do this in the Lost episode "Catch-22".
- Salute Your Shorts : "Ug, one day his face turned blue/Ug, he likes to punish you..." Used in promo commercials during the show's run.
- The BBC 's 1983 adaptation of Robert Westall 's The Machine Gunners used the march for the series closing theme, playing on its war movie and wartime associations.
- This was the basis for "The Peacock Strut", the fight song of the fictional ULA , on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air .
- Magnum, P.I. has Higgins trying to build a scale model of the bridge from the River Kwai film, but Magnum later blows it up, humming the tune as he does so.
- Dudley Moore played the march In the Style of a Beethoven piano sonata.
- In the British radio series The Bradshaws , Alf taught Billy the song.
- In the British radio sitcom Old Harry's Game , Satan mentions in one episode that he used to think the World War II version of the song was only propaganda, but he's seen Hitler in the showers and now he's not so sure
- In Overlord II , when disguised as enemy soldiers, the Minions start humming the song.
- The song shows up as one of the records in Nintendogs . If you play it, your dogs will start marching in a circle.
- Wanted: Monty Mole uses it as its main theme.
- In the Flintstones episode "The Snorkasaurus Hunter", a picnic is ruined when ants come marching in to this tune and carry off all the food.
- The Simpsons : "Lisa, her teeth are big and green/Lisa, she smells like gas-o-line..."
- A kazoo version of the song was heard in Recess: School's Out as the kids are preparing to break into the school to save T.J.
- The Beatles whistle this at the end of their cartoon episode "And Your Bird Can Sing."
- There is a little ice cream truck that rides around the area of Mons, Belgium that has this as its song.
- A schoolyard ditty had a jingle for Comet cleanser as the words for the song: Comet—it tastes like gasoline, Comet will make your mouth turn green, Comet will make you vomit So get some Comet and vomit today!
- And the original lyrics to the song from WW2 run: Hitler has only got one ball; Goering - has two, but very small; Himmler - had something similar; And poor old Goebbels, has no balls, at all!
The famous scene that most examples are referencing
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Kenneth Alford - Colonel Bogey
This image appears in the gallery: Best Movie Soundtracks - 1930s-50s
8. Kenneth Alford - Colonel Bogey
Kenneth Alford’s Colonel Bogey march was first heard on film when Alfred Hitchcock included it in The Lady Vanishes in 1938. However the piece’s most famous cinematic outing was during David Lean’s classic Bridge Over the River Kwai, whistled by the POWs as they enter the camp.
See the full gallery : Best Movie Soundtracks - 1930s-50s
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Colonel Bogey March - variations
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You might remember this tune as "Comet, it makes your teeth turn green" or something, I think there may be dozens of schoolyard songs sung to what is probably one of the top 10 favorite military marches of all time. I love the Colonel Bogey March, but I a prefer music to be fun, not a tool of war. ("March" comes from "Mars", the Roman god of war) I thought it would be fun to create a couple of funkier sounding cover versions using the melodic line from the 1914 march composed by Lieutenant F. J. Ricketts, Director of Music for the Royal Marines at Plymouth, published under the pseudonym "Kenneth Alford." If you enjoy these two tunes, please feel free to use them however you like, I claim no copyright whatsoever. If you do want to use them, the .flac or .wav files are lossless versions. -Glenn If you do use this music for something cool, and want to brag about it write me at drglenn 'at' dr.com and let me see or hear what you made. Really, please. You might like the frantic remix of Oy, Colonel Bogey, which I used as a main theme in the soundtrack to my video mash-up (and entry to Stockstock 5) "America, Leading the World", which you can find here: http://www.archive.org/details/AMERICA--Leading_the_World I call the remix "Colonel Bogey's Nightmare".
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- Connections Referenced in The Mirror Crack'd (1980)
- October 4, 1948 (United Kingdom)
- United Kingdom
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- Highbury Productions
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- Runtime 51 minutes
- Black and White
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