As part of my research for the Now the Hell Will Start screenplay, I’ve been devouring a slew of classic flicks. Last night’s homework assignment was David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, which I hadn’t seen in over a decade. To say it stands the test of time is an understatement—a true epic in every sense of the word, with killer lead performances by Alec Guinness and William Holden. And, of course, there’s the famous ending, in which (SPOILER ALERT!) the bridge is blown to smithereens and an entire train’s worth of Japanese dignitaries plunge to their doom.
If you read the production backstory, the ending is all the more remarkable. Lean was a stickler for historical accuracy, so he wished to build a bridge from scratch that was virtually identical to the one that British POWs had constructed in the jungles of Thailand. Early on, he caught a break:
One day, while Lean and Ashton were scouting locations, a man came to them with a faded scrap of rice paper, which had been smuggled out of Burma during the war. One the paper was a sketch of a bridge on the Death Railway, to be passed on to commandos, to help them seek out and blow up the bridge. (The real bridge was never destroyed.)
Lean had the bridge built about 60 miles east of Colombo, using 45 elephants and an unrecorded number of native laborers. Despite requiring eight months of constant work, the bridge only cost a bit over $52,000 ($379,000 in today’s dollars). That makes me think that Lean was extraordinarily stingy with the Sri Lankans. Perhaps the workers weren’t exactly slave laborers, like the Brits in the movie, but how much better was their lot in life? I hope the irony wasn’t lost on Lean.
Still, great, great movie. Tough to imagine such gargantuan effort going into a flick in the CGI era. Why build a bridge when you can code one instead?