|"The Bridge on the River Kwai" - Kwai-Ta View
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|Author:||Nissanka [ Thu Sep 29, 2005 1:08 am ]|
|Post subject:||"The Bridge on the River Kwai" - Kwai-Ta View|
By Clive Tully
The little yellow sign pointing the way to the main location for "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was so insignificant, I almost missed it.
If it was any other country, you'd probably expect large signs, a car park and visitor centre. As it was, the little yellow sign pointing the way to the main location for "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was so insignificant, I almost missed it. In a small house just off the road, I found Samuel Perera, who took me down a tiny winding path through steamy tropical jungle. We were heading for the Kelani, a clear mountain river which rises in the heart of the Peak Wilderness just below the holy mountain of Adam's Peak. Samuel, now forty-nine, was just eight years old when David Lean, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and William Holden arrived in Kitulgala to make a movie based on Pierre Boulle's classic World War Two novel, and he landed a part as a "jungle boy" extra.
"The Bridge on the River Kwai" went on to win a record seven Oscars; Samuel, now aided by his wife, three daughters and one son, has dined out on the experience ever since, taking interested visitors - mainly British and American - to the spot which was turned into the site of a strategic bridge on the infamous death railway between Bangkok and Rangoon.
Producer Sam Spiegel had originally intended to film the story in Burma, but when the logistics looked insurmountable, Jack Hawkins remembered a favourite holiday haunt - a quaint rest house set on the forested banks of a river some forty miles east of Colombo. And so "The Bridge on the River Kwai" came to Ceylon (as it was then), with secondary locations including the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens near Kandy, and the splendidly colonial Mount Lavinia Hotel just south of Colombo.
As we walk through the wet grass overhanging the path, I'm unaware that leeches have decided to drop in for a quick drink, attaching themselves to my bare legs. Almost unconsciously, I find I’m softly whistling Colonel Bogey. Suddenly the path widens and straightens out. Although overgrown by jungle, it's pretty apparent that this is where the "railway" started. The actual railway line only went a very short distance beyond each end of the bridge, carved into the sides of the gorge. The climax of the film comes when the bridge is blown up, sending a Japanese troop train plunging into the river below.
Samuel explains how the first attempt to blow it went embarrassingly wrong, when one of the seven movie cameras failed to operate. The big bang was aborted, and the driverless train careered off the end of its short run of track. "The next day," he adds, "it all worked properly," with the bridge detonating on cue to form the film's spectacular finale.
Very little evidence of the bridge remains, although the surrounding jungle-clad hillsides are unmistakable, as are the shallows downstream from the bridge, where the final tense moments are played out before the mortally wounded Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) realises his folly in building a bridge for the enemy, and collapses onto the detonator which blows it up. On the river banks are what's left of some concrete and iron placements, with holes which once held the bridge's wooden pilings.
We walk downstream to the point overlooking the sand bar on the opposite bank where the detonator was set behind a large boulder. I've decided I must have been a dyed-in-the-wool movie addict all along. I can feel a tingle of excitement as I stand at the very place where Shears (William Holden) shouts out "kill him" to the man on the plunger as he struggles with Colonel Nicholson. What isn't so noticeable in the film is that just downstream from here is a dam - now just a pile of rocks on each river bank - used by the movie-makers to control the river, and produce the drop in water level which reveals the explosives on the bridge and the wire which leads to the plunger.
Later that day, I join a group from Adventure Sports Lanka, rafting a five kilometre stretch of the Kelani. After the excitement of running a number of grade three and four rapids, we stop at the bridge site - this time on the opposite bank. Our rafting captain Kavan Lavrih dons a pair of diving goggles, and disappears beneath the surface. He reappears to announce that about three metres down on the river bed he has discovered a complete bogie - two pairs of wheels and axles - from the train. We presume the rest of it, along with the remnants of the destroyed bridge, were either salvaged or swept downstream years ago.
"I had my suspicions that there might be relics from the film at the bottom of the river," he says. "Obviously they never bothered to take it all out after they'd finished."
We ponder on the likelihood of an expedition to raise the Kwai train bogie, something which would undoubtedly fetch a handsome price from a serious movie buff, although it would probably take more than an elephant and a rope to tow it out of the river. Meantime, one can but dwell on the coincidence that this one remaining tangible piece of Kwai memorabilia and the film's instantly whistleable theme tune go by very similar-sounding names...
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