“Maybe the unbridgeable gulf that some see separating the western and the oriental souls is nothing more than a mirage… Maybe the need to ‘save face’ was, in this war, as vital, as imperative, for the British as it was for the Japanese.”
— Pierre Boulle, Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï
Eight years after his escape from a French colonial prison in Saigon, Pierre Boulle published the novel that became the basis for David Lean’s award-winning epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1954). Never mind that the bridge was actually on the Mae Klong river, that the actual senior Allied officer who oversaw work at the bridge did everything in his power to sabotage it. (The real story is told in a BBC documentary.) Try not to whistle the catchy theme song.
I want to focus on the film’s ending, where the priggish officer Nicholson, brilliantly played by Alec Guinness, does manage to blow up the bridge. Boulle left the bridge standing at the end of his novel. Was this simply an absurdist touch, symptomatic of postwar French Existentialism, with its insistence on the arbitrariness of life? Boulle would have us believe so. “A novel is built around an abstract idea, on the logic of the absurd. Only after having got the thing precisely plotted do I add my own memories and experiences,” he said.
French Indochina was effectively under the control of the Japanese in 1942 and Boulle was sent by the Free French to find sympathetic Vichy officials who might be persuaded to help undermine their authority from within. Captured while floating down the Mekong river on a raft, he found himself confronted by a Pétainist collaborator and sentenced to forced labor. “When he came to Indochina he thought he was on the good side. But then a Frenchman arrested him and said, “No you are not,” reported a close family member. “It drove home a point about the relativity of good and evil, which is the theme of all his works. What is good is good only in a certain context. Not necessarily universally.”
Literary critic Ian Watt had a different take. Watt had worked on the Burma Railway as a British POW during World War II and nearly died. Twelve thousand Commonwealth, Dutch, and American prisoners did die, and Watt resented the “myth” that Boule propounded, the absurd idea that “stiff upper-lipped British pluck,” as Roger Bourke put it in his study of WWII prisoner-of-war narratives, combined with “superior western technological expertise,” succeeded in defeating the Japanese, at least on a moral level.
I appreciate Watt’s perspective, as one who was there, but his complaint seems to be more with Lean’s film than with Boulle’s book. Keeping in mind that Boulle would go on to write La Planète des Singes, the science fiction novel that became the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, it seems fair to acknowledge the consistency of the French author’s moral concerns: “the illustration of a general ‘absurdity’ which could as well have been located in other times, other places, and with other personages.” An outspoken anti-colonialist, radical for his time, Boulle seems to have spent his postwar existence closeted in his sister’s Paris apartment writing fiction, filtering reality through his fabulous imagination.