Ceylon’s Bridge on the River Kwai | Sunday Observer

Ceylon’s Bridge on the River Kwai

12 November, 2017
A STILL OF THE FILM: Location at Kitulgala  Pic: High-def digest
A STILL OF THE FILM: Location at Kitulgala Pic: High-def digest

The mist-laden verdant hills rising skyward between the valley of the Kelani Ganga and rivulet Maskeliya Oya is like a fully dressed glamorous maiden silently awaiting the admiration of everyone, as I made my way to Kalukohutenne where the film, ‘The Bridge On The River Kwai’ was shot.

NOSTALGIC MEMORY: The Bridge On The River Kwai location, Maskeli Oya, Kitulgala and what is left- two pieces of concrete.  

MEMORY OF A MOVIE: Kitulgala Rest house

SPORTING: White water rafting is the river’s new attraction

CONCERN OVER THE PROJECT: Construction site of 35MW hydropower project outside the film location site

Kitulgala, one of the wettest places in the country nestles just 90 kilometres north-east of Colombo. The small town largely attracts rafters and naturalists. Driving along the Hatton road, you see the topography and the vegetation change from coastal to an evergreen, hilly, wet zone. With scenic rubber plantations on one side and the Kelani Ganga on the other, the road winds up through forested hills. Ferns, rushes and reeds, creepers with tendrils clutching tall trees are everywhere. They grow in sheer abundance. We passed several small restaurants that overlook the river and serve local rice and curry. Many villagers sell yellow bananas and Kitul jaggery by the roadside.

Kitulgala derives its name from Kitul, the solitary fishtail palm tree. One tree tapped for toddy would give you at least ten litres in the morning and evening. Before it ferments, you boil it to make treacle or jaggery. Fresh from the tree before it is fermented, it is a drink that has no equal. When it ferments, Kitul toddy is not only an alcoholic beverage but also a nourishing drink.

Two sign boards written in all three languages of which the English words are spelt wrong, marks the turn off to the bridge location from the main Hatton road through a narrow footpath. The humble villagers of Kitulgala and Kalukohutenna oblige visitors, pointing out the location site and regaling them with anecdotes that sparkle with stardust even after six decades.

Exactly 60 years ago, Kitulgala was made world famous with the genius film director David Lean filming his great movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. When Lean went to see the actual river Kwai in Myanmar he did not like it.

Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka), was not where producer Sam Spiegel or director David Lean initially wanted to shoot their World War II epic. They had never visited the island, neither knew of its photogenic qualities or its practical advantages as a filming location. Actor Jack Hawkins who played Major Warden, had spent a lot of time in Ceylon and remembered the scenic location of a forested riverfront in Kitulgala.

Hawkins told producer Spiegel that it would be ideal. When location scouts reported favorably, Spiegel and Lean decided to make the film in Ceylon. The background story of the film is based on the Burma-Siam (now Thailand) railway in 1942-43 and centres on Colonel Nicholson, the officer in command of British servicemen at a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Nicholson urges his men that their assigned bridge should be built as a symbol of British morale.

In 1957, the film bagged several Oscar awards including Best Picture. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ bagged several prominent awards due to its popularity as a foreign film shot at a location in Ceylon with a then enormous budget of US$ 3 million.

Scenic location

It had a cast including renowned actors, William Holden, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins. Production work on the location took 10 months. The film was based on the French novel, Le Pont de la Rivière Kwaï (1952) by Pierre Boulle. Sam Spiegel has declared that Kitulgala is the best scenic spot in the world for an Oscar. The 1956-1957 film was mainly shot in Kitulgala where a wooden bridge was built as a set and various other secondary locations such as, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya where Lord Mountbatten hid away his wartime operation headquarters and the Mount Lavinia Hotel in Colombo.

Said to have been the biggest film set ever to have been constructed till then, it had taken carpenters and railway linesmen over four months to build the wooden bridge and rail track under the guidance of art director Don Ashton.

The final scene in which the British officer played by Alec Guinness blows up a rail bridge with a steam locomotive into the Kelani Ganga, with five compartments packed with Japanese soldiers in the form of dummies, that his fellow prisoners of war have just built was shot at a place called Kalukohutenna where the river flows past rocky boulders. It is said, over 1,500 Lankans worked on the film. There is one person who still lives in the village who played a “jungle boy” in the film. He is the only one in the village who can vividly reminisce the nostalgic memories of the film shooting in the village, and he now takes visitors to the site through a leech-infested treacherous mountain slope to the river bed to show what is left of the blown up bridge; a few pieces of concrete.

At Kitulgala, the filmstars and the production team stayed at the Government Rest House in Kitulgala, situated in a picturesque setting overlooking the Kelani Ganga and lies about three kilometres from the film location. The Rest House had the privilege of providing the crew with warm hospitality with locally made spicy curries and delicious puddings made with brown palm candy called kitul jaggery.

My next stop was the colonial period Kitulgala Rest House to peep into its past connection with the film. There, I was welcomed by its manager Sunil Fernando who showed me an array of still photographs of the shooting of the film which adorn the wall of the Rest House. “Of course, we offer the same traditional hospitality to our guests even today,” says Fernando. The Rest House at Kitulgala is a luxurious refreshing spot for the weary traveller going to Nuwara Eliya through the Avissawella-Hatton (A7) road.

Although nothing of the bridge remains except for two concrete slabs with two holes and one iron rod attached to it on the left side of the rock boulder, the place has a resilient nostalgic value that has grown stronger over 60 years. I walked to the river bank with much difficulty due to the eroding soil of the footpath.

However, Sri Lankans who worked on the film are left with fond memories and now, sadly, the location has made way for development. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) is constructing the 35 MW Broadlands hydropower station close to the site of the movie.

When the authorities were about to begin the execution of the power project in 2013, there were concerns that the water flow in the river would diminish substantially, affecting the villagers and sporting activity. The project is now under construction.

The villagers who live close to the power project are in constant fear. “At night, the rock is blasted in the tunnel and the vibration of the blast shakes our houses, and rock fragments fly into our houses. Some of the houses are cracked. Our children are living in shock due to the sounds,” says a young mother of one, living close to the site.

Pristine bio-diversity

LOVE FOR NATURE: Ajith, a nature lover with one of his creations

The construction of the power house is a threat to the pristine bio-diversity of the area and the livelihood of the villagers. They said, although they raised their voice against the project, nothing happened. “We agitated against this environmental destruction and wrote to the authorities. No one listened to us,” said Ajith, a young nature lover in the village who produces eco-friendly items using coconut shelves and Kitul trunks.

Kitulgala has become well known for white water rafting and several firms are promoting the sport in the Maskeli Oya. One sees these rubber rafts rushing down the river, evading stones and flying down rapids. In a few moments these rafts vanish round the bends of the river. Raft enthusiasts can glance at the beauty of the river and its banks dressed in greenery. The unpolluted river and its environs need to be protected from the onset of modern civilization.

Over the 60 years, jungle has crept back over the location, covering up the marks and scars, even the great blast that obliterated the bridge. Where it once stood, the river flows serenely through rocky crags, opening out below to the wide valley used for the film’s unforgettable opening.

If you love movies, this is a must-see movie. It is now available to buy on 4K Ultra HD Blu Ray and Blu Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Watch out for the credits where they mention “shot on location in Ceylon”.