‘Jungle Boy’of ‘River Kwai’ fame | Sunday Observer

‘Jungle Boy’of ‘River Kwai’ fame

19 November, 2017
FOND MEMORIES: Samuel Perera with  his hand written signpost
FOND MEMORIES: Samuel Perera with his hand written signpost

This is my second visit to Kitulgala. The first was in the first week of November and I was hoping to meet Samuel Perera now 69, to hear some wonderful stories about the film, but he was out of the village that day. Although disappointed, I didn’t give up the idea, and the following week, I travelled to Kitulgala again, to meet this inspiring and remarkable person. At last, I met him.

Kitulgala is still lush with rivulets and greenery and I glimpsed a lone hawk circle over the town around 9 in the morning. I imagined the opening scene in David Lean’s ‘The Bridge On the River Kwai’, where a single hawk is seen flying free. The camera pans to reveal a thick green tropical jungle and then descends to a row of crude graveyards next to train tracks, marked with makeshift wooden crosses. This is how the film begins.

Around one kilometre further up from Kitulgala town on the Hatton road, I came across two signboards which point to the location where ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ was filmed. As I mentioned last week, its English spelling is wrong.

The road to the location of the river is not motorable and I had to walk more than half a kilometre on a narrow footpath with a flight of steps leading to the houses. When I climbed down the first flight of steps I saw a house painted green, which belonged to Samuel Perera.

I was introduced to Samuel Perera, clad in a long sleeved shirt and a colourful sarong and his wife, at his house near Kalukohutenna, Kitulgala. As we started the conversation, traditional savories and tea with milk were served. Samuel Perera’s wife told me that in 2009, he suffered a stroke and underwent surgery, after which he couldn’t speak as clearly as he used to. So his wife agreed to answer most of my questions while Samuel sat beside me. Nevertheless, he managed to talk to me a little, describing his vivid nostalgic memories in his boyhood days and his association with the film.

Aluthgama Mudannayake Ralahamige Samuel Perera was born on September12, 1948 to Alpenis Perera and Dingirimenike, in Kitulgala. They belonged to a farming family. Those days there were only a few houses in the village. He studied at the Kitulgala primary school and as a young man, selected the driving profession for a livelihood. He worked as a heavy vehicle driver in various companies owned by foreigners and later at Government Departments.

In 1979, he married Chandralatha Jayawardena and had a son and three daughters. They settled down in Samuel’s ancestral home at Kitulgala close to Maskeliya Oya in a picturesque location.

‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, was produced in Ceylon by Sam Spiegel and Director David Lean with the permission of then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. 

Hollywood film

The location of the film included several places, most importantly Kitulgala and the nearby Maskeliya Oya, across which ‘the wooden bridge’ was built. The Hollywood film, which has now been fully restored in 4K Ultra HD by Sony Pictures, bagged seven Oscar awards.

Samuel and some other villagers were given a marvellous opportunity to play several roles in the film. “They (the foreigners) wanted to show a real jungle scene with local inhabitants in the film. I was selected as a ‘jungle boy’ with a few juniors coming out with a group of small children from a thicket at the river bank when Commander Shears (William Holden) escaped the Japanese prison camp and sailed in a boat. We greeted him waving our hands. On shooting days we didn’t go to school as we were taken to the location. We were given two rupees for shooting, but it was not given directly to us but to our parents. During our spare time we used to go to the location site where the foreigners would give us toffees and balloons,” Samuel tells me.

“My stepmother supplied food to the local production crew. The foreign actors and crew stayed at the Kitulgala Rest House and the nearby Herbert Bungalow, a massive Walawwa at Kitulgala. The rest of the crew stayed in plank huts built in the location itself. To build the wooden bridge some carpenters were brought from Ambalangoda and elephants were also used for the construction. It took almost a year to finish shooting the film,” says Samuel.

Samuel further explained that about 100 dummy Japanese toy soldiers were especially manufactured for the film by Richard Peiris Company. A real steam rail engine and five compartments were transported from Colombo to Kitulgala, and taken to the location using a bridge, especially built from the main road to the river bank. He further recalled, the engine driver reversed the train to the opposite side through the bridge. After the blast all the toy soldiers were strewn across the river and the remaining toy soldiers were apparently collected by the villagers. Samuel had kept two of them for a long time at his home until he finally gave them away to a foreign tourist who came to visit the location several years ago.

“Our neighbours, David, and one of my uncles, who had long beards also played minor roles in the film in one scene. David acted as an office assistant at the office of the commanding officer Colonel Saito of the Japanese prison camp,” Samuel explains.

His uncle, John Singho, who worked as a watcher at the location site, saved the local superstar Gamini Fonseka who was about to drown in a waterhole in the location. “A huge dam was built in the upper stream of the location to reduce the water level of the river when the bridge was being built,” says Samuel.

After the shooting and the production of the film was completed, Samuel remembered that everyone in the village including himself received free travel to Colombo in a Ceylon Tours bus with food, to see the first show at the plush Regal Cinema in Fort. In their excitement and eagerness to spot themselves in the film, almost everybody in the village saw it again when it had a record-breaking run at Yatiyantota, a major town next to Kitulgala.

Foreign tourists 

Samuel Perera made a livelihood by taking tourists to the location of the film when tourism flourished in Kitulgala. He said a large number of foreign tourists and film lovers came to the location and took photographs. He himself had drawn a yellow colour signpost to show the way with an arrow pointing to the location.

“One day, somebody had removed the signpost and thrown it to the thicket nearby. I found it and brought it back home. During daytime I hang it at the point and at night I bring it back and keep it in my home,” Samuel said. Due to poor health, he has stopped active work now and rests at home. Instead, his wife has taken over the task of taking tourists to the location of the film where some scars and metal remain as fond memories, just a few yards from their home. The duo say, the tourist influx has reduced although whitewater rafting is picking up among the local and foreign tourists. Samuel and his wife Chandralatha have archives of magazines and newspaper articles and photographs about the stories of the film, including articles about Samuel Perera who was a young extra in the film. “Most magazines and souvenirs were given away as souvenirs to visitors. One of my signposts has also been taken by a foreign tourist”. Samuel went to his room and brought a black and white photograph of the wooden bridge and an old faded book in which he was featured.

As I take leave, I realise what one can achieve with self-confidence and determination. There cannot be a better example than the family of Samuel Perera. His beloved wife Chandralatha and children are always with him. “Almost all the other actors in this great film have died except me… If any movie lover asks for fond memories of the film, I am ready to tell my story even at this difficult stage,” Samuel concludes.