What I Learned From Watching: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


David Lean’s exotic 1957 Opus, Bridge on the River Kwai is considered by many to be one of the greatest tales committed to film. Let’s set aside for a moment the seven Oscars it took home at the 30th Academy Awards and its distinction of being one of only 12 Best Picture winners to have been produced by a foreign studio—in this case, the United Kingdom (Wiki). Instead, let’s consider what it is like to see this film today—during the era of the epic— and see just what a movie like this can teach us about filmmaking…

Even though the story is about British, Japanese, and American soldiers, the original novel was written by a French man named Pierre Boulle. The novel was published in France in 1952 and was later published in Britain where it piqued the interest of an American producer and screenwriter named Carl Foreman. Foreman was living in England because he was blacklisted in Hollywood under suspicion of being a communist sympathizer (Wiki). Foreman gave the project over to producer Sam Spiegel and stayed on secretly as a screenwriter. However, David Lean didn’t like the draft by Foreman.

Lean said, “’I told Sam I would do The Bridge on the River Kwai on the condition that he threw out this terrible script he had by Carl Foreman… The whole thing started in an American submarine that was being depth-charged. It had nothing to do with the story at all, and I said, ‘Look, Sam, this is hopeless’” (Silverman 118).

Spiegel had Foreman do a rewrite, but Lean disliked the new version as well, so Lean decided to do it himself. Lean and Norman Spencer went to Ceylon to write a new treatment. Lean liked to write in the location that the film would be made so that he can use the surroundings as inspiration to write (Making).

In a BBC Radio interview, Lean discussed his writing process…

David Lean: “What happens is that I sit down at my typewriter and I start at the beginning and I make a complete blueprint and I try to imagine what the finished movie is going to look like on the screen—with cuts and everything in it. I do it as I hope I’ll see it. I know this is against a lot of the new school, but I’m personally very weary of improvisation.”

Lean said, “I wrote it all, start to finish… the beginning, the entrance to the camp, the men whistling as they came in. I had trouble with the part of the American, which wasn’t in the book, so I said to Sam, ‘Look, you must get me some help’” (Silverman 119).

The job went to Michael Wilson—who, like Foreman, was also blacklisted. Since both Foreman and Wilson were blacklisted and their involvement in writing the film was kept secret, the sole writing credit went to the original author of the novel—Pierre Boulle.

Boulle went on to win the Academy Award for screenwriting despite having nothing to do with writing the screenplay and not speaking a word of English, which is probably why he didn’t accept the award in person (Wiki).

Dorris Day: “Pierre Boulle: The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

In an interview, Lean recounts the Academy Awards ceremony. He says: “Comes the Oscars… and the award for Best Screenplay is being announced. The winner? Pierre Boulle! And who gets up to accept it? Sam Spiegel!’ Soon after, Lean would receive the award for Best Director and when he was talking to the press afterwards, they asked him about the screenwriting credit. He replied, “You tell me that… and you’ve answered the sixty-four-million-dollar question.” Spiegel overheard and took offense to Lean’s comment and the two apparently got into a physical altercation using their Oscars as weapons (Silverman 119, 120).

Lean had many issues with Spiegel who often cheated Lean out of credit and compensation. They had originally agreed to do The Bridge on the River Kwai with fifty-fifty credit on the project. On December 15th, 1957, Lean saw the ad in The New York Times announcing the film and it was “presented by ‘Sam Spiegel Productions’” when it should have read “Presented by Sam Spiegel and David Lean” (Silverman 119).

The initial budget of the film was $2.8 million and the studio wanted a big American actor to star in the film. So, while writing the new treatment, Lean added the character of Shears, which ended up being played by William Holden who you might recognize as the male lead in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. For his role as Shears, Holden was paid 1 million dollars and a percentage of the film, which was higher than any fee an actor had been paid up to that point (Making).

Lean originally wanted the role of Colonel Nicholson to go to Lawrence Olivier who turned it down, then Carry Grant who also turned it down, and then finally Alec Guinness whom Lean had previously worked with on adaptations of two Charles Dickens novels: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Alec Guinness’ role as Colonel Nicholson was fairly different than characters he had played in the past.

Alec Guinness: “Well, most of the parts I’ve played on film have been concerned with unethical men and, in this, I play a man of great integrity.”

Sessue Hayakawa came out of retirement for his role as Colonel Saito. He had been a star of the silent film era and he was in his late sixties when he took on the role.

In a 1962 interview, Hayakawa had this to say:

“My relationship with Mr. Lean was particularly good… Of necessity he is something of a solitary traveler in his profession. In his role of director he sees not only the fragments which, woven together, make the whole composition of a film, but the entirety as well. We never found ourselves in opposition, but he was less than slightly beloved by some of his associates being boiled by the hot sun” (Silverman 123).

One year after The Bridge on the River Kwai was released, Sessue Hayakawa had a cameo in a Jerry Lewis film titled The Geisha Boy where he does a parody of his role as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Jerry Lewis meets a young boy’s grandfather who is having a small bridge built on his property in the same style as the Kwai Bridge and then Lewis and Hayakawa have this exchange…

Lewis: “Uh, you know, you kind of remind me of, um…”

Hayakawa: “Oh, that actor?”

Lewis: “The actor, yes.”

Hayakawa: “Ah, yes. Many people think so. But I was building bridges long before him.”

The score to the film is based around the melody of a famous old composition titled the Colonel Bogey March, which is what the British prisoners were whistling as they first march into Saito’s camp. The march was written in 1914 by Lieutenant F. J. Ricketts under the name Kenneth J. Alford, but at the beginning of World War II, British soldiers added lyrics to the march that became quite popular (Wiki). And, If you follow the bouncing ball, you can sing along with me…

Hitler has only got one ball,

Göring has two but very small,

Himmler has something similar,

But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.

I apologize for my singing, but apparently it’s true—Hitler did only have one testicle. It was written as British propaganda and there are several versions. Sometimes Göring is the one who has only got one ball after Göring suffered an injury to his groin. Another version went, “Bollocks, and the same to you.” David Lean originally wanted the British soldiers to be singing these lyrics as they entered the camp, but it was deemed too vulgar and it was replaced with the whistling. Another reason was that, to get the rights, they had to inform Ricketts’ widow how the song would be used. So, in essence, the whistling in this scene is meant as a giant middle finger to the Axis.

So what can we learn?

First: Story Within a Story.

Let’s take a look at how the story is structured—the story is driven by the desires of the four main characters. Shears wants to escape Saito’s camp, Saito wants a bridge to be built on the river Kwai, Nicholson wants to maintain control of his men and ultimately build the bridge as a monument to the ingenuity of himself and the British military, and Warden wants to blow up the bridge. In retrospect, all of these wants are fulfilled, but at what cost? By the end of the film, so many lives will be lost (including the lives of most of these men) as a result of these goals. And therein lies the theme—the futility of war and the wastefulness of stubborn heroes.

Shears: “This is just a game, this war! You and that Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind—crazy with courage, for what!?”

What I love most about the way this film is structured is that Saito and Nicholson are set up in a story that is nearly independent from the main story of the film. I say “nearly,” because this story still works to set up the main story of the film, which centers on the construction and destruction of the bridge. However, the first hour of the film revolves mainly around the clashing of Saito and Nicholson. When Nicholson and his men arrive at Saito’s camp, Saito sees the manpower he needs to complete the bridge on time. He feels the need to maintain full command and to use the labor of every man (including the officers) to finish his task. And, if he does not complete the bridge on time, he will be forced to kill himself as dictated by the Bushido code.

Nicholson, on the other hand, follows the code of the Geneva Convention, which states that officers are not required to work in POW camps and he holds the integrity of the Convention above all else. He sees the rules of war as keeping humans civil and believes in order even in a wartime setting.

Shears: “You mean, you intend to uphold the letter of the law no matter what it costs?”

Nicholson: “Without law, Commander, there is no civilization.”

He refuses to accept the rules of Saito’s camp as they go against the rules of the Convention and he is willing to put his life and the lives of his men on the line to uphold his ideals.

This story of Nicholson versus Saito within the grander story of the Kwai Bridge has its own three-act structure where the two men clash and slowly but surely, Nicholson begins to gain the upper hand and it culminates in its own climax where Nicholson finally prevails and the Geneva Convention wins out over Saito’s methods.

Without this first story, there would be no justification for Nicholson to become obsessed with the bridge project and that sense of obsession and stubbornness is needed to transform Nicholson into antagonist for Shears.

Even though the movie is nearly three hours long, the story remains fresh throughout. We are introduced to Shears, Saito, and Nicholson in the beginning, then the story focuses mainly on Nicholson versus Saito, and then the plot is reinvigorated when Nicholson teams up with Saito and their actions stand in opposition to Shears and Warden. So the story is made new at the end of the Nicholson versus Saito plotline while still maintaining the over-arching narrative of the Kwai Bridge.

Columbia Pictures nearly stopped production after three weeks because there were no white women in the film. So they wrote in the scene with Holden and the woman. Lean hated that scene because it has nothing to do with anything and he wished he could cut it, but much later, Lean saw the film again and said that it “didn’t detract too much” (Silverman 125).

There is a funny story about the actress who played the actress that Shears has a romance with. These scenes were shot at the very end of production after all the other scenes were wrapped. She asked a friend if they knew anyone who had been to Ceylon and could give her some tips that she could use while she is there. Her friend said that he knew who could help her— a friend of his who had just finished shooting a film in Ceylon. This man turned out to be Alec Guinness, who had just returned to London after finishing his scenes (DVD Booklet).

Lean interviewed “hundreds of ex-prisoners of war who worked on the Death Railway” and used their stories to help write the script (DVD Booklet). The character of Nicholson himself was originally based on a British officer named Philip John Denton Toosey who, along with his men, was captured by the Japanese in 1942 (Silverman 125). Lean also received advisement from the Japanese government on the scenes in the war camp after the production convinced the Japanese that the film was not meant to incite hate against the country, but rather to show the pointlessness of war (DVD Booklet).

You can see how this adds to the legitimacy of the setting, but that doesn’t mean Lean was preoccupied with realism…

Lean: “I realize more and more that reality on the screen (which used to be the thing to aim at) is a sort of bore. I don’t mean that audience should sit there and say, ‘oh that’s unreal,’ but movies are a kind of dream, aren’t they? And I think they should have an unreal edge to them.”

For instance, in the novel, the bridge isn’t blown up, but Lean said that blowing up the bridge “was everyone’s idea from the start.” He said, “In the novel, there’s only the idea of blowing up the bridge. You can’t present that in a movie and then not do it” (Silverman 125). In fact, the original writer of the novel liked the changes Lean had made to the story and said that he wished he had thought of them (Making).

It seems like the thing that makes this film so riveting is that the promise of the bridge blowing up is apparent early on and what keeps us engaged is making this inevitable end seem more and more impossible.

Obviously seeing the bridge blow up is more spectacular than reading about it, but Lean used this as an overall philosophy in his films. It’s not about what people say as much as it’s about what you see, which brings us to number two…

Shooting an epic.

On the surface, it would appear that the story of The Bridge on the River Kwai is told in dialogue, but the dialogue only re-enforces what we see. We see the harsh conditions of the camp. We see the construction of the bridge. We see the commandos journey through the wilderness. And all of these operate as the broadest thread of the story.

David Lean: “Well, I must say, that I find dialogue a bore, for the most part. I think that if you look back on any film you’ve seen, you don’t remember lines of dialogue, you remember pictures.”

In an era where the epic is the status quo, it seems that so much is explained while removed from the story. There will be a contrived action sequence and then we find the characters in a secluded place where they discuss what is going on. Here, there is one wholly expositional scene—the scene with Shears and Warden in Warden’s office—and it serves to set up the last hour of the film. We get so much more information in this whole sequence than what is said—we see the comfort and peace that Shears is forced to give up to ultimately sacrifice himself for a bridge. We also see the kind of person Warden is—he and his men run a commando school and they are fired up to “play” war.

Lean also used sound to enhance the picture without describing it. In an interview with Charles Reynolds in 1958, Lean said, “Sound should give the film another dimension. It should be used as orchestration to give something the picture isn’t giving. Anyone can take a shot of seagulls and put in their cries on the soundtrack but this doesn’t really add anything. At the same time you can show a shot of gulls and by adding the sound of waves with their cries you can suggest an entire beach scene… In Bridge we used the screech of the bird to coincide with the cut to the young Japanese soldier who is being pursued through the jungle. This is the first time he is seen again since the beginning of the chase. The sound gives this important shot an added jolt to emphasize it” (Organ 4).

The Bridge on the River Kwai was the first film that Lean shot in CinemaScope, which made the aspect ratio nearly twice as wide as a normal film of that time. It was shot with anamorphic lenses, which films a stretched out image and then the image is squashed back to normal later. This way the image isn’t cropped to achieve the look of widescreen. Spiegel was worried about the change from what Lean was used to, but Lean responded, “If you’ve an eye for composition, you can fill out the corners” (Silverman 124).

This film was really the start of Lean’s style of bigness, so to speak. It’s those huge sweeping landscape shots and layered composition that really make the story larger than life. Cinemascope is a great way to present the setting.

In the interview with Charles Reynolds, Lean listed his techniques for achieving his trademark epic style.

The first is making sure to use enough of each shot. Every shot has information in it and the wider the shot is, the more information there is within the frame.

Lean says, “When I take a shot I try to do a little running commentary to myself on what the audience is supposed to see. ‘Isn’t that a beautiful road, look at the tall trees, look at that dog crossing the road.’ That sort of thing. Each shot must be held long enough to tell its story and then make room for the next” (Organ 4).

The second is avoiding unmotivated camera moves. Every pan or tilt must reveal something. And don’t be afraid to cut. Lean says, “Whenever you decide to pan, a little red warning light should go on in your mind and you should ask, “Can I do this better in a cut?” (Organ 4). Lean also maintains that it isn’t always best to try and get everything in one shot. And if you separate what would be a pan into two shots, you can use different lenses and framing to better emphasize the point of each shot.

Third is giving depth to the shots by making use of what is in front of and what is behind your subject. Lean says, “Without these planes the shot will look like a “picture postcard.” Often it is effective just to have a black object of some kind in the foreground. Don’t light it. Keep it out of focus… In Bridge, we tried constantly to give depth by including foreground objects” (Organ 4). The background is just as important. Just look at this shot from the beginning of the film when Shears is burying a prisoner who has just died. In the background we can see Nicholson’s men marching into the camp, which adds a nice detail to the scene.

Which brings us to the fourth thing— that every shot should be linked to a sequence of shots. For instance, look at the sequence of the British soldiers entering the camp—each shot tells the small story of the men arriving at the camp. We have shots that establish the men, shots that focus on key players, shots of the spectators, as well as details, and reactions. Lean says, “Just using one shot is rushing that climax… Any good movie that you will ever see is not built out of isolated shots but of sequences which build to climaxes” (Organ 4). And a fun fact: they weren’t able to afford bringing a bunch of British extras to Ceylon for these scenes, so they positioned the British actors they had in the front and the rest were Singhalese natives, “done up in whiteface” (Silverman 125).

Lean is the master of showcasing beautiful scenery, but he also knew when to disregard the beautiful scenery. Lean studied American films in order to discover why some shots seemed to have a more intimate relationship with the characters than films from other countries. He found that there is a danger in becoming “greedy” and always using wide-angle lenses in order to capture the scenery. So, to achieve the intimacy, he would use a long lens positioned further away that would lessen the depth of focus. He said, “The more concentration I want in a scene the longer lens I use. These lenses have a wonderful quality about them which is better on the screen than through the viewfinder” (Organ 4).

After producer Sam Spiegel thought that enough footage was filmed to complete the story, he took the cameras away from Lean, who wanted to continue shooting. Lean ended up using a small hand-held Arriflex camera to shoot all of the B-roll of the landscapes and so forth to fill out the film (Film 88).

The shots had to be blown up to CinemaScope, but it was these shots that gave the film a much larger feel than it would have had without them (Film 88). Lean had to suffer through some pretty harsh conditions to get some of these shots, which brings us to number three…

When it comes to setting…

Do it for real.

How different would Jaws have been if it had been shot in a soundstage instead of on the ocean? The same goes for The Bridge on the River Kwai—Lean could have shot a couple of landscape shots on location and the rest in Hollywood, but he didn’t and it gives the film a certain authenticity that we can still appreciate almost sixty years later.

Spiegel had produced The African Queen on location in Africa in 1951, but when it came to difficult scenes, special effects were used. These scenes really date the movie and the film doesn’t nearly stand the test of time as well as The Bridge on the River Kwai. There is no doubt the movies today that rely on special effects to present the setting will end up suffering the same fate in the future.

Lean would do whatever it took to get the shot, no matter how difficult or how long it took. It was reported that he had traveled 150 miles to capture a sunset and this gave him a reputation that might not be entirely accurate (DVD Booklet).

David Lean: “Some terrible journalist came to me and said rather earnestly, ‘Mr. Lean, is it true you wait five weeks for a wave?’ And I said, ‘Look, I’d be out of a job if I did!’”

However, it is easy to see the lengths that Lean went to to achieve even the briefest of shots. It’s all right there on the screen. Look at this shot:

Aside from trekking out into the wilderness with camera gear, this shot required finding the proper framing, communicating with another group that had to travel much further away, waiting for the light to both silhouette the people in the background and cast light on the subject in the foreground, not to mention the time it would take to reset and try again.

And look at this shot: All of these extras had to be present for the background of this shot and here there is a full scene that required the British officers to stand out in the sun to appear in the background. It would have been much easier to shoot from a different angle, but not nearly as interesting— and it should be noted that many of the extras experienced sunstroke because of the intense heat (DVD Booklet).

When the production scouted locations, they saw that the actual Kwai River was not very substantial or interesting, so they decided to shoot in a small village in Ceylon named Kitulagala.

After enduring the rough conditions on location in Uganda and the Congo for The African Queen (where most of the cast and crew took ill after drinking the water, that is, except for Humphrey Bogart who drank mostly Gin), Spiegel wanted the conditions on Kwai to be more comfortable. He had a small production village constructed, complete with “bungalows, plumbing facilities (including a water-filtration system), and [a] catering service,” although the catering’s “quality degenerated as Spiegel made weekly budgetary cut-backs” (Silverman 121). Spiegel also hosted film screenings for the native children who had never seen a movie before (DVD Booklet).

Still, no one was fond of the location shooting, except David Lean. Spiegel’s wife said, “I think David is at his happiest living in an adverse environment, and he flourished like an orchid in Ceylon. It was hot, it was humid, people were dropping like flies, and he was happy” (Silverman 121).

They filmed the prison camp scenes in an abandoned stone quarry and, though it appears the bridge location is nearby, it was actually several miles away from the camp (DVD Booklet).

Everything was shot for real using a camera they had built themselves. Aside from the landscape shots Lean filmed with the Arrieflex, they had to lug the particularly large camera, lights, and generators to every location they filmed in (Making).

Occasionally problems with shooting on location would arise, but despite his penchant for meticulously planning each shot in advance, Lean remained flexible when it was necessary.

David Lean: “But there’s always room for spontaneity, always room. There are so many facets of it. I mean, for instance, you waited for one day when it’s pouring with rain, now what do you do, wait for a second day? No, you don’t—you think, ‘how can we change the scene so we can play it in rain?’ That sort of thing and you’re all the time having to change things in the making of the movie.”

Lean wanted everything done for real, sometimes forcing the actors to perform in very uncomfortable conditions. For instance, the hotbox that Alec Guinness was in was actually hot, but they heated it even more so it would shimmer on camera (Making). For the scene where the doctor comes to look at Nicholson, Lean wouldn’t let the actor kneel on a cushion because he wanted him to use the uncomfortable position in his performance.

There were a couple of reasons they decided to shoot the film on location in Ceylon—aside from Lean’s perfectionism, a Hollywood backlot couldn’t house the massive set.

Steve Allen: “Well Bill, isn’t it sort of unusual to be making a picture in Ceylon. I mean, why aren’t you shooting this in Hollywood on one of the enormous soundstages out there?”

William Holden: “Well, here’s one of the reasons, Steve. Our bridge on the river Kwai is too big for a soundstage. On either side of the river, roads had to be cut around the mountain tea plantation. This train had to be hauled over-land to the location.”

That’s true—they were filming in such a remote location that the bridge had to be built the old-fashioned way. The eight-month project involved “cutting down 1,500 giant trees in the jungle, shaping them into pillars, loading them onto the backs of forty-eight elephants to be dragged to the building site, [and] pile-driving them into the ground to create a structure larger than any in Ceylon (425 feet long and 90 feet high) at a cost of over $250,000 (DVD Booklet).

The production received assistance from the Ceylonese government who offered the help of soldiers to act as extras and work for the production providing transportation as well as helping construct the bridge itself (DVD Booklet). The fact that the bridge was built without the aid of large construction vehicles gave finished bridge a look of authenticity—it really looked like it was built by prisoners of war.

The design for the bridge came during the two years of pre-production for the film. The production was given a scrap of rice paper that had been smuggled out of Burma containing a drawing of a bridge for the Death Railway. The drawing was to help commandos identify the bridge they were ordered to blow up and this design was used for the bridge we see in the film (DVD Booklet).

A funny story is that the “villagers insisted on performing a ritualistic ceremony in order to ward off evil spirits and ensure that the good spirits will “preserve [the] bridge for all time,” despite the fact that the production was going to blow up the bridge at the end of the shoot (DVD Booklet).

Because it took so long to build and under such difficult conditions, they really only had one shot to film the bridge blowing up. They built a dam in the river to make the water low enough to shoot the scene, but it had rained really hard and the water level ended up rising over eight feet, so they had to postpone the shot for eleven days (DVD Booklet).

They set up five cameras to film the explosion. They had each of the camera locations switch on a light to signal that the film was rolling without an issue. There was also a switch for the man driving the train to switch on after he jumped from the train to signal that he wasn’t still on it and they could blow the bridge. The first time they attempted the shot, all of the lights went on for each camera position except for one, but the train was already moving and there was nowhere for the train to go after it went across the bridge. The only thing that kept it from falling into the water was that it crashed into the truck generating power for the lights. So what happened? One of the cameramen just forgot to switch his light on. The second try worked.

Although, the problem here was that the sound man printed the sound for the first take and not the second— all they had was the sound of the train going over the bridge without any explosion. So what we hear is not, in fact, the actual sound of the bridge blowing up, but rather a sound effect (Making).

The difficulty that went into creating The Bridge on the River Kwai really shows on screen and had they used cutting edge special effects at the time to avoid doing it for real, the film would be dated today, which it isn’t. It holds up incredibly sixty years later and you believe everything that you are seeing. Filmmaking is a struggle and it is the job of the filmmaker to create something called “verisimilitude,” which is defined, more or less, by creating something that appears real. I cannot think of a film that better exemplifies this concept.

One last thing…

The Bridge on the River Kwai was actually one of the reasons movies started becoming prime-time television programming. The film originally made thirty million dollars over its three million dollar budget and was rereleased in theaters just after Lean and Spiegel’s Lawrence of Arabia came out. But in 1966, the film aired on American television to a “record sixty million viewers” (Silverman 125). Before that, networks would break up films “into two parts and shown over two evenings.” It was presented as an “ABC Movie Special” and ran for over three hours because of the commercial breaks (Wiki).

Thanks for watching! This is one of my favorite films. I saw it for the first time only a few years ago and ended up watching it again as soon as it was over. My next big video will be Part 6 of How Kubrick Made 2001: A Space Odyssey and I have a couple of shorter videos in the works as well, so if you’re new here, please hit that subscribe button now because there are plenty more videos on the way for cinephiles like you! Thanks again for watching!


Hollywood Blacklist

The Hollywood Blacklist refers to a period during the 40s and 50s in America’s entertainment industry where a committee created by the House of Representatives called the House Un-American Activities Committee was tasked with uncovering communist sympathizers, and other American citizens considered to be disloyal to the values and principles of the American government. Considering the United States’ cold war with Russia was in full swing by the end of the 40s, some in the American government thought that members of the Hollywood film industry were trying to sneak communist propaganda into films and Hollywood labor practices (Wiki).

People were called before the committee to defend themselves against such allegations and, if deemed to be disloyal, they would be barred from working in the industry (Wiki). The blacklist started around the end of 1947— studio executives fired ten artists after they refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee. They were called the Hollywood Ten—Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo.

Perhaps the most famous of these names is Dalton Trumbo. There was a film made about the writer in 2015 called Trumbo that follows Trumbo’s experience being blacklisted in Hollywood.

The Hollywood Ten refused to answer questions on the basis that it was a violation of their rights and because they knew that if they cooperated with the committee, they would be next asked to name names of other potential communist sympathizers. Each of these men were sentenced to a year in federal prison for contempt of Congress as well as a one-thousand dollar fine.

Some of those who testified in order to inform on potential communist sympathizers were Walt Disney and, then Screen Actors Guild president, Ronald Reagan. Some members of the film industry started the Committee for the First Amendment in protest of these proceedings. Members of the Committee for the First Amendment included: Humphrey Bogart, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Billy Wilder, Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, and Sterling Hayden. This committee was formed under the assumption that the Hollywood Ten were not actually communists, but simply standing up for the rights and privacy of Americans. When it came out that many of the Hollywood Ten were confirmed communists as well as committee member Sterling Haden, many of the members left the committee.

In March 1948 Humphrey Bogart wrote an article for Photoplay magazine titled “I’m No Communist” that starts like this:

“As the guy said to the warden, just before he was hanged: ‘This will teach me a lesson I’ll never forget.’ No, sir, I’ll never forget the lesson that was taught to me in the year 1947, at Washington, D.C. when I got back to Hollywood, some friends sent me a mounted fish and underneath it was written: ‘If I hadn’t opened my big mouth, I wouldn’t be here.’ The New York Times, the Herald Tribune and other reputable publications editorially had questioned the House Committee on Un-American Activities, warning that it was infringing on free speech. When a group of us Hollywood actors and actresses said the same thing, the roof fell in on us. In some fashion, I took the brunt of the attack. Suddenly, the plane that had flown us East became ‘Bogart’s plane,’ carrying ‘Bogart’s group.’ For once, top billing became embarrassing” (Photoplay).

I’ve included a link to the full article in the description if you would like to read it.

The blacklist ended in the 60s with over 150 names on it. Many of those had continued to work under fake names for modest pay after becoming blacklisted. By the late 50s/early 60s, the blacklist was winding down, but one of the main breaking points had to do with Dalton Trumbo. “Otto Preminger publicly announced that [Trumbo]… was the screenwriter of his forthcoming film Exodus” (Wiki). But more importantly, Trumbo was fully credited as writer of Spartacus and it was largely due to actor Kirk Douglas.


Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa is now best known for his role as Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai, but in the 1920s, Hayakawa was one of the “biggest stars” of the Hollywood silent era, receiving “2 million [dollars] per year” throughout the 20s. He even drove a gold-plated car and lived in a mansion designed to look like a castle (Wiki). Here is a brief overview of his career.

Despite scarcely getting the girl, Hayakawa is considered Hollywood’s first sex symbol (Wiki). American women rushed to the theater to swoon over Hayakawa’s [quote] “’broodingly hansom’ good looks” (Wiki). And at the height of the silent era, Hayakawa’s fame was on par with Charlie Chaplin’s. So what happened? Well, tensions were rising with Japan leading into World War II and Asian Americans were dealing with the offensively named “Yellow Peril,” which was characterized by White Americans’ xenophobia against Asians during that time. As a result, Hayakawa was more or less used to perpetuate negative stereotypes of Asians in Hollywood, which made him unpopular in Japan. In this scene of a Cecil B. DeMille film titled The Cheat he literally brands a woman. (the cheat – 35:26)

In order to combat this, Hayakawa started his own production company in 1918, but the company ended after an argument with a distributor in which Hayakawa was called a racial slur.

And remember when Hayakawa said that he almost never got the girl in his films? When the Motion Picture Production Code started in 1930, there was a strict rule against interracial relationships on screen and his costars were quite often white, so he was usually cast as a villain or a “forbidden lover.”

In the March 1916 issue of Photoplay Magazine, Hayakawa had this to say about his typecasting:

“Such roles are not true to our Japanese nature… They are false and give people a wrong idea of us. I wish to make a characterization which shall reveal us as we really are, and I am glad to say I am soon to have that opportunity, for Miss Jeanie Macpherson, scenario writer for the Lasky Company, is writing a play for me in which I shall play a Japanese who shall do justice to the real Japanese character and show its best traits” (Photoplay).

He left Hollywood for France to act mostly on stage, but when World War II broke out, he joined the French Resistance and painted watercolors for money. Back in Hollywood during the 30s, there were becoming more and more Asian hero roles, but the studios were casting white actors to play them.

Shortly after the war, Hayakawa acted in a film called Tokyo Joe with Humphrey Bogart and then played a Lieutenant of a POW camp in Three Came Home. It wasn’t until 1957 when he got his most famous role as Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film.

In addition to acting, he was also a martial artist, writer, and Zen master. He died in Tokyo, Japan in 1973 at the age of 84.

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This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.


The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957 dir. David Lean)

David Lean BBC interview ‘Film Profile’ 1955

DVD Booklet

David Lean on What You Can Learn from Movies – Charles Reynolds/1958

David Lean and his Dedicated Maniacs

Making of Bridge on the River Kwai


The Steve Allen Show

The Bridge on the River Kwai USC Short Film, Introduced by William Holden

The Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant

Film 88 Special – David Lean

‘David Lean’ by Stephen M. Silverman

The Geisha Boy (1958 dir. Frank Tashlin)


The Colonel Bogey March

“RSPN” by Blank & Kytt (https://blankkytt.bandcamp.com/)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

“Backed Vibes Clean” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0