Posted January 30 2011 - 07:16 AM
For those who need a push toward acquiring a copy of Mr. Fowlie's book, the following extract re: Bridge on the River Kwai may whet the appetite:
The famous scene of the bridge blowing up and the train careening to its destruction was real, not a mockup. We only got one shot at it, understandably, as there wasn’t enough time or money to build another bridge. Inside the carriages I had 300 rubber Japanese soldiers placed with guns, in case the carriages burst open. A demolition company from the UK came over to demolish the bridge following David’s strict instructions. The explosion had to look real and last long enough to get sufficient footage.
There were many points to consider, not the least the angle at which the train should fall. It was also made very clear that there should be no flames, smoke or far-fetched fireballs. In real life, when a building is brought down with explosives if collapses in almost slow motion instead of exploding in a hail of flames and debris (this is a point missed on many modern film directors who are invariably obsessed with creating ridiculous, computer enhanced blasts). We positioned five cameras in five different points to give the editing crew a variety of angles to choose from. Each had to switch the trigger light on the control panel, giving a signal to the director that the camera was running the operator was safe. There was another light which the train driver had to operate when he jumped off at the crucial moment before the explosives were detonated. The main control panel was located at a safe distance from the main camera with David close by. At the far end of the bridge there was a long track, with an uphill gradient leading to a sand trap. This was intended to stop the unmanned train in the unlikely event that the bridge had not been blown up. Everybody in their places, the order was given to start the operation. Four lights came on and then the driver’s. As the train came onto the bridge, David suddenly spotted that one of the lights had not been switched on and did not give the order to detonate. The train shot over the bridge at full speed, up the gradient and through the sand drag, collecting a big truck and the generator along the way. Peter and I were the first on the scene and found the steaming train sitting upright, it wheels dug deep in the jungle floor.
After a few minutes Sam turned up in his car. It was difficult to gauge his reaction, but he was either in deep shock or dead calm. I have to admit to feeling admiration for him as he uttered his first words to us. “My boys, how long before we get it ready again?” With all the right railway equipment and workers it didn’t take long to slip some track under it and shunt it back. It wasn’t all tickety-boo, though. After Sam left us, he marched back and summarily fired the camera operator who had failed to turn on his light switch, even though his camera had been running. He was an experienced and well-known operator, whom David knew and trusted. Unfazed by the poor man’s blunder, David quietly reinstated him and him and took him out to dinner that same night. After the nerve jangling experience, we were all even more wary of making any further mistakes.
To my surprise, David asked me to drive the train for the second attempt. Apparently, the driver had got cold feet about driving the thing. Relieved he would no longer be risking his life, he was more than happy to give me a crash course on how to drive the locomotive to oblivion. I had the light switch and the sandbag shelter in which I was to dive when I bailed out moved almost to the beginning of the bridge. This gave me a few more precious seconds to jam the throttle lever open once I had set the right speed. It also gave me a pretty good close-up view of the bridge going down. Getting the timing right was a matter of life and death. Too late and I would end up in pieces amid tons of twisted wreckage at the bottom of the river; too early and we would ruin the shot. I set off inside the train, and this time I had the unique view from the driver’s cabin, looking down on the river some thirty metres below as the bridge rushed up to meet me. The train picked up speed and I waited to the last possible moment before jamming the lever. I dived on the sandbags and watched as the train clattered by, followed by an almighty bang as the dynamite went off. In an instant, the bridge which had taken us months to construct collapsed in a twisted heap. Still breathless, I shook myself down and looked down below, feeling mixed emotions. I was relieved the operation had been a success but also felt a twinge of sadness at seeing all the destruction. We had one final “special effects” scene in which the commandos were to set the explosive charges to the bridge support. We shot it during the day and filtered the lens to make it look like night time. Setting up the dynamite was fine and as I surfaced I saw David looking down on me, smiling. By the glint in his eye, I knew what he was thinking.
“Bloody millionaires stuff!” I remarked - we were just grown-up boys after all, playing games with loads of cash.
Many years later, while staying in a hotel in Westwood Village in LA, I went for a drink in the bar noticed a frail-looking man hunched on the chair at a corner table. He looked over and suddenly stood up and walked over to me. “Your Eddie,” he said with a smile. Surprised that this man knew my name and curious as to who he was, I struggled to recognize him but I was saved my blushes. He thrust his hand out and introduced himself. “It’s me, Bill Holden.” I was shocked. The ravages of time and alcohol has sadly taken their toll on him, but I tried to not let it show my face. I greeted him warmly and gave the impression that I had recognized him. What amazed me even more is that he knew who I was despite my hair having gone entirely white since I had seen him last. I never saw him again and was deeply saddened when I heard a few years later that he died in such a sad and lonely circumstances. The death of Burt Lancaster also affected me in a similar way. Both actors were larger than life individuals.
"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did." T.E. Lawrence