ONE: The Theme Tune and George Siegertsz
The mainline tale about the production process in Ceylon in the composition of the outstanding film The Bridge on the River Kwai – a film based on an actual wartime commando operation involving the destruction of a bridge being built with POW labour by the Japanese war machine in Thailand – can be read at https://thuppahis.com/2021/08/02/kitulgala-and-the-classic-movie-bridge-on-the-river-kwai/
Its digital presentation has generated sideline tales from within the Sri Lankan circuit of 2021 which merit public exposure for the historical record. The Wikipedia account about the film runs thus: “The Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 epic war film directed by David Lean and based on the 1952 novel written by Pierre Boulle. Although the film uses the historical setting of the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942–1943, the plot and characters of Boulle’s novel and the screenplay are almost entirely fictional. The cast includes Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins, and Sessue Hayakawa” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bridge_on_the_River_Kwai).”
So – 1957 was the production year. Some of us youngsters then are still batting in the anecdotal circuit despite our ‘greyness.’ And we can inject some minor elaborations about the film-production process. My own recall about the striking tune – known as “Colonel Bogey’s March” – which became an indelible marker of the cinematic version has now been confirmed by blokes of similar vintage. Johnny de Silva in Melbourne and Ernest MacIntyre in Sydney have identified George Siegertsz as the whistling virtuoso who – so to speak — imprinted the tune on the film in response to the producer David Lean’s shout for some gusto to be inserted into the march of the rag-tag personnel who were posing as British and Allied POWs in a regimented Japanese POW camp.
Since the need was for British prisoners-of-War, the local personnel servicing the film were invariably Burgher …. And, of course, invariably lower middle class or yet lower. As such, they included those known then as “Bambalawatte Johnnies”. And one of them happened to be a “whistling virtuoso” named George Siegertsz who was widely associated with Lion House arena on Galle Road. This link was brought to my attention by my Aloysian colleague Johnny De Silva of Melbourne and since then my Peradeniya mate Ernest MacIntyre of Sydney has, quite independently, sent an email identifying “Whistler Siegertz” as the inspiration: “he was called so because he whistled as part of his, almost spirituality, and he did so regularly. On location in a crowd scene in KWAI, he began whistling the old jaunty tune of “Hitler had only one big ball, Goebbels had two but rather small, Himmler had something similar….” … [ Listen = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuVYS4uw0as]
Thus, the anecdotal rumour mill makes this information relatively definitive. It was NOT the David Lean production team, but a Ceylonese man, who inspired the theme tune for that wonderful film. Note, too, another line in that rumour mill reposing in my memory. The filmmaker-team had to pay for the use of that theme tune. These monies went to the composer of “Colonel Bogey’s March” – one Frederick Ricketts, a bandmaster Englishman, who had composed music under the pen name of Kenneth J. Alford. So, George Siegertsz did not receive a cent of the dollar monies.
All this directs us to seek out more information on George Siegertsz. What happened to him? Did he migrate like many Burghers in Ceylon of the 1950s to 1970s? My inquiries have been cast, but the returns have been limited thus far.
TWO: Chandran Rutnam & Chris Greet
Unsurprisingly, the lower ranks in the filmmaking and in the film receive no credit in the print material on the film. The only two Ceylonese to receive mention, as far as I can work out, are Chandran Rutnam and Chris Greet. Chandran Rutnam was a product of a well-placed Colombo family of Tamil-Sinhala mix involving James Rutnam and Evelyn Wijeratne (whose house was in Stafford Place opposite the Cinnamon Gardens police station.
Jim Rutnam was a connoisseur of arts and literature and one can presume that his connections were instrumental in nourishing Chandran’s career as a radio personality and film-producer. Chandran’s first steps in this field seem to have been in 1957 in the production work on The Bridge on the River Kwai and one can speculate that his school and familial connections were of value to David Lean (the director of The Bridge on the River Kwai) in mediating the production work. Chandran went on to make a career in the cinematic world abroad and seems to have settled in USA.
Chris Greet (1932-2020) seems to have been from a Burgher or Eurasian family. He became a protégé of Vernon Corea in Radio Ceylon – so it was presumably this connection that saw Greet earning a secondary starring role in The Bridge on the River Kwai (the only Ceylonese to earn such credits?). Greet went on to perform a sterling role in Radio Ceylon before moving to Britain and becoming an actor in “plays, films and television comedy programmes such as The Infinite Worlds of HG Wells (2001), and Alice in Wonderland (1999) and most notably working with Victoria Wood on the sitcom Dinnerladies (1998).
THREE: Peradeniya as a Site of the Film and the Film-makers Ensemble
During World War II the British High Command in Asia under Lord Mountbatten was located at Peradeniya and some of its takaran buildings passed on to the University of Peradeniya when the latter was initiated in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Unsurprisingly, the David Lean production team deployed the surrounding landscape for scenarios presented in the film. Background scenes from the Peradeniya Gardens in the film are immediately recognizable to personnel from the region. Moreover, Gerald Peiris has indicated that his batch of Peradeniya undergraduates in 1957
“came to know that that the Upper Hantane Circuit Bungalow and the large building inside the Botanical Gardens overlooking its esplanade were used to shoot some of the scenes of the Allied officers of the ‘Southeast Asian High Command’, and, that, more interestingly, some of the Thai jungle scenes were shot in the forested’ depression between the Senate Building and Hilda Obeysekera Hall OH (OH = ‘Open Air Theatre’ which was yet to be constructed in the upper part of that locality).”
As significantly, Peiris has informed me that some of the David Lean production crew were housed in the newly built Marcus Fernando Hall at Peradeniya campus. As a result, “certain items like mirrors and beautiful table-lamps had been left behind by the Kwai crew” (email communication). These are mere snippets of information – not earth-shattering but nevertheless interesting.
This essay in Thuppahi, I add, is also a search-engine of sorts seeking reliable anecdotal data about the making of the film in Sri Lanka and/or its main locational sites: namely, Kitulgala, Peradeniya and Mount Lavinia Hotel in Colombo.