The Daily Telegraph - Review
The witty recluse behind a billion-dollar franchise
As the latest ‘Planet of the Apes’ film is released, Tim Martin tells the unlikely story of the wartime spy-turned-satirist who wrote the original novel
This summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes, in which a hyper-intelligent chimp (Andy Serkis) squares up to a human general ( Woody Harrelson) for the future of a dystopian Earth, will be the eighth film in a 40-year franchise that also includes two television series, numerous comics, several video games and, lurking somewhere towards the bottom, the book that started it all. Its reclusive French author, Pierre Boulle, who was fond of the paradoxical and absurd, might well have been amused to see his novel from 1963 drowned out by half a century of talking monkeys. He once told a story about his other famous book, which had been filmed by David Lean in 1957 to the infectious whistling soundtrack of the Colonel Bogey March. When he told people that he’d written The Bridge on the River Kwai, they replied: “Oh! You’re a musician!”
Like many men of his generation, Boulle was all set for an anonymous life until the war came along. The son of a lawyer, he grew up in a chateau on the banks of the Rhone, where, as he later recalled in a memoir, L’îlon, he spent a wild childhood hunting, fishing and listening to tall tales about the First World War from Provençal countrymen.
He studied science and engineering in Paris, then worked without much enthusiasm as an electrical engineer in ClermontFerrand for a few years. In 1936, aged 24, he learned that the Societé Financière des Caoutchoucs, a rubber manufacturer, was seeking an electrical engineer to cover its Malayan plantations. He was on the next boat.
Later, writing The Bridge on the River Kwai, he would create a character called Joyce who leaves a dull draftsman’s job – “two dozen chaps of the same age sitting all day long over their drawing boards in a communal workroom” – for an exciting, if doomed, career as a commando.
Another character observes that he “welcomed the war as the chance of his lifetime”, which was certainly Boulle’s own experience. When war broke out in 1939, he was called up and posted to the colony of French Indo-China, going first to Saigon and then to the military training centre at My Tho, where he helped to train local peasants for combat. France surrendered the following year, and in 1941 the Vichy government ceded control of Indo-China to Japan but continued to collaborate with the regime.
Boulle, a Gaullist, escaped to Singapore, where he resolved to become a spy and help to disrupt Japanese influence in Vietnam. British special forces soldiers taught him the basics of parachute jumps, infiltration and commando warfare: “Solemn gentlemen methodically instructed us,” he wrote, “in the art of blowing up a bridge, fixing an explosive charge to the side of a ship, derailing a train and also putting paid to an enemy sentry as silently as possible. This last point seemed to prey on the mind of one of the instructors, as though the technique had not yet been perfected.”
Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Singapore made it impossible to run operations into China from there, so Boulle decided to disguise himself as an Englishman and cross the Chinese border instead. When he got to Rangoon, lacking the appropriate travel documents, he found the person in charge of delivering the British consul’s new Buick to Kunming, an Allied military command centre, and offered to drive it.
In January 1942, equipped with a British passport in the new name of Peter John Rule, and undaunted by his poor command of English, he “sallied forth on the conquest of Indo-China with a revolver in my pocket, and at the wheel of a motor car which would not have been out of place on the Riviera”.
“The memory of that moment,” he wrote, “was to console me for many a subsequent disappointment”. Many setbacks followed. Still using his cover as an Englishman, Boulle set out for China’s border with Vietnam, where he spent several frustrating months trying to contact Free French troops on the other side.
Eventually, he decided that the only way would be to descend the Mekong River on a home-made raft. Taking with him a list of the bridges and engineering works on
Boulle entered Indo-China on the Mekong River using a home-made raft