23 January, 2009
Pierre Boulle was a French novelist largely known for two famous works, The Bridge over the River Kwai (1952) and Planet of the Apes (1963).
Born Pierre-François-Marie-Louis Boulle in Avignon, France, Boulle was baptised and raised a Roman Catholic, although later in life he would be agnostic. He studied and later became an engineer. Then, from 1936 to 1939, he worked as a technician on British rubber plantations in Malaya. While there he met a Frenchwoman who was separated from her husband. She was to become the love of his life whom he would write tender love letters. She later chose to return to her husband, a French official. During World War II she and her husband escaped into Malaysia and one of her children died in the process. Boulle would later meet her after the war on a platonic basis.
At the outbreak of World War II, Boulle enlisted with the French army in French Indochina. After German troops occupied France, he joined the Free French Mission in Singapore. During the war he was a supporter of Charles de Gaulle.
Boulle served as a secret agent under the name Peter John Rule and helped the resistance movement in China, Burma, and French Indochina. In 1943, he was captured by the Vichy France loyalists on the Mekong River and was subjected to severe hardship and forced labour. He was later made a chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur and decorated with the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. He described his experiences in the war in the non-fiction My Own River Kwai (1967). After the war he would keep in touch with his war comrades for the rest of his life.
For a while after the war, Boulle returned to work in the rubber industry, but in 1949  he moved back to Paris and began to write. While in Paris, too poor to afford his own flat, he lived in a hotel until his recently widowed sister Madeleine allowed him to move into her large apartment. She had a daughter whom Pierre helped raise, but plans for him to officially adopt the girl never materialized. He could never bring himself to leave this family and form another one.
While in Paris, Boulle used his war experiences in writing Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï (1952; The Bridge over the River Kwai), which became a multi-million-copy worldwide bestseller, winning the French "Prix Sainte-Beuve". The book was a semi-fictional story based on the real plight of Allied POWs forced to build a 415-km (258-mile) railway that passed over the bridge, and which became known as the "Death Railway". 16,000 prisoners and 100,000 Asian conscripts died during construction of the line. His character of Lt-Col. Nicholson was not based on the real Allied senior officer at the Kwai bridges, Philip Toosey, but was reportedly an amalgam of his memories of collaborating French officers.
David Lean made The Bridge over the River Kwai into a motion picture that won several 1957 Oscars, including the Best Picture, and Best Actor for Alec Guinness. Boulle himself won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay despite not having written the screenplay and, by his own admission, not even speaking English. (He gave what is said to be the shortest acceptance speech in Academy Award history, the single word "Merci".) Boulle had been credited with the screenplay because the film's actual writers, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, had been blacklisted as communist sympathizers. Pierre Boulle was neither a Socialist nor a Communist. The Motion Picture Academy added Foreman's and Wilson's names to the award in 1984.
In 1963, following several other reasonably successful novels, Pierre Boulle published his other famous novel, Planet of the Apes. The novel was highly praised and given such review's as this example from England's Guardian newspaper; "Classic science fiction...full of suspense and satirical intelligence." In the year 2500 a group of astronauts, including journalist Ulysse Merou, voyage to a planet in the star system of Betelguese. They land to discover a bizarre world where intelligent apes are the Master Race and humans are reduced to savages: caged in zoos, used in laboratory experiments and hunted for sport. The story of Ulysse's capture, his struggle to survive, and the shattering climax as he uncovers the horrific truth about the 'planet of the apes' is gripping and fantastic. Yet the novel is also a wry parable on science, evolution and the relationship between man and animal. In 1968 this story was made into an Oscar-winning film, starring Charlton Heston, which inspired four sequels, one television series, an animated series and a 2001 remake of the original title by Tim Burton. The film series have become cult classics with movie goers throughout the world. Pierre Boulle believed his novel could not be made into a film, yet he was taken completely by surprise by the success and impact of the film throughout the world. He wrote a sequel script for the film titled Planet of the Men. The producers of the original film turned his script down and named the second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. This sequel, which was released in 1970, was also very successful. This film was followed by Escape from the Planet of the Apes in 1971. Then came Conquest of the Planet of the Apes in 1972. The last of the sequels was Battle for the Planet of the Apes in 1973. In September 1973 the original Planet of the Apes film was first aired on network television. The marketing of toys and other products relating to the film series skyrocketed at this time creating an 'Apemania' craze. In June 1974, Marvel comics also released a magazine based on the novel and film called Planet of the Apes. By September 1974 Planet of the Apes had become a television series. In 1975 an animated Return to the Planet of the Apes series was shown on television.
A few months before Boulle's death, a woman who was a former editor visited him and his family in hospital, and revealed to Boulle's family that she had once been his lover. Years before there were rumours that Pierre Boulle was seeing a French actress.
He had never married, due in large part to the fact that he had decided to take care of his sister and raise his niece as his own daughter.
Pierre Boulle died in Paris, France on 30 January 1994, at age 82.