Today in Literary History – January 30, 1994 – author and spy Pierre Boulle dies

Pierre Boulle, the French novelist and wartime secret agent died in Paris on January 30, 1994 at the age of eighty-one. Boulle was best known in the English language world for two of his books which became bestsellers in translation and were made into award-winning movies: The Bridge On the River Kwai and Planet of the Apes.

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Seeking adventure, Boulle moved to Malaya as a young man to work as an electrical engineer on a rubber plantation. When the Second World War broke out Boulle was called up and posted to French Indochina where he trained Vietnamese peasants in combat techniques.

In 1941 France fell to the Germans and the collaborationist Vichy government was installed. For Boulle this meant that the Vichy forces turned control of Indochina over to the Japanese. Boulle escaped to Singapore and became a spy for the Free French Forces in China, Burma and Indochina.

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In 1943 Boulle was captured in the Mekong Delta by the Japanese. He and other Allied POWs were put to hard labour building a railroad bridge. In 1952 Boulle turned his wartime experiences into a bestselling novel, Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï ( The Bridge over the River Kwai).

The 1957 film version by David Lean won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Since this was the era of Blacklisting in Hollywood, the real scriptwriters  (Communist sympathizers) were not credited and Boulle was listed instead. He won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, despite not having done any work on the script and not even being able to speak English.

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Another of his novels, the science fiction based La planète des singes (Planet of the Apes) was also a bestseller and was turned into the famous 1968 movie that spawned a successful and lucrative franchise.

Boulle had a long career as a novelist and essayist and was respected as a war hero, being made a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur and receiving the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance.

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