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by Bamber Gascoigne

Pierre Boulle (1912-1994)


French writer whose best-known novels are Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï (1952, The Bridge over the River Kwai), a story of a foolish pride, and La Planète des singes (1963, Planet of the Apes), both of which were adapted into highly successful films. Several of Pierre Boulle's works deal more or less directly with his experiences in Southeast Asia. However, The Bridge Over the River Kwai and the movie based on it, are both fictitious and Boulle was never a prisoner of the Japanese. Like Graham Greene, he used the frame of an adventure, war or a spy story to study themes of false ideals and human destructiveness.

"As my gorilla walked past me again, having finished his rounds, I tried by every means to attract his attention. I tapped on the bars; I made sweeping gestures, pointing at my mouth, with the result that he condescended to resume the experiment. Then, at the first blast of the whistle, and well before he had waved the fruit, I started watering at the mouth, watering at the mouth in fury, in frenzy—I Ulysse Mérou, started watering at the mouth, as though my very life depended on it, such pleasure did I derive from showing him my intelligence." (from Planet of the Apes, translated by Xan Fielding, A Signet Book, 1964, p. 47)

Pierre Boulle was born in Avignon, the son of Eugène Boulle, a lawyer, and Thérèse (Seguin) Boulle. The family purchased an isolated country house, named L'Ilon, on the banks of the Rhône River in 1920. Boulle later recalled the place as the lost paradise of his childhood. "When I think of this period, I wonder," he said, "whether I had a normal chldhood or whether I was a special case." (Pierre Boulle by Lucille Frackman Becker, Twayne Publishers, 1996, p. 2)

Boulle's father died in 1927. He studied science at the Sorbonne and then entered the Ecole Supérieure d'Electricité de Paris. After graduating in 1933 and working then as an engineer, Boulle moved in 1938 to Malaysia, where he was employed as an overseer in a rubber plantation at 50 miles from Kuala Lumpur.

At the outbreak of World War II, Boulle enlisted with the French army in French Indochina. When German troops occupied France, Boulle joined the French resistance, de Gaulle's Free French mission in Singapore, where he received training as a spy and saboteur. He served as a secret agent under the name Peter John Rule, a Mauritius-born Englishman, and helped the resistance movement in China, Burma, and Indochina.

In 1943, Boulle was captured by the Vichy French loyalists on the Mekong River, and sentenced to "hard labor for life." Boulle was imprisoned first in Hanoi and later in Saigon. During his incarceration he managed to keep a diary. With the help of authorities at his prison in Saigon, he escaped in 1944, and rejoined British Special Forces. Boulle served until the end of the war in Calcutta, where he interpreted photographs of military targets in Thailand. Before returning to France, Boulle continued his work at the plantation in Malaysia; he also spent some time in the Cameroons. Feeling himself incapable of doing regular work, Boulle decided to try his hand as a writer. Back in Paris, sick with malaria and dysentry, Boulle lived first in a hotel in the Quartier Latin. In 1955 he moved to the apartment of his widowed sister. Boulle lived there until his death.

William Conrad (1950), Boulle's first novel, was a spy story set in wartime England. Its firsthand authenticity and ironic portrayal of the British national character earned critical praise. The title character is a Joseph Conrad-like Polish emigrant, who actually is a German agent. William Conrad was translated into English by Xan Fielding, a former British Special Operations Executive agent, who became Boulle's regular translator. After finishing the thinly autobiographical work, Le Sacrilège malais (1951, Sacrilege in Malaya), Boulle began writing The Bridge Over the River Kwai, which drew in part on his experiences as a prisoner of war. The novel was awarded the Prix Sainte-Beuve. "I didn't know the River Kwai before I wrote the book," he later said to his biographer, Lucille Becker. (Beyond the Epic: The Life & Films of David Lean by Gene D. Phillips, The University Press of Kentucky, 2006, p. 227)

Planet of the Apes was also a world-wide bestseller, but it owed less to the tradition of King Kong than Voltairean satires. The story, in which humankind is not the dominant species, was an ironic comment on the relationship between men and animals. It transferred the basic relationship between the Japanese soldiers and Allied prisoners – the repression of a weaker group by a stronger and its moral effect on both sides – into the distant future.

During his prolific career, Boulle wrote more than 30 novels and short stories. For his literary achievements, he was appointed officer of the Legion of Honor. His wartime heroism earned him the Croix de Guerre and a Medal of the Resistance. Boulle never married. In an interview he once said, that his favorite authors were Joseph Conrad and Edgar Allan Poe, and his chief relaxation fencing. Boulle died in Paris on January 30, 1994, at the age of 81.

In his works, Boulle combined a captivating story with a pessimistic view of human endeavors and absurdities. The author himself considered Planet of the Apes one of his lesser novels. Beginning as a story inside a story, set in the year 2500, it first introduces Jinn and Phyllis, a wealthy leisured couple traveling in space. They find a bottle floating through the void. Inside is a handwritten manuscript, which tells in the spirit of Gulliver's Travels about Ulysse Mérou, a French journalist. It is not a coincidence that he shares his name with the hero of Homer's Odyssey. Mérou lands on a planet orbiting the star Betelgeuze, and like Odysseus, he is taken prisoner on the journey. This time the captors are intelligent apes – humans have lost the power of language and thought.  Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans all have equal rights. Humans are exhibited in zoos used used as guinea pigs in laboratories. Some of the planet's scientists refuse to acknowledge, that an animal has a soul, while according to another view there is only a difference of degree between the mental processes of beasts and those of monkeys. Mérou speaks at a scientific congress and tells the astonished audience: "But first I should like to reveal this astounding truth to you: not only am I a rational creature, not only does a mind paradoxically inhabit this human body, but I come from a distant planet, from Earth, that Earth on which, by a whim of nature that has still to be explained, it is men who are the repositories of wisdom and reason." (Ibid., p. 84)

The book differs in many ways from Franklin J. Schaffner's film adaptation, starring Charlton Heston as the astronaut George Taylor. Technologically Boulle's ape society is more advanced than it is in the film, which is basically a Tarzan story turned upside down: ape is the king of the jungle, not man. When Boulle wanted to question our superiority over other animals, the film reveals in the climax the past and destroyed glory of humankind, symbolized by the ruined, half-buried remains of the Statue of Liberty. Boulle himself objected the ending, "I am definitely against it, from every point of view," he stated in a memo to the producer Arthur P. Jacobs. (Planet of the Apes: An Unofficial Companion by David Hofstede, ECW Press, 2001, p. 21) After Taylor has learned the truth about the planet, he cries: "Damn them all to hell!" In the book Mérou returns finally to Earth, and is received at the airport by a gorilla. 

The Bridge over the River Kwai depicted the true story of POW's from a Japanese Labor Camp, who are forced to build a bridge for the Japanese war effort. The grueling work becomes for the prisoners a means to find again their self-respect, but all their achievements in turn are just a ridiculous testament of the madness of war. Boulle's view of the British officers was satirical. Colonel Nicholson is the perfect example of the military snob. His character was modelled in part on the Vichy French colonel, who sentenced him to hard labor. Boulle also examined friendship between individual soldiers, both among captors and captives, created by the enterprise. As in Planet of the Apes, Boulle plays with the Darwinist theme of survival of the fittest. The victorious Japanese soldiers cooperate with their prisoners, who want to show their superiority through the construction work.

David Lean's sreen adaptation was mostly shot in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). At the insistence of the Hollywood producers, Boulle agreed to add a subplot involving a soldier of fortune (played by William Holden), who escapes from the camp, and returns with a small band of volunteers to blow up the bridge. The heroic ending differs from Boulle's novel, in which the bridge remains standing. In real life, the bridge was destroyed by Royal Air Force B-24 Liberator bombers, not by commandos as in the movie.

When Boulle met the screenwriter Carl Foreman and the producer Sam Spiegel in London, he said that he wanted to destroy the bridge but couldn't work out how. Lean also did not manage to blow it up on the first attempt, and he was not satisfied with the scene, which closes the picture, looking down on the shattered bridge and the wrecked train, and James Douglass saying, "Madness, madness." In one of its most memorable moments, the troops march into the camp whistling the First World War march Colonel Bogey. The song had been written by a British army officer, Kenneth J. Alford in 1916. It became a great hit, particularly after Mitch Miller & His Orchestera made their popular recording. Malcolm Arnold, who composed the score, was classically trained, also known for the music he wrote for such films as The Captain's Paradise (1953), Trapeze (1956), Island in the Sun (1957), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), and Tunes of Glory (1960).

The Bridge on the River Kwai was nominated for eight Academy Awards. For his great surprise, Boulle received an Oscar for the best screenplay, although he had written not one line of it. The real authors were Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, a blacklisted writer, who posthumously received the Academy Award in 1985. Sam Spiegel, the producer, had given the credit for the script to Boulle, because Columbia would not employ blacklisted writers. Spiegel had told him that it was his book on the screen, "that he had just put a few camera angles on it and what do you care?" (Carl Foreman, in David Lean: A Biography by Kevin Brownlow, 1996, p. 390) Moreover, Lean made up a story about Boulle and himself in Paris, to explain how a novelist, who did not have much film experience, could produce such a work. Boulle did not attend the ceremony, when the awards were presented at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Michael Wilson later adapted Planet of the Apes for the 1968 Franklin J. Schaffner film.

Boulle's later works include La Baleine des Malouines (1983, The Whale of the Victoria Cross), a story of a heroic blue whale, nicknamed "Auntie Margot", and naval warfare in the Falklands. In Le Photographe (1967, The Photographer) a former Algerian war veteran is obsessed by opportunity to take the ultimate picture, "a unique document", as he discovers that his friend wants to murder the President. Quia absurdum (1970, Because it is Absurd) was a collection of short stories. One of its tales, 'His Last Battle', told about Hitler, who lives with Eva Braun in the mountains of Peru. At the end he says to Martin Bormann, "The Jews, Bormann, the Jews – I have forgiven them." In Aux sources de la rivière Kwaï (1966, My Own River Kwai) Boulle returned to his war experiences in the Far East. L'Ilon (1990) was a book of childhood memories from the family's cottage of Ilon on the Rhône. The director Otto Preminger planned to film Les Voies du salut (1958, The Other Side of the Coin), about a wounded female guerrilla, and an American woman, the wife of a rubber plantation manager, who tries to reform her. The project was never realized, but Preminger casted Au Kar Wai, a 19-year-old Chinese star of Shaw Brothers films, to play the rebel.

For further reading: Planet of the Apes: The Complete History by Sean Egan (2021); The Making of Planet of the Apes by J.W. Rinzler; foreword by Fraser C. Heston (2018); Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, edited by Laura Miller (2016); Survivor on the River Kwai: The Incredible Story of Life on the Burma Railway by Reg Twigg (2013); The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai by Julie Summers (2006); Planet of the Apes: An Unofficial Companion by David Hofstede (2001); Pierre Boulle by Lucille Frackman Becker (1996); 'Boulle, Pierre (François Marie Louis,'  in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Pierre Boulle et son oeuvre by Paul-Emile Roy (1970). - See also: Lennart Meri, writer and film director, President of the Republic of Estonia, who translated Boulle's La Planète des singes into Estonian. - 'Planet of the Apes' films: original adaptation (1968), dir. by Franklin J. Schaffner, starring Charton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter - Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969), dir. by Ted Post, starring James Franciscus, Charlton Heston, Linda Harrison, Kim Hunter. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), dir. by Don Taylor, starring Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman, Natalie Trundy. William Windom. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), dir. by J. Lee Thompson, starring Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Natalie Trundy. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), dir. by J. Lee Thompson, starring Roddy McDowall, Claude Akins, Natalie Trundy, Lew Ayres, John Huston. - Also two tv series, one live-action (1974, 14 x 50 min. episodes) and one animated: Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975, 13 x 20 min. episodes). Four books, written by George Alec Effinger, based on the tv series: Man the Fugitive (1974), Escape to Tomorrow (1975), Journey into Terror (1975), Lord of the Apes (1976). Other films: Planet of the Apes (2001), dir. by Tim Burton, starring Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Kris Kristofferson; Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), dir. by Rupert Wyatt; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), dir. by Matt Reeves; War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), dir. by Matt Reeves.

Selected works:

  • William Conrad, 1950
    - Not the Glory (translated from the French by Xan Fielding, 1955) / William Conrad (translated by Xan Fielding; UK title)
  • Le Sacrilège malais, 1951
    - Sacrilege in Malaya (translated by Xan Fielding, 1959) / S.O.P.H.I.A. (New York, Vanguard Press, 1959)
  • Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, 1952
    - The Bridge Over the River Kwai (translated by Xan Fielding, 1954)
    - Kwaijoen silta (suom. Anna Louhivuori, 1958)
    - Filmed in 1957, directed by David Lean, starring Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa. British POWs in Burma are employed by the Japanese army to build a bridge, but at the same time British agents seek to destroy it - not to be mixed with Return from the River Kwai, and adventure movie, where an American pilot teams up with a British officer to try to prevent the Japanese taking prisoners of war back to Japan. This film was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen in 1988.
  • Contes de l'absurde, 1953
    - Time Out of Mind, and Other Stories (contains: The Man Who Picked Up Pins, short story; The Miracle, short story; The Perfect Robot, short story; The Enigmatic Saint, novelette; The Lunians, novelette; The Diabolical Weapon, short story; The Age of Wisdom, short story; The Man Who Hated Machines, novelette; Love and Gravity, short story; The Hallucination, short story; E = mc2, novelette; Time Out of Mind, novelette; translated by Xan Fielding and Elisabeth Abbott, 1966)
  • La Face, 1953
    - The Face of a Hero (translated from the French by Xan Fielding, 1956) / Saving Face (UK title)
  • Le Bourreau, 1954
    - The Executioner (tr. 1961) / The Chinese Executioner (UK title)
  • L'Épreuve des hommes blancs, 1955
    - The Test (translated by Xan Fielding, 1957) / White Man's Test (UK title)
  • E=MC2: récits, 1957
    - 'E=mc2', in Time Out Mind, and Other Stories (translated by Xan Fielding and Elisabeth Abbott, 1966)
  • Les Voies du salut, 1958
    - The Other Side of the Coin (translated from the French by Richard Howard, 1958)
    - Mitalin toinen puoli (suom. Anna Louhivuori, 1959)
  • Un métier de seigneur, 1960
    - A Noble Profession (translated from the French by Xan Fielding, 1960) / For a Noble Cause (UK title)
    - Herrasmiehen ammatti (suom. Anna Louhivuori, 1961)
  • La Planète des singes, 1963
    - Planet of the Apes (translated by Xan Fielding, 1963) / Monkey Planet (UK title)
    - Apinoiden planeetta (suom. Outi Nyytäjä, 1964)
    - Filmed in 1968, also several sequels. Franklin J. Schaffner's film reworked the time travel theme. Chalton Heston finds himself on a postholocaust Earth, in which intelligent apes examine him to discover whether he might be the 'missing link' in simian development. The key line in the film is: "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape." Basically, apes have taken the place of the Hollywood favorite villains - the Communists, Asians, and sexual minorities. Adapted by Rod Serling and the former blacklist victim Michael Wilson, shot in the national parks of Utah and Arizona. In Planet of the Apes (2001), directed by Tim Burton, humans struggle against apes, who are the dominant species of the planet. Click on the picture to buy the book!
  • Le Jardin de Kanashima, 1964
    - Garden on the Moon (translated by Xan Fielding, 1965)
  • Histoires charitables, 1965 (contains The Enigmatic Saint, The Man Who Picked Up Pins, The Tale of the Writer, The Diabolical Weapon, Countown, The Man Who Hated Machines)
  • Aux sources de la rivière Kwaï, 1966
    - My Own River Kwai (translated from the French by Xan Fielding, 1967) / The Source of the River Kwai (UK title)
  • Le Photographe, 1967
    - The Photographer (translated by Xan Fielding, 1968) / An Impartial Eye (UK title)
  • L'étrange croisade de l'empereur Frédéric II ..., 1968
  • Quia absurdum (sur la terre comme au ciel), 1970
    - Because It Is Absurd (On Earth as in Heaven) (translated by Elisabeth Abbott, 1971)
  • Les Jeux de l'esprit, 1971
    - Desperate Games (translated by Patricia Wolf, 1973)
  • Les Oreilles de jungle, 1972
    - Ears of the Jungle (translated by Michael Dobry and Lynda Cole, 1972)
  • Les Vertus de l'enfer, 1974
  • - The Virtues of Hell (translated by Patricia Wolf, 1974)
  • Histoires perfides, 1976
    - Marvelous Palace and Other Stories (translated by Margaret Giovanelli, 1977)
  • Le Bon Léviatan, 1978
    - The Good Leviathan (translated by Margaret Giovanelli, 1978)
  • Les Coulisses du ciel, 1979
    - Trouble in Paradise (translated by Patricia Wolf, 1985)
  • Miroitements, 1982
    - Mirrors of the Sun (translated by Patricia Wolf, 1986)
  • La Baleine des Malouines, 1983
    - The Whale of the Victoria Cross (translated from the French by Patricia Wolf, 1983) / The Falklands Whale (UK title)
  • Pour l'amour de l'art, 1985 [For Love of Art]
  • L'univers ondoyant: essai, 1987
  • Le Professeur Mortimer, 1988
  • Le malheur des uns--: roman, 1990
  • L'Ilon: souvenirs, 1990
  • À nous deux Satan, 1992
  • Étrange planète, 1998 (postface de Jacques Goimard)
  • L'Archéologue et le mystère de Néfertiti, 2005
  • L'enlèvement de l'obélisque: nouvelles étranges, 2007

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