Samuel Perera’s Big Day

bridge-on-the-river-kwai

In the river below, the Sri Lankans bathe. Their idle chatter floats up above the susurration of the river tumbling over smooth slabs of rock. It is the dry season and the river is low. A small catamaran ferry takes its full load of a dozen standing passengers across. A man punts using a paddle. The catamaran turns and glides across the slow current.

A red clothed boy carries a drum across the wide shallow river moving from slab of rock to large boulder. The water eddies and swirls as he walks, by turns, ankle and waist deep. He joins several thin boys in dark blue trunks who crowd around a large rock in the middle of the river. Now, he sits among them and beats out a rhythm on his drum. Other boys wade out to join the group waving they arms for balance as they tentatively place their bare feet on the stony river bed until there are a dozen or so assembled on or around the boulder. They sing; the drum beats. Everywhere people chat, swim or wash – their bodies turning white with soap before a final dip uncovers the brown skin.

On the sandy bank, fully clothed young children wander in small groups awaiting their rite of passage and entry into the water alone in years to come. Mothers sit by large bags of clothes and picnic rice. A snake charmer, encircled by an audience gripped by fear and curiosity, waves a straw hat over two low flat baskets made from palm leaves. From each, a cobra sinuously rises moving their heads in time with the hat. In his other hand, he plays a reedy wooden flute. Suddenly, a third snake escapes from one basket and the crowd steps back with a collective gasp of fear. The charmer puts down his whistle or flute and with the lid of a basket hits the snake forcing it back into his basket.

Below the darkening clouds, there are bushes and trees with thin leaves in hues of green and yellow. They are still in the heavy air of the coming rains. On the river the drumming has intensified, more boys chant unintelligibly to its mesmeric beat. This will go on all afternoon. It is a typical Sunday on the river for the citizens of Kitugala.

Earlier that day, as we picked our way down a short but steep and uneven path towards the site of other bridge. Marjorie reminded me of the who-wrote-Beethoven’s-fifth moment years ago when she was in a pub-quiz team. The team had been asked what was the longest river in Thailand. As they conferred, a fellow colleague, Richard, said, ‘What was the name of the river in the bridge over the river Kwai?’ Everyone laughed, including Richard who realised his stupidity.

Still smiling at the memory, we came open a breeze-block ramshackle bungalow alone in the forest by the path. Out jumped a Sri Lankan wearing a grubby green and white shirt over an off white striped sarong. He thrust a computer printed picture of a scene from the film into our faces. His eyes gleamed with enthusiasm as he opened a dog-eared booklet the film. He pointed to a picture of Alec Guinness and William Holden with a small dark-skinned child in the background.

‘Me,’ he said proudly, ‘Jungle Boy. Years ago we made a big film here, and I was in the cast.’

I asked him his name.

‘Samuel Perera,’ he replied.

Samuel was still good looking. The nine-year-old Jungle Boy sixty years later has not a single grey hair in his jet black scalp. Alec Guinness-like his neat moustache is trimmed to resemble that of a senior British officer.

We all remember the sunny days of our youth and Samuel more so than many. He has documentary evidence to reinforce his memories. Samuel, like the soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 who were encouraged by Henry V:

‘Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day.’

had no scars just a tattered book and a computer printed photo, but he remembers, with advantages, the feats he did that day sixty years ago.

It must have been the most exciting event ever in Kitugala when the train whistled as it approached the bridge wired with explosives. David Lean had placed cameras strategically to capture the explosion. The train and carriages ran towards the bridge. The engine driver jumped clear just before the bridge and the train ran onto the bridge. Nothing happened! One English cameraman had his camera safety catch on. Quick thinking saved the day. They let the train cross the bridge and run into the sand beyond. It crashed overturning the engine and carriages, spilling hundreds of Japanese dummies out of the carriages.

For two days, working under the guidance of a local railway engineer with elephants and levers, they got the train and carriages back on the track.

When the re-run occurred, the English cameraman had been replaced by Ceylonese Willy Blake. This time it went to plan. It concluded one of the most dramatic and successful films ever and Major Clipton said his famous words about the futility of war: “Madness! Madness”.

After all that, the sound recordists never caught the explosion! David Lean exploded. After some searching, he used a 78 rpm vinyl recording of a train and dynamite explosions in a stone quarry. It was dubbed on to the film.

David Lean’s film won 8 Oscars and 27 international awards.

We move on through the jungle although the path is well trodden. Through a break in the trees, we see the magnificent location of the film below. There is no bridge there. Only a lump of concrete with acted as a footing for the wooden poles of the bridge remains. I drink in the splendour of the narrow valley and wide flat river with its smooth-washed boulders.

We return via a catenary bridge supported by three thick but rusty hawsers. A maximum of three people is allowed to cross the swaying construction at any one time. As Marjorie and I cross, four young Sri Lankans enter the bridge from the far side. A moment of panic. But the bridge is strong and we cross safely.

We sit in the hotel which acted as the office of the senior British commander in the film. The large open room is today decked with tables laid for lunch – white cloth, silvery knife, fork and spoon and an upturned tumbler mark each place. On a wall are grainy brown and white stills from the film released in 1957. The French windows made of squares of glass have not changed. The Kitugala Guest House relies on the fame created by the conflict between Alec Guinness (the British commander who built the bridge and wanted to protect it) and William Holden and Jack Hawkins (the American escapee and British commando who wanted to blow it up).

But there was another minor actor who had a role to play and we will not forget Samuel Perera.

I say to Marjorie, ‘Perhaps Richard’s question: “What was the name of the river in the bridge on the river Kwai?” was not so stupid, because the answer is the Kalani which flows through Kitugala down to Colombo!’

We laugh. It will be a good quiz question for a future winter evening in the pub.

I call the boy and order two cups of Ceylon tea. I’ll long remember Sunday 22 January 2017.

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