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Roads Not Taken

Malcolm Arnold
Malcolm Arnold

Malcolm Arnold’s music for David Lean’s 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai earned him an Oscar, but he described composing it as one of the worst jobs he’d ever had.

He had only ten days to write thirty-five minutes of music for an enormous orchestra that included three marimbas, a large section of untuned percussion, and a military band. He wrote through the night as couriers waited to carry the score to the copyists. “It gave all the people working on it a very great headache,” Arnold recalled, adding that he was “lucky to be alive the way I had to work on the film, but I did it because I liked the picture.”

David Lean left the musical decisions up to Arnold, and the result pleased the director immensely. In a letter to Arnold he wrote that Arnold’s score brought him the only moment when he looked at his own work and thought, “that is really good.”

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The triumph was bittersweet for Arnold, though, largely because of three minutes of music that he did not write. Arnold set the jaunty Colonel Bogey March, written by Kenneth Alford in 1914, against his own River Kwai March, leading to some confusion as to what was Arnold’s and what was not.

Another annoyance for Arnold came when the marching and whistling on the screen failed to match the studio recording Arnold entrusted to the film editors.

When David Lean suggested another collaboration that would include Arnold, William Walton, and composer Aram Khachaturian, Arnold and Walton sat down to view the film after a liquor-laden lunch and found it laughable and overloaded with camels. They turned it down, and Maurice Jarre won an Oscar for writing the score for what proved a blockbuster, Lawrence of Arabia.

Arnold never saw David Lean again and went on to turn down two Stanley Kubrick films that became classics–Dr. Strangelove and 2001, A Space Odyssey.

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