Born Pierre Francois Marie-Louis Boulle in Avignon, Vaucluse, France, he trained as an engineer. From 1936 to 1939 he worked as a technician on British rubber plantations in Malaysia. At the outbreak of World War II, he served with the French army in French Indochina and after German troops occupied France, Boulle joined the Free French Mission in Singapore.
He 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. As a prisoner, he was subjected to severe hardship and forced labor. He was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and received a War Cross, and a Medal of the Resistance.
For a while after the war, he returned to work in the rubber industry but moved back to Paris and began to write. Using his experiences in the war, he wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai which became a multi-million worldwide bestseller, winning the French "Prix Ste Beuve". The book was a dramatization of the plight of Allied POWs forced to build a 258-mile railway which became known as the "Death Railway" that passed over the bridge. Thousands of prisoners died during construction of the railway line. David Lean made Boulle's story into a motion picture that won several Academy Awards including the 1957 Academy Award for Best Picture.
In 1963, following several other reasonably successful novels, Pierre Boulle wrote his other famous novel; it was first published in France as La Planète des Singes, and a year later an English translation was published in Great Britain as Monkey Planet, which later became Planet of the Apes. In 1968, the story was made into another Academy Award winning movie, starring Charlton Heston.