Thailand is a young country with an exceptional continuity of history and culture. It took shape after the fall of the Khmer Empire only over the last millennium. The Thai people have three primary loyalties: their Buddhist religion, their king, and the nation. The kingdom was known as Siam until 1939 when a constitutional government was established with the monarch as ceremonial ruler. This is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized by a foreign power. Buddhism was brought to Siam by priests from Ceylon (today Sri Lanka). Many of Thailand’s myths and legends have been adapted from the Hindu foundations of Buddhism. There is a Thai version of the Ramayana called Ramakien, which serves as a prototype for tales more directly linked to Thailand’s history.

The Legend of Suriyothai  (2001)

Francis Ford Coppola was Executive Producer of this Thai film. It’s an historical epic centering on Ayutthaya (A-YOU-tay-yah), spanning the years 1528-49. This is something like Thailand’s Trojan War. In the beginning, the beautiful young Princess Suriyothai is enamored of her childhood sweetheart named Piren. She is a willful young woman, but duty requires her to marry Prince Tien. She bears him children and comes to love him. Siam in this time is torn by political rivalries between its northern and southern kingdoms; also the threat of King Hongsa of Burma. The intrusion of the Portuguese, bringing military power and diseases, adds to a sense of insecurity. There is a great deal of palace intrigue, punctuated by pitched battles in the field. Things degenerate to the point where it appears that only Suriyothai’s peace-loving husband can unite the country, but he has entered a Buddhist monastery as a protection from assassination.

Suriyothai calls upon her old love, Lord Piren, to defeat both the internal forces and the Burmese king. The ideal of the Buddhist culture is peace, but the wars are bloody and full of gore. When the conflict seems most dire, Suriyothai enters the battle on an armored elephant. She is killed in the fighting. There is a solemn funeral where her body is burned while she is mourned by the two men in her life. King Hongsa continues the battle for another month, but his resources are exhausted and he must return to Burma in defeat. The beautiful Suriyothai, though strangely absent from most of the middle of the movie, has ascended to legend. This is a fine film for visuals, especially in the beginning. As often happens in these epics, the battle scenes become tiresome and begin to seem like the whole point of the movie.

The King Maker (2005) is also set in the time of Ayutthaya, but it is a more formulaic film of martial arts combat.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The only thing I knew of Thailand before I went there was the movie of the King and I (1956), which I quickly learned was not appreciated by the Thai people. They felt this Hollywood musical made their beloved King look backward and buffoonish. There was an earlier film version of this material, called Anna and the King of Siam (1946) based on a novel which was in turn inspired by the memoir from Anna Leonowens (say Leon-Owens). Rex Harrison played the King. The musical version, based on the Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway show, brought Yul Brynner an Academy Award. Thailand groaned at the perceived ridicule. To add to the insult, there was an animated version of The King and I made in 1999 with a cartoon king. An update of the nonmusical version was made, also in 1999, with Jodie Foster as Anna and Chinese actor Chow Yun-fat as the King. In all of these cases, the King was anxious to learn Western ways. He earnestly wished to lead his country out of its feudal mindset and into an embrace of 19th century modernity. A trip to the Grand Palace in Bangkok is like a visit to the movie set for The King and I.

Anna and the King of Siam  (1946)

Irene Dunn and Rex Harrison are featured in this first screen treatment of the experiences of the real-life Anna Leonowens in Siam (today Thailand).  For those who will find time to watch only the musical, I am including my full account of the earlier movie as background. For me, it serves as a parable for a reccurring theme in this website, civilization versus barbarism.

It is 1862 in Bangkok. The opening scenes of Anna’s arrival at the palace with her young son are fairly true to her memoir, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870). Harrison, in his film debut, is not much like the real Mongkut, but he does have the requisite tone of authority. The showdown over the matter of Anna having her own house is somewhat accurate, but the hint of chemistry between Anna and the King is pure romantic fantasy. Word comes that the French have annexed Cambodia. The Prime Minister (Lee J. Cobb!), has some doubts that the King can hold Siam together in the face of European colonial pressure, but the King feels it is his destiny to preserve his country’s sovereignty. Anna is now teaching the royal wives and children, and is impatient with the mercurial personality of the King. He relents and gives her a house, but she rejects it (not in the book). The Prime Minister pleads with Anna to help the King make the transition from the barbaric past to the modern world. She offers her services as secretary and translator, but the King rejects her. There is tension in the palace.

The King has received intelligence that the British government views him as a barbarian. Anna helps to plan a large dinner party for European dignitaries to prove that Siam is civilized. A young wife of the King escapes from the harem and is caught. Anna intervenes in objection to the girl’s torture. She accuses the King of vanity, capriciousness, and inhumanity, asserting he is indeed a barbarian, and always will be. He has the girl and her lover burned. Anna resigns her teaching post. The wives and children plead with her to stay.

Here is where the movie radically departs from the Leonowens book. The mother of the Prince (Linda Darnell) holds Anna accountable for not teaching the boy to be a gentle and civilized king. When Anna’s son is killed in a riding accident, she bonds with the Prince. Anna and the King are reconciled. She begs to stay and teach the children (the real Anna was in America by now). The years pass and the later 1860s see the introduction of many consulates in Bangkok. Word comes that the King is dying. She goes to him and he makes a long speech of gratitude and remorse. Then he dies. When the Prince takes the throne, he immediately announces the abolition of the need to fall to the ground in the presence of the monarch. As he speaks, he gazes adoringly at Anna and his mother. For its time, this is an interesting treatment of the culture clash documented in the Leonowens book.

Thailand’s compact history offers some cogent examples of how the Hollywood model of filmmaking distorts the historical record for its purposes. Overloading historical epics with pumped up special effects is one thing; providing real-life dramas with invented romance and pretty songs is another, but sometimes the distortions can be hurtful. If it is true that for many people around the world movies are the teachers of history, it may not be too much to suggest that filmmakers have an obligation to get it right.

From the Caravan Journals: February 2001. On a side trip to the northwest of Bangkok, we got a lesson on truth and fiction surrounding the building of the bridge over the River Kwai (Khwae Yai River). The highly successful 1957 movie was based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote The Planet Of Apes. Though he had actually been a prisoner of war and forced by the Japanese to work on the Thai-Burma Railway, he was an author more interested in a good story than in factuality.

Monument to the fictional bridge on the River Kwai

Monument to the fictional bridge on the River Kwai

Today there is an iron railroad bridge over the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, and it stands as a monument to the events depicted in the fictional book and movie. Tourists can lunch on a restaurant veranda overlooking the scene. Later, we traveled upriver to a place called “Hellfire Pass,” a far more fitting memorial to the over 100,000 prisoners that died in the building of the Death Railway in 1942-43.

In the rustic JEATH Museum at this site, we met an Australian curator who had an informational agenda. When asked if The Bridge on the River Kwai had a positive effect in creating awareness and sympathy for the mission of the museum (preserving the memory of this atrocity), the curator replied that the initial reaction of all those associated with the real events was that the film was deplorable rubbish – pure Hollywood fiction. He explained the many inaccuracies with heavy emphasis on the absurdity of the Brits taking charge of the bridge design and execution. More recently, he said, he has come to appreciate the public relations value of the film, and the opportunity it creates for him to set the record straight on the Japanese treatment of POWs (especially Australians) in the Death Railway. He walked us into the parking lot as he drove home these final points.

The Railway Man  (2013)

Based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax, who served as a British prisoner of war in Thailand during the building of the Thai–Burma Railway, this movie is meant to tell the real story. It opens romantically with Lomax meeting his future wife (Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman) on a train in England after the war. Following the marriage, Lomax is beset with horrific memories of his torture at the hands of the Japanese. With the help of his wife and a friend who also labored on the railway, he achieves redemption by traveling to Thailand and confronting the man who abused him. This is a British–Australian film project. Given the Australian complaints about the earlier River Kwai film, it was a surprise that this one featured only British prisoners and the exemplary fortitude of one British officer. Filming was done at Hellfire Pass, which stands as centerpiece for the drama. A special feature on the DVD includes interviews with Mr. and Mrs. Lomax as well as the actors and Australian director.

Modern Thailand

Bangkok is the cultural, financial, political, and royal hub of Thailand. It has long been known to world travelers as the site of the Grand Palace complex where Anna met the King, as well as the locale of innumerable Buddhist temples and shrines. Modern Bangkok, however, has a seamy reputation and it is reflected in films from or about Thailand. It can be hard to find any that are not driven by relentless sex and violence. Here are some sample views of contemporary Thailand from the inside and the outside.

Bangkok Dangerous – Thai Original Version (1999)

Butterfly Man (2002) – Thai-British

Elephant White (2011) – American action-thriller


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