The Quiet American (films), 1959 and 2002

Movie posters, 1958, 2002

1959 movie directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

2002 movie directed by Philip Noyce

There’s a story behind Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1959 screen adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel. It’s a story with political overtones and it’s not entirely clear what role politics played when Mankiewicz surgically depoliticized the novel. At the center of the  artistic intervention intrigue is Edward Lansdale, the real-life Air Force major general and C.I.A. operative most prominently associated with American military and espionage intervention in Southeast Asia. Greene denies modeling the quiet American Alden Pyle on Lansdale; but both the real Lansdale and the fictional Pyle walked a small black dog on the streets of Saigon in 1952, when Greene himself served as a foreign correspondent. Both Lansdale and Pyle had a consuming interest in keeping Southeast Asia free of Communism at all costs.

Director Mankiewicz met Lansdale in Saigon and it’s known that Lansdale advised the filmmaker when he was adapting Greene’s novel for the screen, boldly flipping an essentially anti-American novel into a pro-American film. In the transformation process, the novel’s Alden Pyle lost his name (He was simply called The American in the film.) Pyle not only lost his name; he lost his savvy East Coast upbringing, his Ivy League education and his job as economic adviser (cum C.I.A. agent) in the U.S. mission.

Portrayed by the World War II hero Audie Murphy, The American of the film is a Texan who works for a foundation. He’s more of a Gomer Pyle than an Alden Pyle: a do-gooder who says ” Oh, golly.” It seems his main occupation in Saigon is to make Phuong more American. Moviegoers may wonder if the Boy Scout was secretly a cowboy James Bond but there’s no way of knowing. Curious minds also want to know if Mankiewicz defanged his movie for political purposes, or merely to sell tickets?

The 2002 version of the film astutely casts Michael Caine in the role of Thomas Fowler although there were fewer accolades for the casting of Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle (Pyle gets his name back). Caine was nominated for Best Actor in the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA.

Critics agreed that the 2002 film was better written — without help from the C.I.A., — and better directed by the Australian Philip Noyce, who closely follows Graham Greene’s celebrated story line.

 

Sex in Singapore! – Saint Jack (Part 2)

Saint Jack by Paul Theroux, book cover, 1973; film poster, 1979

The peripatetic world-traveler Paul Theroux has observed that in the world’s oldest and greatest port cities, brothels were always conveniently located. In Singapore, Southeast Asia’s premier port, a classic Asian massage parlor and brothel might be tucked away in a tiled-roof suburban mansion.

Jack Flowers, the back-alley pimp and shore-to-ship procurer, notes that Singapore in the 1960s was very old, “not in years but in attitude.” Unlike other world ports teeming with sexually famished seamen, “the completely Chinese flavor of vice in Singapore made it attractive to a curious outsider, at the same time removing him from guilt and doubt, for its queer differences made it a respectable diversion…”

In the early 1970s, America was pulling out of Vietnam (pun intended) while at home Americans were engrossed in a sexual awakening that produced a proliferation of sexually explicit men’s magazines, women’s literature, and socially accepted pornographic movies.

Published in 1973, Saint Jack gave readers around the world an insider’s look into Asian prostitution. The book and the 1979 film directed by Peter Bogdanovich provided far more revealing glimpses than “The World of Suzie Wong,” the 1960 film directed by Richard Quine.

Theroux’s descriptions can be visceral, as when he describes a room reserved for commercial trysts: “As in all brothel rooms, a carnal aroma hung in the air, as fundamental as sweat, the exposed odor from the body’s most private seams.”

Jack Flowers’ debut in debauchery begins in 1959, the same year Harry Lee becomes prime minister of Singapore in all its squalor. In Flowers’ view, prostitutes enlivened the port city. “…(N)oiseless and glittering and narrow as snakes, they looked like anyone’s idea of the Asian concubine.” The look was a mask depicting the client’s sexual ideal” just as white shoes marked Flowers as a pimp. He suggests that colorful silk dresses gave cold quick girls “an accidental allure, titillating by flouncy mystification…”

Other men sold ordinary souvenirs, Flowers sold what he called “the ultimate souvenir – the experience, in the flesh, of fantasy.” Flowers never stated a price for his introduction service but he was not, he said, a pimp with a heart of gold. As a sideline of his sideline, he sold pornographic photos and decks of cards from his back pocket.

Flowers says the girls he peddled were “practical and businesslike, obsessed with their health… and they treated their tasks as if they were a medical treatment or minor surgery.” “Many of the girls were modest in a conventional way, which even as a pretense, was compellingly sexy in a whore.” Their friend and protector would never say they were kindly and cheerful but he praised them, saying “they understood their cues and were dependable” as well as obedient and useful. “They believed in ghosts and had a horror of hair and kissing and stinks and dirt, and complained we smelled like cheese.”

“Some didn’t feel a thing, but just lay there, sacrificed and spread, and might say, ‘You are finished, yes?’ before a feller had hardly started.” Most did their job convincingly without having the slightest interest in it, he says. Indeed they had “the genius for being remote at the time of greatest intimacy.” They could be sensationally foul-mouthed in English, but spoke softly in polite Chinese among themselves.

Sharing inside information gleaned from running a wang-house, Flowers catalogues how American men differed from other customers: “The Chinese clients, of whom I had several, liked the big-boned Australian girls; Germans were fond of Tamils, and the English fellers liked anything young, but preferred their girls boyish and their women mannish. … The Americans liked clean sporty ones, to whom they would give nicknames, like ‘Skeezix’ and ‘Pussycat’ (the English made an effort to learn the girl’s real name). Americans, he says, “also went in for a lot of hugging in the taxi, smooching and kidding around, and sort of stumbling down the sidewalk, gripping the girl hard and saying ‘Aw, honey, whoddle ah do?'” When they leave town, Americans write letters back to their girls who can’t read them.

Flowers observes that Chinese customers plunged into it “with hare-like speed” and treated their visit to a cathouse as casually as one might pop out for a hamburger; Europeans considered the whorehouse experience as a kind of therapy. and Americans saw it as part of their education.

The year it came to power, the new People’s Action Party began raiding massage parlors, presaging the moralistic puritanical regime that would transform Singapore in a thousand ways. Hardly anything is left of Saint Jack’s Singapore. It’s a safe bet there aren’t any Americans pimping girls and selling pornography in the canyons of gleaming high-rise hotels and multinational headquarters. Singapore has the Internet now.

The movie Saint Jack differs in many ways from the book. It’s set in a present-day Singapore with a lingering cloak of its colonial past. The likable, easygoing Ben Gazzara stars as Jack, who’s now an Italian-American from Buffalo. Bogdanovich, the film’s director, cast himself as a latter-day version of the original Edwin Shuck. Theroux earned a co-writer credit for the screenplay. Roger Corman is credited as producer and  Playboy‘s Hugh Hefner as executive producer. The movie was filmed in Singapore and banned in Singapore. Watch it online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxbfzGRVwiA

 

Good Morning Vietnam, directed by Barry Levinson, 1987

Movie poster, 1987; book cover, 2018

There’s a big new biography of Robin Williams, the always (it seemed) hilarious improv comedian, TV and film star who was sadly, a tortured soul. I’m not reviewing the well received book Robin by Dave Itzkoff, and I’m not recounting Williams’s meteoric rise from improvising TV’s Mork from Ork through two dozen Hollywood films including an Oscar win as Best Supporting Actor for “Good Will Hunting.”

Here at the Ugly American Book Club we are reminiscing about Williams’s star turn as Armed Forces Radio broadcaster Adrian Cronauer in the 1987 movie “Good Morning Vietnam.” Just stringing those three words together echoes the ebullient wake-up yell of Saigon’s most memorable morning disc jockey.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3m

As New York Times film critic Vincent Canby observed, the Cronauer character’s irrepressible sunniness filled Saigon’s airwaves at a time when the reality of the escalating war in Vietnam was becoming increasingly grim. As portrayed by Williams, the disk jockey’s irreverent, iconoclastic, antiestablishment monologues proved to be a daily tonic for ordinary G.I.s ground down by military regulations.

Williams improvised a good deal of his disk jockey banter to the delight of director Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz. Markowitz himself apparently improvised the script “based loosely” on the real AFRN disk jockey. The result was nothing short of a tour de force performance by Williams.

The set-up of the plot is initially predictable. Airman Cronauer settles in at a U.S. Army radio station following a much cushier stint at a military base in Crete. Mindful that there’s a war on, Cronauer’s superior officers insist that the fast-talking, wisecracking Cronauer stick to the soothing music of Perry Como and Percy Faith. Knowing what G.I.s want, Cronauer crosses the line and launches a musical frontal assault against established military policy by throwing red meat rock’n’roll at his audience and serving up a potluck of potty-mouthed humor. His on-air vocal impressions of Nixon and Johnson, along with a cast of made-up on-air persona, mocked U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.

When his sidekick Ed Garlick takes him to a bar, Cronauer falls for Trinh, a Vietnamese woman in a white ao dai. Although fraternization with local women is taboo, the music-spinning miscreant buys a bicycle and follows Trinh to her English-language lesson. In an effort to impress her, he takes over the class and runs Vietnamese students through a gamut of English obscenities. When he invites Trinh to the movies on a date, her whole family chaperones her. Later when G.I.s in a bar harass her brother Tuan, Cronauer springs to his defense. An ensuing barfight lands Cronauer in hot water. To this point, our reckless the G.I. D.J. is a hero, at least to his buddies.

In 1965, Saigon’s cafes were soft targets for Viet Cong terrorists. One day Tuan comes to collect Cronauer from Jimmy Wah’s Bar. Moments after they leave together, the bar explodes, killing and wounding bar patrons and passersby on the street. Cronauer assists the rescue by carrying out the injured. But when he gets back to base and attempts to describe the terrorist bombing on the air, his Army bosses pull the plug on his report and sideline him from further broadcasts.

Cronauer is laying low at his girlfriend’s house when she breaks the news that any future relationship between them is impossible because of her family’s objections to a friendship with an American.

When Cronauer and Garlick drive to An Loc, about 60 miles north of Saigon, to do some interviews, their Jeep hits a landmine. They escape injury and flee into the jungle in Viet Cong-held territory. It is Trinh’s brother Tuan who finds them in the jungle. An Army helicopter locates them and brings them back to Saigon. When Cronauer threatens to quit, Garlick convinces him to stick with it, and when they are stuck in a traffic jam, G.I.s heading to battle recognize him, reinforcing for him the unique role he plays as an on-air cheerleader and morale-booster for the troops.

Cronauer is faced with another personal crisis when his C.O. informs him that Tuan is a Viet Cong operative. Cronauer finds it hard to believe because Tuan has saved his life on two occasions. When the American D.J.’s friendship with Tuan and other Vietnamese becomes an issue, he is ordered to leave Vietnam. He can’t leave without seeing Trinh, and though it may be treasonous, he feels it’s his duty to inform Tuan that U.S. Army counterterrorist agents are after him. So is Cronauer a hero or a chump?

When Cronauer confronts Tuan, the enemy agent, an amusing, thought-provoking movie starring a comedic genius is set for a tragic ending. But there’s comic relief when the screenwriter tosses in a good ol’ American baseball game where Cronauer gets to play with his “good Vietnamese” English students. His buddy Garlick also finds a way for Cronauer, who has been banned from the airwaves, to bid his radio audience farewell. Gooooodbye Viii-et-naaam!

The Ugly American (film) – directed by George Englund

 

The Ugly American directed by George Englund

Universal International, 1963

Seen on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRC2E46fFs0

Moviegoers who flocked to the screen adaptation of The Ugly American in 1963 were familiar with the best-selling novel’s celebrated cause, calling out American diplomats and aid workers for their ineffectiveness in the face of Communist aggression. If they’d read the book, they were probably as pleasantly surprised as I was to find that screenwriter Stewart Stern had turned clunky journalistic chapters into an action movie that still had a bit of whistleblower’s outrage. Rather than overload filmgoers with background as Lederer and Burdick had done to armchair readers, director Arthur Hill skimped on details, leaving critics and many viewers in the dark about the politics behind the action.

Variety put it this way: “Some of the ambiguities, hypocrisies and perplexities of Cold War politics are observed, dramatized and, to a degree, analyzed in The Ugly American. It is a thought-provoking but uneven screen translation taken from, but not in a literal sense based upon, the popular novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick.”

After seeing the movie, Burdick wrote a newspaper column noting that the movie possessed “only the most passing resemblance” to his bestseller. But the professor conceded the movie was in many ways better than the book, crediting the filmmakers with doing a fine job of fleshing out the characters and creating drama without diluting the book’s political impact.

In his first post-“Mutiny on the Bounty” role, Marlon Brando stars as Ambassador Harrison MacWhite (rebranded from the original Gilbert MacWhite). Brando arrives in Sarkhan with a pencil-thin mustache, looking every bit as macho as Clark Gable. He’s no bumbling Lou Sears. He’s a savvy scholar who’s got wise-ass answers for everything, and in the movie version, he’s no newcomer to Sarkhan. Highjacking the backstory of another character in the source material, MacWhite was an O.S.S. officer who parachuted into Sarkhan during a secret mission in 1943. Back then he teamed up with a Sarkhanese named Deong to help liberate the country from Japanese occupation. Now as the new ambassador MacWhite wants to brush up on his Sarkhanese language skills and rekindle his friendship with Deong after a ten-year absence. As in the book, Deong has changed a lot since the Old Days. He is critical of American imperialism and spouts Communist ideology.

MacWhite is perceptive and well-meaning but blinded by naivete and stymied by pig-headedness. This keeps him from seeing and understanding what the Sarkhanese people really want and need. Homer Atkins is back, played by Pat Hingle, who later played the Commissioner in “Batman” movies. Living as he does in the boondocks, Atkins understands that the military highway MacWhite insists on completing is the wrong project at the wrong time.

When tensions explode in ugly, violent and realistically frightening riots, MacWhite begins to comprehend that America’s goals are not Sarkhan’s goals. He observes: “We can’t hope to win the Cold War unless we remember what we’re for, as well as what we’re against.”

 

 

 

Crazy Rich Asians – (book and film)

Crazy Rich Asians (novel) by Kevin Kwan, 2013 

Crazy Rich Asians (film) directed by Jon M. Chu, SK Global, 2018

I was no stranger to Singapore’s perks and quirks when I first heard of Kevin Kwan’s hilarious novel. I learned about the book from a friend who like me, had lived in Singapore in the 1980s and returned decades later to gawk at the Disneyesque additions to the island city-state.

In Singapore, I worked with 40 Singaporean journalists in a no-frills newsroom that resembled a factory floor. My coworkers were earnest, down-to-earth intellectuals, who slaved away at their desks while dreaming about getting away from Singapore on holiday. We had a couple of crazies in the newsroom but I doubt that any of my coworkers were crazy rich.

Author Kevin Kwan is an American citizen as well as a Singaporean. His engineer father relocated the family to Houston when he was a boy. Singapore apparently wants him back to serve the compulsory military service stint he has not served. Facing possible legal jeopardy, Kwan did not attend the Singapore premiere of the film.

Kwan’s first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, gives outsiders an amusingly encyclopedic insider’s look at the Republic of Singapore, a buckled-down single-party state smaller than New York City. While spinning a soap-opera love story, Kwan’s spot-on narrative tackles such topics as the richness of Singaporean cuisine, the challenge of adhering to ancient Chinese tradition in the 21st Century, and the fine art of cursing in surreptitiously spoken Chinese dialects.

At two hours’ running time, the movie can’t touch the book’s ability to serve up delicious detail about food and foibles, families and friendships.

CRA is primarily about Singaporeans, Americans are conspicuous by comparison. The movie’s rom-com plot hinges on whether a quintessentially American girl will be accepted by her Chinese Singaporean boyfriend’s ultra-rich social circle. Unlike Chinese Singaporeans, whose worldview is Confucian and class-conscious, the Chinese American interloper and potential wife (Oh my God!) embodies the openness and disdain for class distinction that most of the world admires in Americans.

Rachel Chu is no Ugly American.  I believe the author and the film’s director made a conscious effort to show Rachel as a natural beauty, confident and capable in her own skin. Early on, she is dining in a cafe with her Singaporean boyfriend Nicholas Young in New York City. The two are casual, carefree and spontaneous. With eyes only for each other, the cool couple is unaware that gossip-hungry Singaporeans have spotted them in a cafe and outed them in social media posts. When Rachel agrees to join Nick at a wedding in Singapore, she has no idea that her boyfriend’s uppity family has been tipped off about their relationship, and no idea that they’re so unlike Nick. They’re frighteningly stiff, extremely formal and tightly culture-bound.

Inside the palatial villas of the Young Family, Rachel is a Cinderella surrounded by ugly stepsisters – her boyfriend’s cousins and friends -who are not ugly but outwardly gorgeous. A wag at a posh party observes that Rachel is the odd-woman out in that she hasn’t had plastic surgery. Among wealthy Asians, eye jobs and boob jobs are as common as BMWs and Benzes. In one scene at a bachelorette party on a private resort island, Rachel reveals how un-Singaporean she is when she’s reluctant to join the rich but opportunistic women invited by their host to scoop up designer clothes and accessories for free!

Commenting on NPR, the Malaysian Chinese author Tash Aw put it this way: “Rachel’s squeaky-clean naivete is a clever foil to the intricate workings of the high-glamour Asian set around her. Chinese on the outside but all-American on the inside, she allows us to see the myriad nuances of intra-Asian culture that the novel goes to great lengths to show.”

Rachel is an economics professor at NYU. By Singaporean standards, Economics is a perfectly respectable field of academia, except that trickster Kwan has made Rachel a teacher of Game Theory. Being a Professor of Game Theory strikes conservative Chinese as an inconsequential and very American calling. I checked the NYU Course Catalogue to see if there is such a course. Sure enough, Economics 309 Game Theory and Strategy is “an applied overview of game theoretical concepts that emphasizes their use in real-world situations.” Though Rachel is mocked for being an expert at Game Theory it pays off in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes when Rachel is pitted against Nick’s mother, the imperious Eleanor Young, in a culturally loaded game of mahjong. Played to perfection by Michelle Yeoh, a former Miss Malaysia and a Bond Girl, Eleanor is obsessed by ancestral lineage. She is not alone. Alll the snoops in her social circle want to know if Rachel is a scion of the Taiwanese Chus, the Malaysian Chus, or some other fabulously financially successful Chus. Eleanor  is so desperate to learn the Chinese pedigree of her potential daughter-in-law, she hires a detective to trace Rachel’s Chinese roots.

Rachel is a luscious slice of apple pie as played by Constance Tianming Wu, an American comedic actress of Chinese descent who appeared in the ABC-TV series “Fresh Off The Boat.” Born in Richmond, Va., raised in the Bay Area and educated at Stanford, Wu is as American as chop suey and fortune cookies.

Rachel’s mother, the hard-working, self-made real estate saleswoman Kerry Chu, is played by Tan Kheng Hua, a Singapore-born actress who earned her American chops as a student at the University of Indiana. And while a Chinese Singaporean plays Rachel’s Chinese American mother, a Korean American plays her Singaporean best friend who has returned home to resume her crazy rich life. Singapore’s wackiest returnee from America is brought to life by Queens-born comedian and rapper Nora Lum (a.k.a Awkwafina), who was last seen in “Ocean’s 8.”

When the ancestry-obsessed Youngs learn the unhappy truth about Rachel’s lineage, a happy ending seems unlikely. Then again, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a romantic comedy about two kids who are crazy about each other, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer.

Both the writer and the film’s director are Singaporeans who choose to live in the United States for reasons that may be obvious to Singaporeans.

In case you’ve been living on a planet where there are no crazy rich Asians, be advised that there is now a Crazy Rich Asians trilogy.

 

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South Pacific (film) – directed by Joshua Logan, 1958

 Broadway show, Hollywood film posters

Bosley Crowther, the film critic of The New York Times, spent half of his review raving  about cinematic aspects of Hollywood’s celluloid take on the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein Broadway smash. (Filmed in Todd-AO! Stereophonic songs! Photographic magic that bathes musical numbers in “changing rainbow hues!”) But I’m not here to discuss production values. I’m here to comment on Americans behaving like Americans.

In this special case we’re situated on South Pacific islands that are admittedly outside my Southeast Asia target area.

I’m going to pass on the questionable often hilarious transgressions of Seabee Luther Billis and his swabbies. There’s a war on but they’re busy dealing in contraband tiki statues and boar tusks and doing double-duty on the chorus line in musical numbers.

Being a true romantic, I’ll focus on the two love stories. Each has a serious interracial subtext and in one, we find a female in the role of an Ugly American.

While serving in the Pacific theatre, the U.S. Navy nurse Nellie Forbush is doing something little ladies from Little Rock don’t normally do. She’s dating a dashing, grey-haired French planter who’s planted a few seeds in his day. Not only is Emile deBecque enchantingly French, he is the father of two children with a native woman. When deBecque reveals his demi French-Polynesian children to his fiancée, Nellie is charmed by the kids but shocked to think the man she loves previously lived with a dark-skinned woman. People back home did not cotton to interracial love affairs. In fact, Arkansas was one of 16 states where anti-miscegenation laws made interracial cohabitation a felony until the U.S. Supreme Court stuck down miscegenation laws in 1967. In a rage of confusion and prejudice, Nellie breaks off the engagement and resolves to wash that man right out of her hair.

Meanwhile the handsome young Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable arrives on a dangerous mission. Awaiting deployment, Cable comes under the spell of a plus-sized, middle-aged, betel-chewing peddler of grass skirts and tropical paraphernalia. The monumental Bloody Mary hails from the mythical island Bali Hai but she’s Tonkinese. Let’s get our geography straight: Tonga is in the South Pacific but Tonkin is part of Vietnam. Bali is an island in Indonesia – in Southeast Asia not the South Pacific – but Bali Hai is a fictional Fantasy Island that’s supposed to be somewhere near Vanuatu. Now back to love.

Bloody Mary dreams of making a heavenly match between Cable and a guileless young Tonkinese girl named Liat, who turns out to be her daughter. The gorgeous young people fall instantly in love and on Bali Hai, there’s nothing to stop them from spending the night together. But in the strong glare of daylight, Cable confesses that he can never marry Liat. What would his family and friends say if he married a Vietnamese girl, with eyes oddly made and skin of a darker shade?

Ironically it is the spurned deBecque who confronts Cable over his prejudice. The more worldly man makes the U.S. Marine reach down into his own psyche and come out singing one of Richard Rodger’s most brilliant, biting songs, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught”

Cable and deBecque join forces, taking up a position behind enemy lines to spy on the Japanese. The mission succeeds when a Japanese convoy is destroyed but the young Lieutenant Cable is yet another casualty of war.

As one love dies, the other is reborn. When the lovelorn Liat is overcome with grief, her pain stabs the heart of Nurse Nellie. When deBecque returns, the Arkansas native overcomes her prejudice and opens her heart to her enchanting beau and his biracial children.

 

The Beach – directed by Danny Boyle

 

The Beach – directed by Danny Boyle, 2000 

I was over 50 when I saw this movie and that may be one of the reasons I hated it so much.

Even at 50, it’s easy to fantasize about finding some downtime on a gorgeous tropical beach with some uptime for sex on the beach with a gorgeous French partner. But it turns out that life on The Beach is no bed of roses even for the young and feckless. For these sons of beaches, it’s more about guns and doses.

To get to The Beach, we follow the exploits of a hedonistic English backpacker played by Los Angeles-born Leonardo diCaprio. DiCaprio was fresh off the boat (the SS Titanic) when Hollywood paid him $20 million to bring the antihero of English author Alex Garland’s 1996 novel to the big screen.

Quaintly the tale begins when the diCaprio chracter Richard the Backpacker comes upon a map believed to lead to a fabled lagoon on an island in Thailand that has yet to be ruined by tourists (Obviously a fable!). This map is not your usual Robert Louis Stevenson treasure map that leads to buried gold. This one leads to an ever-growing trove of green; all the marijuana you can smoke in several lifetimes. Wowee!

Richard joins untethered American surfers who seek unfettered freedom and unending highs on the island. Happily, the new arrivals are accepted into an international backpacker (nee hippie) community of Swedish and assorted stoners ruled by a self-empowered American woman.

History students will find the situation reminiscent of Western missionaries and self-interested traders claiming a God-given right to usurp Asian lands.

Unhappily for the backpackers there are hungry sharks in the blue lagoon, and before long, the clear water is red with blood. And that’s before the farangs do battle with Thai drug lords who are defending their own turf with real bullets. Inevitably, in this mess of a movie, the hedonistic Utopian island turns into a beachside Killing Fields with few lessons to be learned.

\In the end, Richard The Backpacker, like drifters and grifters before him, can’t escape from civilization. His presence on the idyllic island, like the snake in Eden, brings an end to the heavenly garden. It is his behavior that precipitates hatred and violence, toppling the casual social organization built by drug-idled squatters, dragging them down into the real world of deception, machine guns and murder. This serves as a reminder that Paradise is hard to find, even off the coast of Thailand.

 

Brokedown Palace – directed by Jonathan Kaplan

Brokedown Palace – directed by Jonathan Kaplan, 1999

Midnight Express – directed by Alan Parker, 1978

In Brokedown Palace, we’re back in Thailand, with two more Americans seeking escape from what they know of Western Civilization. This time the drama involves two young women, fresh out of high school, who decide to spend their summer vacation in Thailand because it’s cheaper than Hawaii and way more exotic. They’re game for almost anything except telling their parents where they’re going.

In the Land of Smiles, it’s all smiles for the good-looking blonde Alice (Claire Danes) and the good-looking brunette Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) — until they are arrested as drug smugglers.

Of course, Alice and Darlene are not really drug smugglers. They’re typical American girls in the mold of Cyndi Lauper who just want to have fun. Leaving their roach-infested hostel, they pretend to be guests at a posh resort, ordering poolside cocktails that cost more than they have on hand. Mai bpen rai. No problem for our girls gone wild. A charming Australian software designer bails them out. Before long, he’s making Goo Goo Doll eyes at the ingenues, and offering to take them both on a jaunt to Hong Kong. Unlike the American girls on a lark, the charming Australian is a drug smuggler, and when the girls arrive for their flight to Hong Kong, they are the ones packing six kilos of heroin in their bags.

For the next 60 minutes of the film, there’s no smiling as the Americans are charged, interrogated and jailed in Thai-language proceedings they can’t understand. We see them as innocently unwitting smugglers, dumber than a mule. But the Thai court system sees them as guilty and sentences each to 33 years in a harsh women’s prison nicknamed Brokedown Palace.

The New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden hit it on the nail: “In Brokedown Palace, Claire Danes embodies an all-too believable, contemporary version of ‘The Ugly American.’” Rather than give the girls a pass for their naivete, Holden sees Alice as spoiled and selfish. He notes that in seeking her own instant gratification, she takes defiant pride in being compulsive and dishonest.=

Alice is the face of the new Ugly American. Unfortunately for the girls, teenaged petulance and tantrums may work in Bloomington but they don’t work in Bangkok. As Holden concludes in his review, being “a willfully ignorant ugly American abroad” can have serious consequences.

The efforts of Darlene’s blustery upper middle class Midwestern parents to free her are toothless. They try to get her out of her Asian jam with help — and very little of it — from a U.S. Embassy flunkey who seems more eager to please Thai officialdom than free Americans from prison. Finally we meet Henry “Hank the Yankee” Greene, a greedy Bangkok-based American lawyer played by Bill Pullman. Unscrupulous as he is, Greene rides to the rescue. Married to a Thai woman, he can work the corrupt Thai system better than Americans who don’t know the territory.

The story and prison of Brokedown Palace are fictional. To movie fans my age, the cautionary tale calls to mind another movie, “Midnight Express” about an American who did the crime and did some time, in real life, under intensely inhumane circumstances.

In 1970, Billy Hayes was a 23-year-old Marquette University student when he was arrested in Istanbul for attempting to leave Turkey with two kilos of hashish taped to his body. Hayes was initially sentenced to four years in prison for drug possession, only to learn he was to be charged with drug smuggling, which carried a life sentence. In 1972, Hayes was transferred to a psychiatric hospital he described as “a lunatic asylum.” He escaped from the hospital in 1975 and lived to tell the story in a 1977 autobiography.

The book was a powerful page-turner and the movie was a thriller of the first rank. The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Film Editing. It won two Oscars, one for writer Oscar Stone for Best Adapted Screenplay and one for Giorgio Moroder for Best Original Score. The book and film are recommended for those who want to experience how ugly life can be for an American in a Turkish prison.

A footnote: I had just finished reading Midnight Express when I bumped into the actor Brad Davis who played Billy Hayes in the movie. We met at a Honolulu bar called Bully Hayes.

 

 

The King and I – Broadway musical (1951) and film (1956)

In an American musical, an Anglo-Indian woman arrives in Siam in 1862 to teach English to the many children of King Mongkut (Rama IV). The King, who was in his 60s, was played by Yul Brynner, a Russian-American still in his 30s when he first enacted the role on Broadway.

Respecting Thailand’s strict laws regarding lèse majesté, I won’t comment on the play’s handling of the touchy relationship between Anna Leonowens, a widowed English-language tutor, and the King, who reportedly had 39 wives and 79 children.

As my brief is to discuss America’s relations with Asia, I note that, as mentioned in the play, King Mongkut offered to send elephants to help mobilize the Union Army. President Lincoln declined the generous offer, noting that America’s climate did not favor the multiplication (breeding) of elephants, and that the United States found it practical to rely on steam engines for transportation.

My commentary here deals with a very American topic, the struggle for civil rights. The Rodgers and Hammerstein hit musical The King and I premiered only three years after President Truman issued a controversial order calling for complete desegregation of the U.S. military. The issue of race relations in American society was a hot-button issue about to hit the fan in what became the Civil Rights Movement.

The librettist Oscar Hammerstein II was looking for a hook to adapt an American novel that was based on the real-life Leonowens’ autobiography about her time in Siam. Hammerstein’s interest in furthering civil rights in this country is reflected in the attention he devotes to a play-within-a-play called “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a Thai retelling of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

You may know that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, is deemed the best selling novel of the 19th Century and credited with jump-starting the Civil War, a.k.a, the War Against Slavery. You may not know that slavery was part of Siamese society for centuries. When Siamese armies sacked an enemy’s capital they brought all the residents back to Siam as slaves, to build the great palaces you see in Thailand today. Some Siamese children were sold into slavery. Children born to slaves were slaves. Debtors also become slaves.

In Hammerstein’s libretto, the schoolmarm Anna learns that the Burmese king has given the Siamese king a gorgeous slave girl named Tuptim to wed as a minor wife. Every musical has a pair of star-crossed lovers and here it turns out that Tuptim is in love with Lun Tha, the Burmese temple-builder who escorted her to Siam. When they find time to be alone, the lovers make beautiful music together, singing “We Kiss In A Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” and with Anna, “Hello, Young Lovers.”

Tuptim reads “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and presents her version of the story as a ballet before European envoys at a Palace soiree. Tuptim provides a charming narration in which the evil King Simon of Legree pursues a runaway slave named Eliza. Through the Divine Intervention of The Buddha, a raging river turns to ice and snow falls to hide Eliza from the King. When the ice melts, floodwaters wash away the wicked slave-keeping King. The dinner show’s anti-slavery message is not lost upon the clever King Mongkhut character of the play. That night, the lovers escape from the Palace. Alas, Tuptim is apprehended and brought before the King, who seizes a whip to punish his runaway slave. In this critical scene, Anna’s civilizing influence renders the King unable to harm the slave girl. But when police find Lun Tha dead in the forest, Tuptim is taken away and for all we know, forever silenced.

It was King Mongkhut’s son Chulalongkorn (Rama V) — portrayed as a thoughtful, adolescent in the play — who ascended the throne in 1868 and took several steps to free household slaves.  At the time, one-third of Siam’s population was enslaved. King Chulalongkorn wrote that the American Civll War, with its wholesale slaughter over the issue of slavery, influenced his decision to free slaves in his Kingdom. It wasn’t until 1905 that all forms of slavery were abolished in Siam.

Siam was first renamed Thailand in 1939. Following Japanese occupation, the name reverted to Siam in 1946, until 1949, when it re-reverted to Thailand.

 

 

VIetnam War films: Platoon (1986) and Apocalypse Now (1979)

 

Platoon – written and directed by Oliver Stone

Apocalypse Now – directed by Francis Ford Coppola

No organized human activity is uglier than war. In Southeast Asia, Americans were fighting for an abstract political concept while Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were defending their homeland against foreign invaders. As the conservative politician Barry Goldwater famously said: “Extremism in defense of Liberty is no vice.” But who defines Liberty and who defines Vice? Defending someone else’s definition of Liberty is not the moral equivalent of defending your city, your village or your home against foreign invaders.

There are dozens of films about what Americans call the Vietnam War and Vietnamese call the American War. I’m only looking at two that have indelibly etched the American war experience in my mind, in microcosm and macrocosm.

A friend with a connection to Hollywood slipped me a copy of Oliver Stone’s original script, which Stone called “The Platoon” and MGM called simply Platoon.

Released in 1986, the film was then, and still is, hard to sit through without wincing. It’s not just the stress of joining a patrol in a jungle battle zone, uncertain as to whether the men of the platoon are about to kill or be killed. It’s not just the violence the men of the platoon commit against fellow human beings who happen to be Vietnamese. It’s not just the futility of their every action that taxes them mentally, physically and morally.

Why, Jesus and LBJ, were these men dispatched to a place they don’t want to be, doing a job they don’t want to do, fighting against an enemy they don’t know, for a cause they don’t believe in? They’re embroiled in multiple conflicts: against an enemy with a home-field advantage, against their brethren divided into warring factions in the platoon, and against military discipline and morality itself.

As the newest member of the platoon, the Charlie Sheen character Chris Taylor observes: “Somebody once wrote, ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” Even watching Platoon is hell. Kudos to a gritty story and stellar performances.

Filmed years earlier, Apocalypse Now is set in 1969, two years after the events of Platoon. It’s no wonder that every character in this bizarre 147-minute drama is demoralized and the whole worn-out war effort seems out of whack with reality. Thank Joseph Conrad and filmmakers John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola for giving us the mad U.S. Army Colonel Walter Kurtz. Like his namesake ivory trader in the darkest heart of the Congo, the latter-day Kurtz has set himself up as a demigod in a godforsaken corner of Cambodia.

When the Pentagon decides to terminate Kurtz “with extreme prejudice,” which means assassinate him, the assignment falls to Marine Capt. Benjamin Willard played by Martin Sheen (Charlie’s dad). Having re-upped after failing to readjust to life back in the U.S.A. Willard is beset by his own devils, including alcohol abuse, divorce, drugs and self-loathing.

Tagging along with Willard on his Top Secret mission, we get a kaleidoscopic view of war in Vietnam. There are helicopters buzzing around ad nauseum. There’s a shocking scene where G.I.s interview a Vietnamese family on a sampan then execute them. There’s unforgettable, almost lyrical, footage of U.S. bombs and Napalm obliterating an enemy village along the mouth of the Nung River, so that G.I. surfers can catch some awesome waves. We also get an unflattering close-up of what goes on at a U.S.O. show starring a troupe of deflated Playboy bunnies. There’s an encounter with a tiger, a fearsome symbol of Nature in the wild. After all, it’s a jungle out there.

Film critics have viewed Capt. Willard’s quest to a kill as an Odyssey and a Descent into Hell. In the 2001 Redux version of the film (50 minutes longer than the original cut) we take refuge from war by dallying in the putrefying milieu of French planters. The plantation scene can be interpreted as Willard’s Purgatory, or a Conradian opportunity for an American to confront Colonialism in Indochina.

While Conrad’s Kurtz was a skeleton of a man, Coppola’s Kurtz is a bloated Marlon Brando. Once inside Kurtz’s compound, Capt, Willard is sometimes the hunter, sometimes the hunted. He becomes a prisoner and acolyte of Brando’s Kurtz, who rambles on in unscripted improvisations, and reads from TIME magazine.

The film critic Roger Ebert has suggested that Willard discovers more than a rogue American war hero. Ebert wrote,“The whole movie is a journey toward Willard’s understanding of how Kurtz, one of the Army’s best soldiers, penetrated the reality of war to such a depth that he could not look any longer without madness and despair.”

Through Kurtz, Willard comes to understand that civilization is a veneer laid upon the natural inclinations of man. According to Ebert, Kurtz has found “that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge.

 Here’s how I view the dualism behind the film’s apocalyptic vision: Man is an intellectual ape who can put on a military uniform, surf a wave or dance to a disco beat, and yet, man is still an ape.