The Ambassador – by Morris West, 1965

Mass-market paperback cover

Like The Ugly American, The Ambassador begins with a prefatory note: “This is a work of fiction, built by the time-honored literary method of peopling an historic situation with characters construed out of the imagination of the author.”

In the novel, an embattled Prime Minister of South Vietnam, under intense political pressure from the United States to resign, grants an interview to a visiting Australian novelist. In real life, Morris West was Australia’s best-selling novelist (The Devil’s Advocate, The Shoes of the Fisherman) when he interviewed South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem in October 1963. West felt compelled to report Diem’s views to Australia’s ambassador and notes of the interview were passed along to the American ambassador. A month later, on November 2, 1963, Diem was ousted by his Army generals and assassinated after attending morning Mass. A fellow Catholic like Diem and West, President John F. Kennedy approved the CIA’s decision to support the generals over Diem.

In the year following the assassination, West plumbed his imagination to create American characters and portray inside-the-Embassy conversations and gut-wrenching rationalizations. The characters peel away layers of religious, spiritual, pragmatic and patriotic reasoning as they explore the morality, practicality and military options of dealing with a despotic but democratically elected South Vietnamese leader.

A guilt-ridden West delves into what right America and its anti-Communist allies, including Australia, had to interfere in the politics of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. What right did Westerners have to choose sides, employing massive economic and military might – and ultimately resorting to war – to stand in the way of self-determination in Southeast Asia?

Though the author has construed a dozen American characters in the Saigon embassy and the halls of power in Washington, three well-drawn, highly complex characters stand in the crux of the morality play.

The ambassador of the title, Maxwell Gordon Amberley, is the newly arrived U.S. envoy in Saigon. Modest, mature, elegantly mannered, and measured in his approach to his awesome responsibility, the erudite Amberley appears to be the embodiment of what a U.S. ambassador should be.

Like Amberley, the dapper CIA Director Harry Yaffa is a true professional. But as the top CIA agent for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Yaffa is amoral. Without moral scruples, he takes on the Agency’s most sordid chores with efficiency and a near-sexual excitement. On Amberley’s first day on the job, Yaffa hands him an automatic pistol and warns, “This is an assassin’s town.”

The embassy’s First Secretary, Melville Adams, is intended as a study in contrast, reserving to himself the right to question and even refuse his Government’s bidding when it runs counter to his own beliefs. Like Amberley, Mel Adams must make difficult decisions in a morass of multicultural and morally ambivalent situations.

Reflecting West’s fervid Catholicism and intellectual interest in Buddhist philosophy, Amberley veers between the yin and yang of Yaffa and Adams. He cannot function in Saigon without Yaffa. He cannot live in a diplomatic bubble without Adams, the cloying conscience of well-meaning Americans.

In the end, Amberley acts as he must, as the instrument of United States policy.. “…(W)hat else was left to me?” the ambassador asks himself. “My small inheritance of good manners, polite custom and traditional morality had been laid waste by the processional march of history. My action, any action, was a futile gesture against the trampling might of elephants.”

The CIA-backed coup that led to Diem’s assassination continues to haunt U.S. policy around the world and the lessons, artfully illustrated by West in a beautifully written novel, go unheeded. As I write this, The New York Times reports that the United States is being accused of plotting with Army generals who oppose embattled Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.

Deliver Us From Evil and The Edge of Tomorrrow – by Dr. Tom Dooley, 1956, 1958

Author-signed bookplate in my 1956 hardcover edition of Deliver Us From Evil

Mass-market paperbacks

Dr. Tom Dooley’s acclaimed books recount the medical and humanitarian miracles he wrought as a Navy medic in North Vietnam. His rousing descriptions of how he witnessed Communist atrocities, healed the sick, and aided legions of Catholic Vietnamese refugees, made Americans swell with patriotic pride and resolve to put an end to the evil. As the Cold War heated up, Dr. Dooley’s hair-raising anti-Communist vitriol was raising the curtain on expanding U.S. diplomatic and military involvement in Vietnam.

As a fifth grader in 1958, I was amused that there was a song on the radio called “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” that was not about the bestselling author. But more to the point, as an impressionable young American and a Cub Scout for several months, I was horrified at how atheist Viet Minh Communists were torturing innocent Vietnamese Catholics seeking religious freedom. Dr. Dooley described in gory detail how Communists shoved chopsticks in children’s ears to keep them from hearing prayers, how they tortured priests by pounding nails into heads, and how they punished hundreds of Vietnamese women by disemboweling them for being Catholic. These indignities were akin to what we kids paid to see in the Medieval Torture Section of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in Times Square. But being that this was happening in real time, and not in the Middle Ages, the Communists’ torture of Vietnam’s Catholics seemed even more egregious.

Although Dooley’s books are found on non-fiction and history shelves, it’s now known that some of his purplest prose, including his descriptions of wholesale torture techniques, was pure fiction. There’s a body of research illustrating that a lot of what Dooley wrote was exaggerated or fictionalized. In a post-Vietnam War light, one now sees Dooley’s tales of his own awe-inspiring exploits as propaganda, a literary form in its own right. The Pentagon Papers notes that Dooley was not only a doctor; he was an intelligence operative.

In fact the author William J. Lederer was in Saigon working for the C.I,A, when he first heard about Dooley’s work with refugees from Communism in Haiphong. Lederer encouraged Dooley to popularize his experience in books and actually helped edit some chapters. It is no mere coincidence that the harmonica-playing character of Colonel Hillandale in The Ugly American is based on Air Force Lt. Col. Edwin Lansdale, the C.I.A. chief in Saigon who recruited both Lederer and Dooley as propagandists for the anti-Communist cause. In The Ugly American, Lederer fictionalized Dooley as the good-guy hero Father John Finian, further blurring the line between fact and fiction.

Dooley the author did a good job of portraying himself as a selfless hero. Imagine that a handsome Navy medic from Missouri, scarcely 30 years old, could do so much to counter the scourge of Communism! It all seemed too good to be true and in fact, U.S. diplomats in Hanoi sent an alarm to the U.S.I.S., signaling their doubts that Dooley had done in real life what his character did in his bestselling books. The diplomatic report that doused water on Dooley’s doings was kept classified for decades, until after the Vietnam War.

After leaving the Navy, Dooley remained an icon of anti-Communism and American do-goodism, raising funds for hospitals and orphanages in Laos and Vietnam, appearing on TV frequently while bound to a contract with The Reader’s Digest that made him ubiquitous in that publication celebrating American values.

Dooley died of cancer on his 33rd birthday. Despite the falsehoods in his non-fiction, he left a true legacy in the form of the Thomas A. Dooley Foundation, which set up clinics and hospitals in rural and remote parts of Laos. A New York Times article published in 1964 eulogized him in this way: “Tom Dooley continues to live in the hearts of the deprived people of Asia. His life and the continuing program of the Dooley foundation stand for the best in American traditions.” Thankfully, there is some truth to his fiction.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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Miss Saigon – Broadway musical

The heat is on in Saigon. Eye-popping production numbers lure us like johns into the hyper-sexual atmosphere of a sleazy girly bar called Dreamland.The recent revival ratcheted up the raunchiness, making the bar more garishly trashy, the lingerie and bikinis more revealing, and the behavior of off-duty American G.I.s more aggressive.

On this night in Dreamland, one of the bargirls will be crowned Miss Saigon, a nightly occurrence as part of a greedy French-Vietnamese pimp’s scheme to make more money off the backs of his girls. We forget the meaningless competition when we zoom in on a Marine who insists on buying his buddy a girl for the night, “getting him laid as a last souvenir.”

There’s a war on and young men are dying in combat, so we’re supposed to excuse the sorry spectacle of American soldiers abusing Asian girls in a country they’ve come to uplift. Men with weapons have been taking advantage of defenseless women for centuries, but as Americans, didn’t we imagine that our bright-eyed boys were better, that they went off to Vietnam with the highest ideals, and always behaved as angels? “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon” told us we were wrong about that.

Now we are in Dreamland. Against the ugliness of war and against all odds, the sweet-faced U.S. Marine Sgt. Chris Scott falls in love with the virginal Vietnamese bargirl Kim. Of course we want Chris and Kim to live happily ever after. Of course tears well up when they sing a duet expressing heartfelt hopes for a life together free of strife. In America! But we bought tickets to a tragedy so we know Fate will not be kind to the cute couple. The Universe will never allow the Sun to run off with the Moon.

Chris and Kim chance it. They play house on his 48-hour leave while enemy troops encircle the city, the U.S.-backed South Vietnam government collapses like a house of cards, and Americans are packing to leave. Hastily married, the lovers botch their honeymoon plans – and the rest of their lives – by failing to connect on the morning of April 30, 1975. Chris is aboard the last helicopter as it lifts off the Embassy roof at 7:53 a.m. But Kim is left behind banging on the gate. To prove she’s the wife of a GI, Kim shouts, “Look, I have his gun.” How fitting! Three years later, we learn Chris left Kim with something other than his gun. They have a son.

By his own admission, Chris Scott was a draftee who did his time, returned to the States, then chose to re-up and return to Vietnam. Why?
“…’cause here if you can pull a string
A guy like me lives like a king
Just as long as you don’t believe anything.”
He was empowered. He carried a weapon he could pull on any Vietnamese who got in his way.

Disillusioned G.I.s like Chris consider the Vietnam War a joke. But on the Last Night of The World, Chris finds Kim and she becomes the Vietnam he’s fighting for.

“I saw a world I never knew
And through her eyes I suffered too
In spite of all the things that were,
I started to believe in her.”

Broadway’s longest-running musical, Miss Saigon is a tawdry tale of America’s disastrous, decade-long affair with a girl called Vietnam, all the while high on her cheap perfume.

In Chris’s last song, he sings:

“Christ, I’m American
How could I fail to do good?
All I made was a mess
Just like everyone else.”

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.

 

 

FIrst They Killed My Father – directed by Angelina Jolie, 2017

Unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, this is a Cambodian feature film with an all-Cambodian cast who speak Khmer. Naturally the $24 million it took to make the Netflix movie came from Americans. Principal among the filmmakers – credited as director and cowriter – is the American actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie, a citizen of Cambodia.

In the first two minutes of the movie, we see a sorry pair of Americans: President Nixon and presidential adviser Henry Kissinger. They appear in archival news footage, mouthing off lies about their policy of noninterference while hiding the truth about the war they are prosecuting in Cambodia.

The Pinocchio-nosed Nixon says: “Cambodia, a small country of 7 million people, has been a neutral nation since the Geneva agreement of 1954. American policy since then has been to scrupulously respect the neutrality of the Cambodian people.” Interspersed with footage of U.S. Air Force bombing runs, Nixon explains, “What we are doing is to help the Cambodians help themselves… This is not an invasion of Cambodia.”

And in Hitleresque prose, Kissinger adds that “civilian casualties are occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution “

Well, Dr. K., your policy of dropping tons of bombs on Cambodian civilians was not the solution – just as it did not work against the Pathet Lao movement in neighboring Laos.)

Carpet-bombing of neutral Cambodia began in March 1969. Over four years, the United States dropped nearly 3 million bombs, killing an estimated 5,000 civilians annually. And that was only the beginning of Cambodia’s agony.

According to war historians, the United States escalated its bombing campaign in January 1973 trying to halt the advance of the Khmer rouge. The stepped up bombing destroyed large swaths of land around Phnom Penh but only delayed the take-over and in fact assisted recruitment into Pol Pot’s murderous ranks. Official sources indicate the United States spent more than $1 billion on military assistance and half a billion more on economic assistance to support Lon Nol’s government. In mid-1973, Congress halted the Pentagon’s illegal U.S. military incursion into Cambodia. Lon Nol fought the K.R. for two more years before fleeing to the United States

Jolie’s film is based on the autobiography of Loung Ung, who was five years old in April 1975 when the Khmer Rough consolidated its control over Cambodia. The horror of genocide is seen through Loung’s unblinking unbelieving eyes. When Pol Pot orders the evacuation of Phnom Penh, her family is forced to leave their comfortable home in the city. They were not alone as the Khmer Rouge ordered all 2 million residents of Phnom Penh to leave the city.

Wide-eyed, never understanding why this is happening, Loung is marched deeper and deeper into the jungle. Because all private property is banned, she and her family must surrender all of their possessions. Loung watches as her father is taken to be killed, calling out, “Come back, Pa.” It is heartbreaking to watch her – and scores of other children – doing hard labor in the Khmer Rouge work camps, experiencing sickness, starvation and  separation from family members.As a seven-year old, Loung is taught hand-to-hand combat, how to use a bayonet, how simple it is to fire an AK-47 and how tricky it is to set land mines. She is brainwashed and programmed to kill Vietnamese soldiers who entered Cambodia in December 1978.

Like little Loung, we watch wordlessly as Pol Pot’s lieutenants take Cambodia backward and begin filling the Killing Fields with corpses, as many as 3 million in all. A history student, I found myself reflecting on a time 40 years earlier when Hitler embarked on a ruthlessly inhumane campaign of extermination in Europe. The handiwork of the Khmer Rouge was equally insane and the civilized world was equally or even more aware of what was going on. Surely Kissinger knew. Surely the genocide was known at the United Nations, where the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat.

In war movies Americans watch, Vietnamese soldiers in their olive-green uniforms and pith hats are the bad guys. In this story, they’re the good guys. But the Vietnamese saviors were eventually seen as invaders. Cambodia was Vietnam’s Vietnam. Bogged down for a decade, Vietnam suffered 30,000 casualties in its battle to break the Khmer Rouge and pacify the countryside for its own ideological reasons. Vietnam finally pulled out of Cambodia in 1989.

Loung Ung was 10 when she left her homeland. She now lives in Ohio.

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.