A Royal Prince Directs A Thai Legend, With Plenty of Elephants
by Brandon Judell
In Thailand, royalty has been making films for years. Imagine if this trend had caught on earlier elsewhere: Princess Di as gaffer…Richard III as bestboy…or Louis XIV as grip intern. Wars might have only been fought on celluloid, Queen Elizabeth would have dressed better, and Elton John could have remained a queen and never become a Sir. But that’s neither here or there.
What is here is a very long film — “The Legend of Suriyothai” — directed by Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol. Clocking in at 142 minutes, this legend is epic at least in length. Now don’t harrumph. This Prince is no Johnny-come-lately to this art.
Although he majored in geology at UCLA, IMDB.com swears he minored in film there alongside Francis Ford Coppola. He then apprenticed under writer/director/producer Merian C. Cooper, the very man who gave us both “King Kong” and “Dr. Cyclops.” Well, this chip off the ol’ royal block has been directing ever since. Nothing we’ve especially heard of, but then how many Thai films hit our shores per decade?
Now this film that has finally gotten the Prince some name recognition internationally is based upon the historical legend of Suriyothai. Apparently, in the 16th century, the Thai kingdom Ayuthaya had four royal dynasties. Whichever ones were not in the power at the time were not totally happy. So when a king died or was busy making love with his concubines and not ruling well, there was always a chance of a rebellion by a competing sect.
During this period, the land additionally was wracked with small pox, poisonings, elephant hunts, civil war, political corruption, and a threat of attack from neighboring Burma. Suriyothai, a minor princess at the time, gives up her love to Piren, a childhood friend, to wed Tien, the son of King Atitaya, in order to keep peace between two of the royal dynasties. She later on will give up her life for the sake of her country, we’re told as the film begins.
So this is the story of Suriyothai? Not exactly. She’s off-screen for much of the time as the film chronicles the carryings-on, intrigues, and battles of other royalty. In fact, a scorecard and a flashlight might be helpful if you come to this film without first reading the background material available at www.sonyclassics.com.
You see there’s King Chairaja, whose wife Jitravadee dies in childbirth. He’s done in by his concubine Sri Sudachan so her lowly lover with a fine singing voice, Worawongsa, can rule with her. Now Chairaja has two sons from Jitravadee, and Sri Sudachan has one from Worawongsa. Add in King Ramathibodhi II, his brother Phra Atitay, King Hongsa, Captain Rajseneha, 160 elephants, a gaggle of nasty lesbian Amazon soldiers, numerous beheadings, plus one arrow in the forehead, and you have some feature.
With five years of research, 17 months of production, a cast of thousands, an international crew, plus major funding being anted up by the Queen of Thailand, “The Legend of Suriyothai” has caused quite a local to-do, breaking all Thai box office records when it was released in 2001.
Over here, even with the tagline “Francis Ford Coppola presents,” Suriyothai may just go broke. There is feeble character development. No superb performances. Awkward dialogue. The battle scenes are shot with little sweep. In fact, there’s nothing to view that a third-rate cable network historical epic hasn’t done better and more often. Not even an overhead shot to show us the cast of thousands all in a scuffle. Even a major battle at sea could have been staged better in a bathtub with plastic ships for all the emotional impact the Prince gets out of it.
On the plus side, someone does shout, “Get the men and arm the elephants!” Sadly, this alone doesn’t make you think of Cecil B. DeMille as the press notes would like you to. “Hercules and the Captive Women” comes more to mind.