The patriot and the white elephant war


 The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations who words of thanks will not be heard.

Gaylord Nelson

The Legend Of Suriyothai   (2001)
Action,   Adventure,   Drama,   Historical,   Melodrama,   Romance,   War
Written by
Sunait Chutintaranond (story)   &   Chatrichalerm Yukol (creenplay)
Directed by
 Piyapas Bhirombhakdi aka Mom Luang,   Mai Chareonpura,   Sorapong Chatree,   Amphol Lampoon,   Chatchai Plengpanich,    Johnny Anfone 
Country of Origin
Running time
184 minutes (Thai version)   &   142 minutes  (US version)   &  5 hours (Original) 

oh! flashback

A number of years ago, I watched this masterpiece directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol. The film portrayed the life (mostly invented rather than factual) of a historical figure in Thailand’s history – Queen Suriyothai.

Before I get deeper into the plot of the film and share my views and feelings about the film, I’d like to offer some background information that might set the frame for you if you haven’t yet, but, are contemplating watching it.

Queen Suriyothai, otherwise known by her honorific titles, Somdet Phra or Sri.

Queen Suriyothai, also known by two honorific titles in real life – Somdet Phra and Sri, was born with the given name Suriyothai, which is a compound of Suriya (Sanskrit meaning sun) and Uthai (from udaya meaning rising) which when combined means “dawn”.

In my opinion, she was aptly named as she is viewed in Thai history as a ‘great feminist’ – and herald the dawning of the rise of women to equal position and power.

She was a royal Queen Consort, in other words, the wife of the reigning king. She married Prince Tien when he was regent under King Hoffa’s rule and was queen during the early part of King Maha Chakkraphat’s rule in 16th century Ayutthaya (the Siamese Kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767). During that time Ayutthaya was friendly to foreign traders including Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese, Persian and later Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, and French. In fact, traders were allowed to set up villages outside the capital’s walls.

The 16th-century tale of Queen Somdet Phra occurred during a time when Thailand was divided into many kingdoms with Ayutthaya in the south of Thailand being the strongest and Pitsanulok in the north being the weakest; Burma to the north of Thailand posed the greatest threat to the sovereignty of the Thai kingdoms.

Queen Suriyothai is most famous for having sacrificed her life in defence of her husband in a great battle during the Burmese War of 1548.

oh! brief

The story follows the fictional course of the life of Suriyothai (a Thai royal and heroine) from her adolescence to her death – starting as a young woman of minor royal standing who is opinionated and determined, to her ending where she sacrifices herself to save her husband and Siam.

Some of the plot twists (a tangled skein of treachery and courage) include an arranged marriage, promises extracted from a deathbed scene, invasion of and by feuding royals, the gruesome execution of a minor royal, plots to overthrow the throne, and a massive battle of epic proportions.

oh!  talks film

The film itself falls neatly into the genres suggested, however, the truth is that there is so little factual history captured of Queen Suriyothai that most of the film itself is invented and based on the culture of the time. Also, the original version of the film was approximately five hours long and was cut down twice to meet international standards before being aired in the US.

The heroine, Suriyothai, (played by M. L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi who is in fact a royal descendent), is in love with her childhood companion, Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich), but places patriotic duty and family loyalty over her own feelings and marries Prince Thien, a kind, indecisive member of the royal household. This is the first of a number of sacrifices she makes due to patriotic allegiance. All the little nuances of sacrifice are interesting as they affirm for me, the heightened sense of patriotism someone born into a royal family endures. Sacrifice is part and parcel of being a royal, whether a royal in the 16th century or one living in the in the modern world.

As the film progresses, it is hard at times to completely understand the plot — the many characters, the overt power struggle the men engage in, the schemes of the women and ladies of the court who engineer covert strategies to serve their ambitious designs and the historical reality of the era.   It helps if you remind yourself that the film covers more than a half-century of palace intrigue and battlefield mayhem. This, alongside a grand scale of pageantry, enormous sets, (some of which were accessed only because Queen Sirikit opened doors to locations sealed to the Thai film industry) and the back and forth with the narrative and missing pieces of the film that were unfortunately edited out can make it quite confusing.

oh!  that’s a wrap

The film, in my opinion, showcased an era in Thailand’s history (whether based on fact or not), with a cast that bore a striking resemblance to their original historical figures. The film masterfully and faithfully recreated the magical ambience of Thailand had monumental and sweeping panoramic videography. At times the violence was gruesome and graphically shocking, but I suspect this was true of the era it represented.

If anything, you will undoubtedly enjoy the film for its visual beauty, gilded interiors, sleek costumes, hazy nighttime backdrops, throngs of real elephants, and maybe come away with a broader understanding and value of Thai culture.

0h!  tidbits

The film was financially backed by a member of Thailand’s royal family to the tune of US$5.8 million. The healthy budget allowed for lavish extravagances on set development, production, and costumes and allowed the director to take the film wherever he wanted and he did – it took three full years to film!

In addition to financing the film, the Thai royal family aided its production with other resources, for example, when large battle scenes required numbers of men (extras), employees of both the Royal Thai Army and Navy were made available.

The film was also directed by a member of the same royal family, Chatrichalerm Yukol. This could have worked against the production due to the backend politicking and tone that could be enforced. This did not happen at all.

Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol is one of Thailand’s pioneering filmmakers and an international representative of Asian cinema. Prince Chatrichalerm was born on November 29, 1942, a son of HRH Anusorn and Mom Ubon Yukol. He was educated at Geelong Grammar School in Australia and continued his education at UCLA, where he majored in Geology.

All props were made from scratch, including authentic 16th century European, Thai and Burmese weapons.

Locations (including palaces and royal grounds) are actual historical sites. Many scenes were shot in and around the ruins of the ancient capital Ayutthaya.

3,500 extras were used in the battle scenes, and 400 people on the crew. For the battle sequences, Thai army and navy were conscripted by the thousands. 160 elephants were used in the production.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

While usual galleries will display shots from the film, I’ve chosen to share a few photos from the set of the film, Royal family members who financially backed this masterpiece and some aerial photos of Queen Suriyothai Monument, shared by travel blogger Richard Barrow. Enjoy!

oh! … trailer

oh!  nooz

Thai cinema kicks baht
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