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February 01, 2011

From the Thai Film Foundation: The King of the White Elephant

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Phrachao Chang Phueak
Pridi Banomyong - 1941

With the new "For the Love of Film" blogathon coming soon, I thought it appropriate to dedicate most of February to film preservation, and a review of the films available on DVD from the Thai Film Foundation. What I know about Thai culture can pretty much fit into a thimble. Admittedly, my knowledge of Thai film history has huge gaps. Even if what I write is of negligible scholarly value, hopefully some of the screencaps will foster further interest in Thai film and Thai film history. I have to thank Thai film scholar supreme Anchalee Chaiworaporn and the foundation's Chalida Uabunrungjit for making this possible.

Even though Sunh Vasudhara is the director of record, Pridi Banomyong is the person most responsible for the making of The King of the White Elephant. This is the oldest preserved Thai feature, although taken from a 16mm print from the Library of Congress. What makes this film usual is the choice of Pridi to make a nationalistic epic in English. The DVD also contains the American release version which cut the film from 100 minutes down to 52. Because the film was produced with an English language soundtrack, the question is raised concerning whom was the intended audience. At the time the film was made, Thailand was keeping officially neutral in the face of Japan's invasions of other Asian countries.

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Political motives aside, it is apparent that Pridi took some of his filmmaking queues from Hollywood films, especially some of the comedies of the era. King Chakra is distracted by affairs of state, not paying attention to the dozens of dancing maidens who have been summoned to entertain, and perhaps be chosen for marriage. A couple of aides to the rival king are seen with their ears against the door, trying to eavesdrop, in a scene that could have been from something by von Sternberg or Lubitsch. There is also some slapstick with the drunken rival king unable to mount his elephant. The film has a similar template to the more recent epics of Yukol Chatrichalerm, with scenes of palace intrigue alternating with battle sequences. There are some spectacular ground level shots of elephants and soldiers marching toward the camera. Some of the shots suggest the possible influence of John Ford. Unintended humor is created by the music track when western classical music is used, especially when "The William Tell Overture", now primarily associated with The Lone Ranger, accompanies footage of the slower moving elephants.

Bosley Crowthers reviewed The King of the White Elephants in April 1941: "Why should a group of Siamese artists attempt to ape Hollywood in a picture about their land? Why should they take a simple story of rivalry between two ancient kings, one a peaceful elephant-lover and the other a martial bully, and dress it up with chases and battles in the manner of an American Western? True, their mounts are pachyderms instead of pintos—and that does make for an interesting variety of spectacle. But why shouldn't a made-in-Siam picture be truly indigenous, played in pantomime, if need be, and as different from Hollywood formula as it could be made?"

The questions of use of language and context are answered by Bangkok Post film critic Kong Rithdee: "The context surrounding the making of that film is different from what we're experiencing now. King of the White Elephant, in which the dialogue is entirely in English, was made specifically to show the international community that Thais are capable of peace and that war, though sometimes inevitable, leaves everybody hurt and in ruins."

One might say that because the film was intended for an international audience, Pridi had chosen to use the most widely accepted model of filmmaking, the Hollywood film, and consequently, the spoken language of Hollywood. The points raised by Crowthers are not invalid, but are addressed more thoroughly in books like Global Art Cinema, even when the discussion is about other films. For all the yelling about making films that are "indigenous" or the effects of cultural imperialism, in order to reach the widest audience, whether locally or internationally, required making a film that generally adheres to Hollwood classical forms. For several reasons, The King of the White Elephant might be regarded as an anomaly in the history of Thai cinema. Where the influence of the film is most obvious is as the template for future Thai films that also looked to the past to address present day concerns.

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Posted by peter at February 1, 2011 06:16 AM


great images!

Posted by: NYFA Photography School at February 1, 2011 09:53 AM