Four blockbusters filmed in Thailand
Blessed with diverse and endlessly cinematic scenery, local creativity and competitive costs, Thailand has hosted reels of legendary films (as well as straight-to-video clunkers) over the years
Published on Sep 9, 2010
By Joel Quenby
Stills from The Beach, Tomb Raider 2, Bridge On the River Kwai, The Big Boss, Rambo IV, Star Wars: Episode III
Esteemed 1957 war epic Bridge on the River Kwai was shot in Kanchanaburi—and is now preserved in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry. Bruce Lee whined in letters about Pak Chong—“a big NOTHING”—in Nakhon Ratchasima province while shooting The Big Boss in 1971. Sixteen years later, Robin Williams improvised his motor-mouthed turn in Good Morning Vietnam—in Bangkok, obviously. Even the Star Wars franchise beamed over, when Krabi portrayed 'Kashyyyk,' planet of the Wookies, in 2005’s Episode III Revenge of the Sith.
Tourism gets a huge boost from the big-screen advertising Hollywood offers. However, movie sets can create environmental concerns—and are also often fraught, brimming with ego clashes and logistical hiccups (and not always because the lead actor is sulking). With this in mind, here are four notable examples of problematic international productions that somehow went awry in Thailand.
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)
“We had a sailing holiday off the coast of Phuket with … King Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden. They were keen to see the island, but we could hardly get anywhere near it. There were jetties and piers all over the place, and shops everywhere. So we moved on.” Roger Moore
Koh Tapu, the location of 007's showdown with villain Scaramanga in 1974
Synopsis: The ninth 007 film (and Roger Moore’s second) saw Bond targeted by the world's most expensive assassin, Scaramanga (Christopher Lee)—plus a dwarf in a bowler-hat. Landing on the triple-nippled villain’s high-tech island lair, the British spy duels with his nemesis, armed with fistfuls of bling and the dastardly “Solex Agitator.”
Locations: Bond zipped along canals, fought kung-fu baddies and wooed Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) in Bangkok and there is a boat chase across Phang-Nga Bay. The filming of the climactic duel, starting on a beach and ending in a fun-house full of mannequins, took place on adjacent islands: Koh Tapu and Ko Khao Phing Kan. The cast stayed on Phuket. According to Christopher Lee: “It was pretty primitive to say the least. A very small village…Phuket was nothing in those days.”
Aftermath: A tsunami of tourists began storming the Thai isles featured in the film. Roger Moore was disenchanted by revisiting the Andaman region, writing in The Sunday Times in 2008 that the “completely deserted paradise” of Ko Tapu had “been spoilt beyond recognition. These days, it’s been renamed James Bond Island, and has really been destroyed because of the film.”
Budget: $7,000,000 / Box Office: $97,600,000
THE BEACH (2000)
“It’s the most unbelievable place on Earth. It’s so totally unique. It’s like the Roman Empire. Anything and everything happens there, and you can do anything and find anything. Personally, I find the Thai people to be extremely friendly and polite, and very welcoming to foreigners.”
Leo DiCaprio was embroiled in ecological controversy filming The Beach
Synopsis: Trainspotting director Danny Boyle adapted Alex Garland’s 1996 hit novel, dubbed “A Lord of the Flies for Generation X” by Nick Hornby. Backpacker Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio, three years after Titanic-mania) discovers a solitary tropical haven in Thailand, where once-democratic dropouts secretly subsist—and gradually descend into anarchy.
Locations: Richard necks snake's blood and tokes a joint with Robert Carlye on Bangkok’s Khao San Road. “Leo fever” then went south, where the actor made a waterfall jump in Khao Yai National Park—then found paradise in Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh island. Locations in Phuket and Krabi were also used.
Aftermath: Controversy arose over the US$40-million production when 20th Century Fox reshaped the island's landscape—with bulldozers—to widen the beach. The studio attempted to restore the damage to the ecosystem, and Boyle inserted a last-minute ecotourism message into the movie. However, lawsuits dragged until 2006, when Thailand's Supreme Court ordered damage assessments made. The fuss probably helped cause DiCaprio’s conspicuous eco-friendliness.
Budget: $7,000,000 / Box Office: $97,600,000
RAMBO IV (2007)
“I called Soldier of Fortune magazine and they said Burma was the foremost area of human abuse on the planet.” Sylvester Stallone
Shooting Fish: Rambo takes a bow at the bow
Synopsis: Having used Thailand as Vietnam and Afghanistan in First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1998), Sylvester Stallone also shot the fourth installment there. The 60-year-old directed and starred as the taciturn Vietnam Vet slaughtering a franchise record 236 people—mostly Burmese soldiers—ostensibly to save a bunch of witless Christian missionaries and Karen tribal minorities.
Locations: Sly fixes boats by the Salween River—then reignites his guerrilla warfare mojo and goes kill crazy in villages nearby the Thai–Burma border. During filming, the Oscar-winning Hollywood legend claimed shots were fired over the film crew's heads. “We were told we could get seriously hurt if we went on,” Stallone said,
Aftermath: Stallone drew attention to alleged junta atrocities. “I witnessed the aftermath—survivors with legs cut off and all kinds of landmine injuries, maggot-infested wounds and ears cut off.” Myanmar’s police ordered DVD vendors not to hawk the movie, to little success. Burmese freedom fighters even adopted dialogue (notably “Live for nothing or die for something”) as rallying cries. “That, to me,” said Stallone, “is one of the proudest moments I've ever had in film.”
Budget: $50 million / Box Office: $154,611,774
RESCUE DAWN (2007)
“There is never the slightest doubt we are in the jungle. No movie stars creeping behind potted shrubbery on a back lot. The screen always looks wet and green, and the actors push through the choking vegetation with difficulty. We can almost smell the rot and humidity.”
Christian Bale and Steve Zahn get the heebie-jeebies for Werner Herzog
Synopsis: This jungle escape drama is based on the true story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a German-born American pilot shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War. He escaped a Laotian prisoner-of-war camp through the jungle towards Thailand, as retold by eccentric German autuer Werner Herzog in his 52nd film, but first Hollywood production.
Locations: Herzog filmed in the remotest northern Thai jungles, where Bale and co-star Steve Zahn swam roaring rapids, hacked dense thickets, endured searing humidity then torrential monsoon downpours. Bale ate maggots, bit a snake, and lost 25 kilograms. Midway through, 30 local crew members quit, as did the accountant sent to sort out the spiraling budget. The crew was turned away from a hotel in Krabi; Herzog's e-mails at the time contained words like “brink,” “precipice” and “abyss.” Powers-that-be then closed the production down.
Aftermath: Producer Steve Marlton was arrested and had to pay $500,000 in “owed taxes” before he could leave. Herzog escaped, later saying: “I had two valid passports—and juggled them at a critical moment.” In 2009, producers Gerald and Patricia Green were convicted of corruption in securing film contracts, including Rescue Dawn, under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—and sentenced to six months in prison. Against all these odds, the film was a critical triumph.
Budget: $10 million / Box Office: $7,037,886