Weighing in as the most expensive film in Thai history, and made with financial support from the Thai Royal Family itself, “The Legend of Suriyothai” is a historical epic from the old school. Helmed by Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol, “Suriyothai” is a stunning film of immense scope, in the overblown tradition of Cecil B. DeMille. Pitched as a history lesson in motion for the youth of Thailand, the film is actually a thinly veiled piece of propaganda to rally the hearts and minds of the citizenry against perennial antagonist Burma.
Set during the mid-16th century, “Suriyothai” covers a particularly tumultuous time in Thailand’s history, when the country was divided into many small kingdoms loosely affiliated with a central monarchy. With this shaky alliance wearing thin and the kingdom under constant attack from the bellicose Burmese, the monarchy is on the brink of collapse. During this trying time, the Queen Suriyothai (played by real life Princess M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi) became a legendary figure in Thai history when she suited up for battle in defense of her king and her nation.
“Legend of Suriyothai” the movie is grand spectacle in classic fashion. The film is composed of vast outdoor battles where thousands of extras — both human and animal — clash in dirty, gritty mayhem and opulent indoor set pieces framed within airy palaces. The contrast is quite stark as we move from the lavishly decorated palaces, with their luxurious wood panel floors and ornate columns and artwork, to the battlefield, where warriors on foot, horseback and on elephants hack away at each other with huge swords and spears. The scenery is truly breathtaking at times, with the vivid colors of the Thai countryside and the wild costumes complimenting the sets.
However, as visually arresting as the “Suriyothai” may be, the narrative is as thin as rice noodle. The first half of the film deals with the internal conflict within the royal factions as the various houses vie for control of the throne. Unfortunately the film moves so quickly through the material and the royal players that you’re likely to get lost without a scorecard unless you are already familiar with Thai history. The characters are also presented as stock Hollywood-style cutouts, consisting of the old benevolent monarch, the ambitious Prince who doesn’t hesitate to commit fratricide to reach the throne, the Lady MacBeth figure championing a usurper, and even a decrepit old schemer who seems to have been fashioned after Robert the Bruce’s father in “Braveheart.”
The breakneck pace with which “Suriyothai” covers the events of the first half provide enough energy to keep a possibly bewildered audience’s attention, but unfortunately the movie’s pace slows noticeably when it leaves the internal turmoil within the Thai royal family and shifts its focus to Thailand’s ongoing war with Burma. We see very little of the Burmese except for two or three war council sequences involving the Burmese King and his advisors, and once everyone is on the battlefield, you can’t tell the Burmese from the Thais. I suppose this is more realistic than the typical black-clad bad guys from Hollywood, but if I’m supposed to root for the Thais, it’d be nice if I could tell who they were.
The battles themselves are well done, with more than their fair share of bloody dismemberments, impalements and decapitations. These scenes of combat are all the more impressive when you see 30 or so roaring elephants with mini cannons mounted on their backs marching through throngs of warriors as the two armies collide. Even so, the energy level somehow still manages to come down a notch or two as the film intercuts between the battles and the latest coup d’etat, and as a result the second half detracts from the grand spectacle veneer that the first half so successfully put up.
While there are plenty of gorgeous scenery in “Legend of Suriyothai”, the dry presentation does not lend to an engaging viewing experience. There are only so many political assassinations, bedroom revelations, and deathbed oaths I can stand, and despite how cool elephants are, there are only so many pitched battle sequences you can watch before it gets too repetitive. But the main problem with “Suriyothai” is that we don’t learn much about Suriyothai herself. Unlike “Lawrence of Arabia,” where we learn about the exploits of the titular character and grow to love/hate him through this intimacy, Suriyothai is reduced to a supporting character for the majority of the film.
We learn early on that Suriyothai’s politically motivated marriage was the first of many sacrifices she had to make for her country. However, Suriyothai all but disappears from the middle third of the film, leaving us to wind our way through decades of scheming and intrigue amongst the various factions within the Thai royal family. It’s only when the movie shifts to the conflict with the Burmese that Suriyothai finally reappears. It’s this lack of focus that keeps “The Legend of Suriyothai” from being more than a fast-paced history lesson, and we all remember how much fun history class was.
“Suriyothai” had enough spectacle to catch the eye of legendary Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola, who re-edited the film and championed its theatrical release in the United States. I should note that this review is based on Coppola’s version, which is the shortest cut of the film available, coming in at an economical 142 minutes. The original cut ran 3 hours, and a 5-hour version was also produced. The existence of the different versions explains the large jumps in chronology and the utilitarian way the historical filler material is narrated in this version, with the hacked up narrative leaving only enough connective tissue to cover the historical details, and even then, with the broadest possible strokes.
Chatrichalerm Yukol (director) / Chatrichalerm Yukol (screenplay)
CAST: M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi …. Queen Suriyothai
Johnny Anfone …. Panbut Srithep
Siriwimol Charoenpura …. Tao Sri Sudachan
Ronrittichai Khanket …. Phra Chao Prome