Tuesday, February 23, 2016

SINGAPOREANA COMES TO LONDON!

Last year this blog became a 10 film year-long season at NUS Museums, which included my first sighting of the infamous Hawaii 5-O episode(s) The Year of the Horse. This year it becomes a one-day event in London, as part of the Asia House Film Festival 2016, and 'Singaporeana Day' will take place at The Cinema Museum on the 5th March, and will include Pretty Polly, The Virgin Soldiers and a new HD (BluRay) file screening of Saint Jack, which will be the first time that's shown in the UK since it was released. I will be on hand to introduce each screening as lucidly as possible, and then at the end of this marathon of Singaporeana, I will be on a panel with some other luminaries from film-making and film criticism to discuss the films, their context and impact. All of this was made possible by secret legend Gareth Evans for introducing me to the good people of Asia House and then well-known legend Jasper Sharp, who is the festival director and organiser who got excited by the idea and really pushed it through against all the various challenges of prints and rights acquisition that we faced. I look forward to seeing UK people at the event, come and say hi!


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Remembering Tony...

Image from TONY'S LONG MARCH (photo: Sherman Ong)



















During the upcoming Singapore International Film Festival, they'll be a tribute to Tony Yeow, the Singaporean film producer who died in June this year. Tony worked as the Unit Manager on Saint Jack, among many other things. He produced, conceived and co-directed about six feature films during his career; developed dozens more; produced and directed a bunch of commercials, documentaries and PSAs; was a TV presenter for a while; as well as an actor in big-budget TV miniseries and local theatre productions. Tony was a character. And Sherman Ong and myself set out to capture that in a film we shot between 2008 and 2010 called Tony's Long March. We'll be showing that at the tribute, and hearing from some of those who worked with him.

Details of the event can be found here. Scroll down to find 'Remembering Tony'.

In the meantime, here's something I wrote about him for Time Out Singapore in 2008.

***

Singapore’s film industry has its fair share of colourful characters, none more so than Tony Yeow. A producer, writer, director, occasional actor and veteran of television and commercials, Tony was born in 1938, around the same time as the Shaw Brother’s set up their film studio in Jalan Ampas and so his career spans the history of film-making in Singapore until today.
“I’m a has-been that never was,” he ‘s fond of saying, and its true that Tony has been an outsider, hustling to get projects off the ground, facing indifference, censorship and critical hostility along the way. He’s also a survivor, and recalls several close escapes from death during his WW2 era childhood in Chinatown (one bad fall leaving him with two broken arms), which he credits to “somebody upstairs taking a liking to me.”
As a boy, Tony often slipped off alone to the cinema, soaking up martial arts and horror flicks, “I enjoyed it, but I never thought I’d end up as a film producer.” Instead, as the premature breadwinner for his family, he became a teacher, then stumbled into radio broadcasting, largely on the strength of his still-resonant, crystal-clear voice, a tool he deliberately cultivated to imitate colonial era English news announcers. He side-stepped into television, getting promoted as a producer and presenter, and managing to be in the studio in 1965, when Lee Kuan Yew tearfully told the nation of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia.
His first film, Ring of Fury, came in the aftermath of a year working in TV in Hong Kong, “they had colour, Singapore was still in black and white.” Tony had met Bruce Lee, who was deeply into disco, “He was always dancing. He broached the idea of doing a musical with me. Unfortunately a year later he died.” Inspired by Lee, Tony created the Singapore’s first and (so far) last martial arts action film, producing, storylining and co-directing a low-budget but very stylish tale of a humble noodle-seller (played by Peter Chong, a real-life Karate master) who battles against gangsters led by a man in a metal mask. Aside from showing many parts of Singapore in 1973 that no longer exist, the film has some memorably hard-hitting combat scenes. “We didn’t choreograph those,” Tony explains, “I told them where to run, and we just turned on the camera and they fought.”
The film was banned for its portrayal of crime at a time when Singapore was aggressively ‘cleaning up’. After a disaster like that, most people would bow out, but Tony found himself “bitten by the passion”. His second film, a comedy about fisherman-out-of-water called Two Nuts, didn’t change the tide of decline in Singapore’s film industry in the late 70s, and his production company Impact, turned to commercials, documentaries and government campaign films (such as ‘Stop At Two’, intended to curb overpopulation). During this period, Tony joined the crew of Peter Bogdanovich’s infamous Saint Jack, the Hollywood film secretly shot in Singapore, and also took acting roles, including a part in the Australian mini- series Tanamera: Lion of Singapore, but the “impossible dream” hadn’t disappeared.
“Once you start on one film, it somehow leads onto another”, Tony says, and he kept toying with various ideas, inadvertently kick-starting the ‘revival’ of Singapore’s film industry with Medium Rare in 1991. Supposed to be a documentary-style account of the Tao Payoh murderer Adrian Lim, it drifted radically from this concept and is now largely seen as a terrible, albeit historically significant, flop. “Medium Rare could never be well done”, laughs Tony (he has a pun like this for all his films), who says he walked off the set on the first day of shooting and never returned. It did pave the way for more successful local films by directors
like Eric Khoo and Jack Neo, and that in turn gave Tony the chance to produce Tiger’s Whip, a comedy about an American looking for the titular Viagra-substitute that was intended as “spiritual film”, but ended up being “whipped pillar to post.” The lead actor, an American, was “a zombie, but very good-looking”, and the film also flopped.
“I had one more joust at the windmill,” says Tony of his virtually forgotten 2001 Malaysian action-comedy The Deadly Disciple, but he’s still going strong. After our interview he’s driving to town to “meet a friend who has an idea for a film”, and he has drawers full of screenplays, everything from knockabout comedies, to horror flicks and his period epic Little Red Star, about The Long March in China. If you meet Tony for even a short while, he’s likely to suggest you read one of them.

“I never made any good films,” Tony muses, by which he means that they didn’t make any money. For a moment he seems to regret his life-long involvement in an industry that wasn’t always kind to him but has certainly been interesting, “What else can I do? There’s no place to go”. Then he’s enthusiastically discussing some other new projects. As he says of that his much cherished Long March film idea – “It’s just a dream.”

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Remembering Pierre Cottrell

Lisa Lu and Pierre Cottrell, Singapore 2009 



















In the last two months two people who I met through my research into the making of Saint Jack have passed away. The first was Tony Yeow in early June, and I will write about him soon, and the second was Pierre Cottrell, who died a few days ago as I write this - on the 23rd July, and whose funeral was held yesterday in Paris. Last night, a few of us in Singapore who came to know Pierre gathered to have a glass or two in his honour. We were (and remain) the Singapore wing of the P. Cottrell Appreciation Society, and even though we knew him in what would turn out to be the last decade of his life, we had more than a few adventures with him, and had tales to tell, because that was the kind of guy Pierre was.

As we drank we translated Julian Gester's obituary of him in Libération and it's lamentable that so little has been written about Pierre in English, so one reason to write this now, is to collect some of the things we know about Monsieur Cottrell.

Pierre was one of that generation of post-war teenagers who fell in love with cinema at the perfect moment. He volunteered at the Cinémathèque Française, imbibing the history of movies for free, and it was here that he encountered seminal figures such as Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque, Eric Rohmer, who by then (in 1959) was editor of Cahiers du Cinéma and had directed some short films, and Barbet Schroeder who would found the company Les Films du Losange with Rohmer, later Cottrell would join them. However, before that Cottrell went off to America (when he was 18!) , and according to an oft-repeated story it was a self-imposed exile after he was threatened with a gun by another Cahiers writer and would-be film-maker, Jean Eustache.

Of course America was the source of Pierre's favourite film-makers - his deep, abiding love for 'Golden Age' Hollywood directors would last throughout his life and in 1960s Los Angeles he encountered Otto Preminger, Delmer Daves among others, and would fall in with the New Hollywood gang, most notably Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, and Nicholson's main employer, Roger Corman.

In New York he hung out with Bob Dylan down in the village, and embraced the underground film scene. He loved to tell the story about getting bust by the cops the night Jonas Mekas screened Jean Genet's "obscene" Chant D'Amour, according to some reports he was tearing the tickets, although he insisted he was the projectionist. One of his earliest credits was as a Production Assistant on Mekas's film of The Brig in 1964. Pierre was barely 20.

He went back to France to begin work with Rohmer, but kept up the American Connection. Famously, struggling actor Jack Nicholson moved into Pierre's Paris apartment in 1966 and spent many weeks enjoying the city and Pierre's company whilst getting his head together, before returning to Hollywood (and finally, success). And then Roger Corman arrived in France in 1967 to shoot a biker film, The Wild Racers and Pierre ended up as an Associate Producer (securing the services of Nestor Almendros as cinematographer) and from then on would become Corman's occasional go-to guy for difficult location shoots, including the rarely-seen Vic Morrow in Istanbul flick, Target: Harry in '69, and a decade later Saint Jack in Singapore directed by Peter Bogdanovich (whom Pierre had met in New York when they were both fresh young cinephiles) - but that's another story.

Pierre eventually became a partner in Losange, and he and Schroeder would produce Rohmer's great run of late 60s/early 70s masterpieces, starting with La collectionneuse in '67, for which Pierre was not credited, despite apparently editing the 'script' together from recorded improvisations by Rohmer and the actors, and then Ma nuit chez Maud (1969), Le genou de Claire (1970),  and L'amour l'après-midi (1972). This was the peak. A time of celebrity and international travel. Pierre rubbed shoulders with everyone, and found himself at the Oscars in 1970, representing the nominated Maud.

In the mean-time, his friendship with Bob Rafelson, who he fondly referred to as 'Curly' (a nickname coined by Jack Nicholson) reached the point where the newly minted director offered Pierre 60 thousand bucks so that he could produce the first feature of his would-be assassin, Jean Eustache. Rafelson had met Eustache and found him appropriately crazy. The film they all made together, La Maman et la Putain (1973) took Rohmer's dialogue-heavy approach in an entirely new and extreme direction, and was something of a succès de scandale, getting booed and winning the Grand Prix and the Critic's prize at Cannes, being declared "an insult to the nation" by Le Figaro, and then going onto 'boffo' box office in Paris. Around that time Pierre's involvement with Losange and Schroeder also ended, and from then on he worked alone, moving from project to project on a freelance basis, although he would work with Rohmer once more on L'anglaise et le duc in 2001.

Pierre produced some fascinating films through the 1970s and into the 80s, including the almost entirely unseen Flesh Colour (1978), starring Dennis Hopper, Lou Castel and Bianca Jagger (!), Eustache's second feature Mes petites amoureuses in '74, and two films with Wim Wenders, including Lightning Over Water AKA Nick's Movie (1980), which owed much to Pierre's friendship with the film's subject, the ailing Hollywood maverick, Nicholas Ray, and another meta-film, The State of Things in 1982 (which somehow emerged out of a Raoul Ruiz film that Pierre was also producing, called The Territory), which featured Roger Corman in an acting role, and another of Pierre's heroes Sam Fuller (and reunited him with the star of La collectionneuse, Patrick Bauchau).

From the mid-80s producing work began to dry up. Pierre would find himself in Louisiana helping out Curly Bob, who was shooting the sex scenes (uncredited) on a soft-core porn adaptation of Milo Manara's erotic comic The Click. When Pierre told me this story I had my doubts, but a clip on YouTube shows a very debonair Pierre taking on the role of the butler with poise. Indeed, Pierre ends up on camera in some interesting places, including the aforementioned Lightning Over Water, as a 'Pornographer' in Jacques Rivette's notorious Out 1 (along with his schoolfriend and fellow cinephile, Bernard Eisenschitz), and, decades later, (if he made the final cut) in U-Wei Haji Saari's Hanyut.

Having mostly fallen out of the producing game, his immaculate linguistic skills enabled a second career as a high-end 'Subtitlist', often for American and Asian films that were coming to Cannes, and the list of films and film-makers he translated for includes: Costa-Gavras, Spike Lee, Henry Jaglom, Lizzie Borden, Eric Khoo, Lino Brocka, Edward Yang, and (I'm sure) many, many more.

Although he'd rather have been producing films, Pierre's mastery of language lent itself to the subtitling gig, and anyone who'd spent time with him and/or received letters, emails or memos from him knew how he prided himself on wordplay and poetic turns of phrase (in French and English). There's a quote in Gester's obituary about how as a producer he would write beautiful things on mundane production paperwork. That's very Pierre. I've seen many of the memos he wrote for his director during the Saint Jack shoot, and even though  his relationship with Bogdanovich was fractious, each one is courteous, friendly and perfectly constructed. He was, as our friend Michel says, a man of letters.

When I was writing my book on Saint Jack, I would speak to Pierre on the phone, but most of the best material came from long emails he'd send me, some of which was so potentially libellous I could never use it. He did me the great favour of organising a phone interview between myself and Roger Corman. This gave me a glimpse into his legendary 'fixing' skills. I was sent very clear instructions - a time (the middle of the night in Singapore), a phone number - and it all went like clockwork. Pierre prided himself on getting this stuff done.

When the book was completed and published I was somewhat dreading his reaction (I figured he'd think it was too sympathetic towards Bogdanovich). A copy signed with thanks was dispatched to Paris. To my surprise he sent me a wonderful note of appreciation, asking for five more books as soon as possible, which he wanted to pass to friends and colleagues, and of course he would pay for them (I sent the copies, but never a bill).

We met in Paris a year or so later, and there he was, in his big coat and glasses - quiet, intense but once he warmed up to you, there was humour and mischief. In November 2009, I, and future good friends of Pierre (Warren and Wenjie), were able to bring him out to Singapore for the Saint Jack 30th anniversary screening at the National Museum of Singapore, and he was so happy to be back. He brought prodigious gifts for everyone involved, which included an enormous cache of French cheese for myself. Gifts were part of Pierre's repertoire. There's a story a Saint Jack crew member tells of Pierre rolling up on set during a particularly gruelling section of the shoot - he didn't have their cash per diems because of a problem with the bank, but instead he had a mountain of sweet tropical fruit to pass around - how could anyone be angry? In 2009 I saw a flash of this at the end of our Saint Jack Locations Tour which I was conducting. We finished off at the Goodwood Park Hotel, and while we were outside by the pool, Pierre disappeared into the hotel lobby. He emerged minutes later with a fistful of postcards and handed them out to everyone. It was a lovely thing to do.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Announcing: The Lost Film Project!

La Testa Rossa (The Red Head), 1971?

An exhibition of four restored film stills, as part of 'Beyond The Horizon', a group show at the ADM Gallery in the School of Art, Design and Media in Singapore from the 4th February to the 14th March.

From the exhibition notes:

"While researching American and European films shot on location in Singapore, I came across a brief article in The Straits Times (11th January, 1971) announcing that an “Italian spy picture” was being filmed in the East Coast area under the title La Testa Rossa (The Red Head). Its director was unknown, Enzo Salvadori (misspelt as “Salfatori” by the newspaper). I assumed that the film was never completed.

About a year ago, further research revealed that a film of that name was released briefly in Italy (and other countries) in 1974, but we were unable to locate an archive print or video copy. My researcher Hun Ping acquired an Italian distribution catalogue from the early ‘70s and there was a Post Office Box address associated with the title. I sent an inquiry letter, not expecting a reply.

Six months later I received a package containing a 117 page typed screenplay in Italian for La Testa Rossa on yellowing paper, and four 35mm frames, apparently clipped from a extremely faded and damaged film print. A hand-written note accompanied the materials with just the words, “That’s all that’s left.”

For this exhibition, I’m presenting specially restored ‘blow-ups’ of those four images, alongside brief extracts of the script (the translation of which is ongoing) that may or may not correspond to the scenes depicted. The ‘film stills’ are precious glimpses of Singapore in 1971; fragments of an apparently lost film."


“The Girl points to the wilderness behind them. Lee sees a FIGURE emerge out of nowhere – both utterly of this land and a stranger. The Man screams.” Page 7

“Muffled sounds of words and noises deep within the rooms. The corridor seems to stretch out forever. He’s walking but not getting anywhere.” Page 48


“He crashes against a stall selling raw meat. An infant wails. He keeps running - into alleys and between walkways. Unseen footsteps loud and fast.” Page 88


“It’s from a distance, and it hurts to see him fall. The water surges up against his body, breaths slowing with every wave. Then – finally, he’s quiet.” Page 113


My research into this intriguing film is ongoing.

Thanks a million to Toh Hun Ping for his work as researcher and digital image restorer on this project, you can see his latest film location related website here

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Coming of Age: ‘Hollywood' in Singapore: Pt. 2


The Virgin Soldiers, John Dexter, shot: 1967/released: 1969


“It rained a lot, and steamed when the sun shone. It was always hot. But it was safe.” 

A few weeks ago Leslie Thomas died. He was a relatively prolific novelist producing a book a year for a long time, but, as the obits made clear, best known as the author of The Virgin Soldiers, a fictionalised account of his years as a conscripted private stationed in Malaya, and more specifically, Singapore between 1949 and ’51. This was the early phase of the ‘Malayan Emergency’ when British forces fought viciously with anti-colonial, pro-communist guerilla squads who’d shifted from being a local resistance against the invading Japanese (trained and armed by the Allies) to terrorists determined to ‘free’ Malaya from the British. It's a conflict little represented in fiction before or since. The literary precursors to Thomas’s book were Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy in the late 50s, and Michael Keon’s The Durian Tree in ‘59, filmed in 1964 as The Seventh Dawn, a forgotten attempt to render the Emergency as a big-budget war epic. None of these would have the popular impact of The Virgin Soldiers.

Published in 1966, a good fifteen years later after these formative events for Thomas (but only six years after the Emergency was declared over) the book was a massive bestseller in its time, both in the UK and America. An irreverent, iconoclastic look at military life in the aftermath of World War Two, The Virgin Soldiers ("the best three words I ever wrote" Thomas later said) was firmly anti-war, anti-authoritarian and, most importantly, pro-sex, chiming perfectly with the period. Sales were aided by a series of lurid book covers (the first edition projects an image of a soldier in a jungle, Maurice Binder-style, onto a naked female torso) and its reputation for being “intensely erotic”, as Publisher’s Weekly helpfully blurbed for the paperback.



The story’s recounted mostly from the point-of-view of Thomas’s alter-ego, Brigg (ironically General Briggs was responsible for British strategy during the Emergency), a vaguely working class chap in his early 20s whose National Service stint brings him to Panglin Camp (a jokily renamed Tanglin Barracks, although Thomas was actually stationed at Nee Soon Camp) to be a pay clerk, doing admin in the arse-end of beyond (miles from the action), where the most useless, stupid and unfit for duty are deliberately “mislaid by the army".

It’s about the tedium of the posting - the practical jokes, the petty squabbles, being horny and bored and powerless in a foreign country. But riots break out in Singapore and even the pen-pushers get into the fray. At first Brigg’s only interested in losing his virginity; sights are set on Philippa, the daughter of the Sergeant Major, but he settles for ‘Juicy’ Lucy, a pretty Chinese dancer at the Liberty Club downtown, who’s never had a virgin before and loves it (coining the titular phrase). Meanwhile Philippa, resentful of her Singapore life, whose father openly worries she’s a lesbian, is deflowered by Driscoll, the tough-bastard Sergeant haunted by a wartime incident in which he accidentally shot his own lads, and whose hatred of the other Sergeant Wellbeloved, a cruel, incompetent racist constantly boasting of military heroics, becomes a crucial narrative thread.

Thomas sketches miniatures of Brigg’s mates - the train-obsessive Sinclair, openly gay Villiers and Foster, bespectacled Brook, overweight Fred Organ, and scheming Fenwick (who's convinced he’ll be discharged if he keeps his ears under water until he’s deaf) through a series of episodes big and small. There’s the interminable camp dance, a brutal dog-shooting competition, the anti-British riot (which sees Brigg try to play hero by ‘rescuing’ Philippa and her dotty mother), a long messy fight between Driscoll and Wellbeloved, R&R in Georgetown (where Brigg and Philippa finally have sex) building up to the novel’s climax – Brigg and the boys seeing real action when their train back to Singapore (through the Malayan jungle) is ambushed by bandits. 

Thomas takes it leisurely, keeps the banter among the men earthy and often genuinely funny, and ensures the spectre of terrible violence is always close. An early chapter begins with the sentence: “When the Japanese had been in Panglin during the war they had taken some Australians down to the cricket field and murdered them.” He does this again and again, shifting from an amusing or relatively innocuous detail into something to do with death, as casually as you might mention a change in the weather.

Singapore is minimally described, like a scrawled map for a weekend visitor. There’s the “village” near the camp, the centre of town where the boys visit the Liberty Club “just off the Padang”. Lucy’s flat’s on “Sarangoon Road (sic)”. When the riot breaks out they roam the city, passing the Cathay cinema (showing Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets) and Raffles Hotel (for “people with money”) and setting up temporary camp in the “Golden World amusement park”. The only Singaporean character (let’s skip “Fuk Yew” the laundryman whose fingers Brigg accidentally shoots off) is Lucy. Sexually generous and deeply whimsical, she’s a stereotype but so fondly drawn that when Brigg finds out she’s been murdered by a gang of British soldiers who thought she’d passed them VD, it’s devastating. Even more so as Brigg pushes his grief away and wonders “if she did have the disease” (she didn’t). When the book was published, Walter Warwick, reviewer for The Straits Times (an expat with his own post-war memories), found it sensationalised, “The Pay Corps was never like this,” he sniffed.



In the late '60s, Ned Sherrin, on a hot-streak after producing That Was The Week That Was, was offered a job as an executive for Columbia Pictures in London. With theatre and TV contacts up the wazoo, Sherrin was a classy hire. The Vietnam War was still raging in Indochina, and the ‘youth picture’ with counter-cultural overtones was emerging as a commercial genre (Columbia were the studio that picked up – and made a fortune from - Easy Rider in ’69), so the story of young guys making love not war, seemed opportunistically right for the studio. Sherrin, by his own admission not a rock n’ roll guy, simply wanted to make a good film capturing the book’s spirit. 

Credits for writing the thing are complicated. The top credit, "screenplay", goes to John Hopkins (the bigger font size in the opening credits says it all), but "adaptation" is credited to John McGrath and “additional dialogue” is by Ian La Frenais. Hopkins and McGrath both started off in television, primarily on police procedural Z Cars, episodes of which Hopkins wrote and McGrath directed. McGrath would become a legendary political theatre-maker in the 70s, but in the late ‘60s he was a jobbing screenwriter, adapting his own anti-war play, The Bofors Gun (1968) as well as Len Deighton’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967) for Ken Russell (the Edinburgh International Film Festival just annouced a tribute to his screenwriting this year; The Virgin Soldiers is absent). Hopkins was a prolific writer of lauded ‘Wednesday Plays’ and other one-off TV dramas, and had done a major rewrite on the troubled script for Thunderball (1965). McGrath probably did the first draft (hence the adaptation credit), which was, for whatever reason, substantially rewritten by Hopkins, and sitcom king La Frenais, a specialist in dry funny dialogue, came in for the polish.

The script retained the novel’s major set-pieces, leaning towards Brigg’s point-of-view, including a first-person voice-over narration glueing the various episodes together. As in any adaptation there are big changes and contractions. Rather than have Brigg and Philippa reunite in Georgetown, the film consumates their lust much earlier beside the pipeline during Brigg’s comical rescue, and once that’s done Philippa’s barely seen again. The most fundamental ommission is Lucy’s death, which I presume was just too disturbing to include. The culminative effect of these tweaks is that once Brigg and Philippa lose their respective virginities (rapidly crosscut together in that stylised late '60s style) both the romantic and sensual aspects of the book slacken off. A neater move is to make Wellbeloved's cowardice something that actually happens on-screen, placing him on the ambushed train (hiding in the toilet) in the film’s climax, rather than have Driscoll confront him about something that he reportedly did in the war.

John Dexter, a theatre-director associated with the great post-war theatre generation led by Laurence Olivier, was picked by Sherrin to make his cinema directing debut with The Virgin Soldiers. Hywel Bennett, a Welsh-born, London-raised and RADA trained young actor (with just a few TV credits at that point) got the plum part of Brigg, and established British star Nigel Davenport played Driscoll (around same time he recorded all of HAL’s dialogue for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddysey, and was Michael Caine’s reluctant wartime partner in Andre De Toth’s excellent, underseen Play Dirty), a rather too-young Jack Shepherd was Wellbeloved, and Lynn Redgrave (who’d just played Noel Coward’s Pretty Polly in the TV version of the Singapore-set story) was cast as Philippa, alongside her real-life mother Rachel Kempson (wife of Michael Redgrave), playing her mum. 



That particular bit of casting was of vital importance to Singaporeans, according to The Straits Times, who, when they found out, devoted several articles to the “Royal members of British filmdom” deigning to visit the former colony. When filming had been announced earlier in 1967, Cathay’s managing director Tom Hodge, a tireless cheerleader for foreign productions in Singapore, was convinced the decision was due to the “tremendous success” of the Pretty Polly shoot the year before, “when the fullest possible co-operation was given by the Singapore authorities.” Location filming started with a week and a half in Port Dixon, Malaysia for the beach R&R scene and some jungle exteriors, followed by five weeks in Singapore, where they needed an army camp or barracks to stand in for Panglin.

Built in the late 1930s, Selerang Barracks was part of the British forces coastal defences, but when Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, it became a prison, containing the overspill of captured British and Australian soldiers from Changi. It would be the site of a notorious stand-off between Commander General Shimpei Fukuye and every military POW in Singapore when the Japanese General demanded prisoners sign a statement promising to cease all escape attempts, after four had been caught fleeing from Changi. When the officers refused, Fukuye had every single prisoner marched into Selerang, squeezing an estimated 15000 men into a space designed for 800, most of them forced to live pressed together in the parade square with only a tiny amount of water and few toilets. At the same time the four escapees were executed on Changi Beach. After several days when it was clear that more would die in these conditions the officers capitulated. The POWs signed the document, many using nonsense or fictional names, Ned Kelly was a popular one with the Australians. This barracks, still under the command of the British Army two years after independence, was granted to The Virgin Soldiers' shoot, with its resident servicemen as extras.

In the lead-up to the arrival of crew, Tom Hodge let slip that “a local girl” might be needed to play Lucy, although that offer was soon downgraded to being a “stand-in” for the Chinese London-based actress Tsai Chin (Fu Manchu’s daughter in several Harry Alan Towers flicks), whose scenes would be shot in London on a set. After auditions they picked Ng Lee Ngo, a student who “seemed to be harbouring an anxiety” according to The Straits Times reporter on the beat. She was replaced by Denise Chew, an ex-Bunny Girl at the Playboy Club in London, glimpsed in the completed film very briefly (in two fleeting shots which keep her face hidden) chucking Brigg’s trousers into an alleyway. Two years later, the reviewer for The Straits Times would describe her performance as “brilliant”.



Filming in Singapore lasted five weeks, with the Redgraves flying in for the last nine days, before everyone shipped out on the 5th of October 1968, to begin a month of shooting on sets built in Shepperton. Almost all the interiors were built and shot there, including the barracks bar for the garrison dance scene, which features an impossibly brief appearance by a pre-stardom David Bowie, being shoved out from behind the bar. Bowie, who would later come to Singapore for real and make a film about it, cut his hair for the part (a big gesture in 1967), and was rewarded with about one second of screen time.

Before filming had started, Sherrin asked Ray Davies, lead singer and songwriter for The Kinks, to write music for the film (and offered him a part - he wisely declined). Davies came up with a new composition, The Virgin Soldiers March for a full orchestra and brass band, and penned some unironic “noble” lyrics to accompany the theme. These were rejected by Columbia who hired two lyricists Eddie Snyder (who co-wrote Strangers in the Night) and Larry Kusik to write lyrics that they believed (according to Sherrin) were “going to lead the whole of young America marching on Washington”. Sherrin declared them “apalling”, and nixed them too (and rightly so, as proven by a tepid vocal version, The Ballard of the Virgin Soldiers recorded by folk singer Leon Bibb in 1970). 

Davies’s music (credited to “Raymond Douglas Davies” ensuring it would be lost to only the most die-hard of Kinks fans), manages to be both plaintive and gloriously celebratory. It plays over the opening credit sequence, a relentless monochrome image/photo-montage of young soldiers, from the Napoleonic War through to World Wars One and Two, before we’re dropped into an initially baffling series of shots of uniformed boys in vivid color - the titular “Virgins” - waiting for the national anthem to be over so they get on with a night of drunken debauchery in The Liberty Club. Then we transition into the first pages of the book, with Brigg on early morning tea duty walking through Selerang/Panglin at first light, palm trees looming in the grey-blue sky as Hywel Bennett’s deathly hush of a voice-over sets the scene.

The film starts strong. It’s beautifully shot (by Ken Higgins a TV cameraman whose other notable credit was Georgy Girl), and has the good habit of dropping us into scenes that have already begun. Coming from theatre, John Dexter’s adept at choreographing sizeable groups of actors in the foreground of medium shots (often with some bit of business happening in the background), before cutting to close-ups of one of his young actors, yelling or looking utterly bewildered. It’s crisp and brisk and entertaining, until the episodic trudge of the narrative begins to weigh the film down around the halfway mark, as does the broad, theatrical delivery of the dialogue by most of the young soldier cast, who aside from Bennett (who we’ll get to in a bit) are nothing to write home about (save for Christopher Timothy and an improbable Wayne Sleep, the rest of the lads are destined for lifetimes in soaps and daytime TV).

Cinematic fireworks are saved for the train ambush at the end, which begins with a beautiful tracking shot from the outside, looking into carriage windows at night (prefiguring Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited), and then when the battle begins, deploying more tracking shots to capture the explosions and violent chaos. This entire set-piece was shot in the UK, with mocked-up train interiors in the studio and the exteriors, complete with a crashed Fifteen Guinea Special steam train (one of the last in existence), shot with rural Essex (on some miraculously sunny days for October) standing in for the Malayan jungle. Dexter would never make another film on this scale, he followed The Virgin Soldiers with two peculiar independents, Pigeons (1970) and I Want What I Want (1972), and then returned to theatre and opera.

The aforementioned tone of the book, the way Thomas slides wry details of camp life alongside devastating revelations, proves unadaptable, although Dexter and co give it the good British try. Thomas could write a line like “Fred Organ, heavyweight kicker of anti-personnel mines, wasn’t listening.” but when you show a fat, loveable slob having his body blown-up during a football match, you have to do just that. Thomas's casual shocks (little literary landmines) become big drama on screen. Some things are toned down, as already mentioned, Lucy survives, and the scene where Wellbeloved confronts a naked “Malay girl” alone in her house during a kampong search is, in the book, clearly an attempted rape, foiled by Brigg and company, whereas in the film it’s sinister but not a precursor to violence (Wellbeloved was looking for “a bit of bare tit”, as Driscoll observes, clarifying that he’s a disgusting creep, but not a rapist). 

The idea of the ‘anti-hero’ was a topical one in the late '60s, as conflict and rebellion around the world led to a sustained questioning of what exactly a hero was in so much culture of the era. The film never allows us to consider Brigg as a hero for a second, even when he appears to be rescuing Philippa and her mother, he’s clumsy and terrified (just as in the book), and his primary motivation is erotic rather than heroic. During the train ambush the film actually takes Brigg’s anti-heroism further. Trapped in a foxhole with the far more experienced (in the book, traumatised) “jungle soldier” Waller (played by future Commander of the Night’s Watch, James Cosmo), he accidentally causes Waller’s death by calling for him at the wrong moment, which leads into his cowardly departure from combat, saving himself from death by running away and then inadvertently avoiding court-martial by finding a train full of soldiers to come to the rescue. 

Hywel Bennett as Brigg. He’s 27 but looks barely 18, and has a striking, open (Bowie-like) androgynous face (a decade before the booze and the fags and the years turned him into Ricki Tarr, John Le Carre’s fucked-up spy-lover in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - undoubtedly his best performance – and four years before he sexually cavorted again to a Kinks soundtrack in the execrable Percy), he projects a straightforward innocence in The Virgin Soldiers. The film wants Brigg to go to the Heart of Darkness, to have his innocence wiped away and demonstrates this by flinging dirt on his face before important close-ups, as if that’s enough. One wonders how Bennett would have handled Brigg reacting to Lucy’s murder, but we’ll never know. The film doesn’t want to end the way the book does, with Brigg on the truck out of Singapore and a terrible gag about the Chinese laundryman, so it deliberately fumbles the joke and closes a few seconds later, once Brigg’s revisited all the freeze-framed faces of the film’s dead, with himself at the end of it. And then we see those monochrome images from the titles again, the eternal boy-soldiers of history, destined to be victims of other people’s pride and greed and stupidity forever more, and Ray Davies’ funeral march begins a final time, majestic, sad and bitterly ironic.



Although shooting was finished well before Christmas 1967, the film took an unnaccountably look time to edit and appears to have been kept ‘on the shelf’ until almost two years later, October 1969, when it was released in the UK, and February 1970 for America. Finally showing up in Singapore cinemas in May of that year. It was relatively successful, enough to be referred to repeatedly as a “hit” in all of Thomas’s obituaries, although it didn’t trouble any top ten box office lists. These were during vintage months for cinema, especially in terms of films that pushed the barriers on sexuality and violence. Thinking about The Virgin Soldiers alongside Lindsay Anderson's If... or even Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (released a few months earlier), makes it seem like a pretty minor achievement.

Thomas followed The Virgin Soldiers with a several novels that mixed military characters, humour and sex, before returning to Brigg again with Onward Virgin Soldiers, which jumps forward in time to discover Brigg (improbably) enlisted in the regular army and serving in peaceful Hong Kong in the 1970s. Four years later Thomas completed the trilogy with Stand Up Virgin Soldiers, which jumps back in time and begins moments after The Virgin Soldiers ends, with Brigg learning that he has to return to Panglin for another six months – so (if I may be so bold) the threequel is a prequel to the sequel. Thomas realised that what people actually wanted from a Virgin Soldiers book was more of the same, and he gave it to them (complete with shamelessly resurrected Lucy), and a film version was quickly put into production.

The casting of Robin Askwith, toothily grinning icon of everything grubby, desperate and sad in low-budget British cinema of the 1970s, as Brigg, tells you all you need to know about the movie of Stand Up Virgin Soldiers. He and director Norman Cohen, then guiding Askwith through the pleasureless Confessions series of sex-comedies, were the Scorsese and De Niro of smutty crud. Stand Up was filmed between Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Confessions from a Holiday Camp, and much of it plays like ‘Confessions from Singapore’, including Miriam Margoyles as a Chinese whore called Elephant Ethel (offensive at every level), topless ‘native girls’ bathing in the river, deadening slapstick, staggeringly crude dialogue, and when the soldiers finally soldier very late in the film it’s a shameless, insincere attempt to simulate the tragic heft of the first film. Nigel Davenport as Driscoll is the only returnee, and he’s a decade older, heavier and wearier – poor bastard. Thomas’s influence (he has sole screenplay credit, he'd not write another film) is felt during the protracted romance between Brigg and a nurse, played with visible hesitation by Pamela Stephenson. The whole thing was shot in Elstree studios (home of the Confessions films), and although Thomas told The Straits Times that Singapore had changed too much by ‘76 to film there (a significant and not inaccurate observation), the production was just far too cheap (and disinterested in authenticity) to have ever seriously considered a location shoot. As a sidenote, the year that Stand Up was released, '77, also saw the stage premiere of Peter Nichols' Privates On Parade, a musical based on Nichols' time in an entertainment unit for the troops in Singapore and Malaya in the late 40s, with the Emergency as a backdrop. It was filmed in 1982, none of it in Singapore.

While The Virgin Soldiers was never masterpiece, it’s a fascinating adaptation of a deceptively powerful book, telling a story about a mostly forgotten war and a specific time in Singaporean and Malaysian history. The tawdriness of the sequel managed to tarnish the memory of the original. The VHS tape of the original film was ubiquitous in Smiths and Woolworths when I was growing up, and I just assumed (from the awful cover and the blurb on the back) that it was another bad sex comedy.

Meanwhile (back in the '60s), Singapore now had two big-budget Hollywood films under its belt and it looked as if the dream of it becoming a legitimate centre for high-profile American film production in East Asia was becoming reality. In September 1968 the press announced excitedly that six “big budget films” were aiming to film in Singapore over the next two years. MGM had two in pre-production, Fred Zinnemann's version of Man’s Fate, starring David Niven, and an adaptation of James Clavell's Tai Pan, starring Patrick McGoohan. In 1969, the year The Virgin Soldiers finally saw the light of day, both got very close to starting, Singaporeans were cast, including hundreds of extras, crew were employed and bills were racked up with local companies. The Zinnemann was a day away from its first day on set. Both were cancelled. The dream was over, as was the film industry in Singapore. The next notable foreign film shot in Singapore was Wit's End just before Christmas (and its director Joel Reed remembers the anger over Man's Fate), and then almost nothing until 1978 when Peter Bogdanovich showed up, and we know how that turned out.