This Thai “Alamo” story is superior to any of the Hollywood versions of the Texas battle and an exciting, effective film in its own right. The historically-based tale deals with the heroic resistance mounted by the inhabitants of a small village against Burmese invaders in the eighteenth century. Using the simplest of weapons against a far more powerful, well-armed foe, the locals, reinforced by warriors from the surrounding regions, held the invaders at bay for some months, seeking aid from the Siamese rulers at Ayudhaya but receiving none of an official sort, though some stragglers from the central government, including one who assists the villagers to build a single cannon, do appear. Under the circumstances, of course, the resistance is doomed to ultimate failure, but as with the later defenders at San Antonio, the villagers of Bang Rajan have been symbols of nationalism and sacrifice ever since.
The story is set in the mid-1760s, and begins in medias res, when the grizzled but strong head of Bang Rajan, Nai Than (Chumphorn Thepphithak), is wounded in the village’s latest skirmish with the Burmese. Realizing that he can’t continue in his position of leadership, and doubtful about the ability of any of the community’s own men to take over, he encourages the recruitment of an outsider, Chan Nhat-keo (Jaran Ngamdee), a fearless rebel who leads a small jungle force, as his successor. Also involved in the action are a Herculean fighter called Nai Thongmen (Bin Bunluerit) whose exploits are matched only by his bouts of drunkenness; Taeng-onn (Suntharee Maila-or), a liberated woman with martial prowess of her own; Nai Inn (Winai Kraibutr), a handsome but reckless young warrior who leaves the village open to attack by undertaking an unauthorized effort to assassinate the Burmese general; and his wife Sa (Bongkoj Khongmalai), whose pregnancy naturally creates some family drama and adds a note of sentimentality to the narrative. There’s also a religious element to the proceedings, in the person of a rigorous Buddhist monk who serves as the pillar of the community’s strength and so draws the attention of the invaders, most notably of the ruthless young general appointed to take Bang Rajan after the failure of his older predecessors.
There’s not a great deal of subtlety in the characterizations in “Bang Rajan,” but then there wasn’t in the iconic westerns of John Ford, either. The main figures are types as much as individuals, but they’re all well sketched and nicely played. And when it comes to action, director Thanit Jitnukul delivers strongly. The battles throughout are staged with energy (as well as quite explicit carnage), and they’re capped by a final confrontation that’s quite spectacular–though, viewers should be forewarned, also marked by considerable bloodletting. It’s all complemented by a score by Chartachai Phongpraphaphan that mingles gentle melody with rousing martial tones.
“Bang Rajan” is preferable to another Thai picture about resistance to an earlier (sixteenth-century) Burmese invasion, Chatri Chalerm Yukol’s “The Legend of Suriyothai,” which was released in the United States last year. That film is of larger scope, but it’s less smoothly made, and as a result of its devotion to the intricacies of palace intrigue it’s virtually impenetrable to a foreign audience, despite efforts to make it more accessible by re-editing and explanatory titles. By contrast this picture presents a simpler story more deftly, and makes its characters far more sympathetic (and identifiable). If you can deal with the rather graphic battle scenes, you should find this unusual offering unusually interesting.