People who bemoan the inaccuracies so prevalent in historical films can learn something from “The Legend of Suriyothai.” The picture from Chatri Chalerm Yukol is an extraordinarily ambitious attempt to detail the decades-long Thai palace intrigues that preceded a decisive battle with Burma in 1548. No effort has been spared in the search for authenticity: the physical details have been precisely recreated as far as the record will allow–the great battle, for instance, is fought on the very site where it’s supposed to have occurred–and the intricacies of the royal machinations, including lots of betrayals, poisonings and assassinations, are rigorously recounted. The result, unhappily, is a beautiful muddle–a movie whose concentration on minutiae obscures the larger story it’s tying to tell. It’s almost impossible to follow what’s happening, and why, a good portion of the time, not merely because the background is unfamiliar to westerners, but because the narrative isn’t successfully organized. Major characters (including the title woman, a queen who courageously sacrificed herself to save her husband in the concluding battle) disappear for long stretches while the makers attend to ancillary material involving shadowy secondary figures, and there’s little effort to emphasize what’s significant to the story arc–everything is played at roughly the same tempo and with approximately the same degree of energy. The result is that while “Suriyothai” has some very impressive isolated moments, as a whole it comes across as messy and often impenetrable. And that’s despite the fact that Francis Ford Coppola has helped Yukol to pare the original Thai version of the film from 185 minutes down to 142, reportedly removing some characters entirely and adding captions to clarify the chronology and identify the players.
The history included in the film starts in 1528, when the young Suriyothai (M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi) is compelled for dynastic reasons to break off her friendship with Lord Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich) in order to marry Prince Tien (Sarunyoo Wongkrachang). From this point the script runs through the reigns of several of the rulers of the two Thai kingdoms, until Tien, recalled from the Buddhist monastery to which he’d fled during a particularly threatening time, takes the throne in order to lead the united realm’s forces against a massive Burmese invasion. Though Suriyothai, Piren and Tien might be seen as a sort of romantic triangle, that aspect is played down in favor of their depiction as patriots willing to submerge their own desires and sacrifice themselves for the kingdom; all are involved in the final battle. In addition, the three disappear entirely from view at many moments between 1528 and 1548 as other members of the royal house take center stage in a series of coups, killings and other dastardly deeds. As the mayhem proceeds there are some remarkable set-pieces, most notably the waterfront ambush that brings Tien to the throne and the culminating resistance against the Burmese, with its gaudily-dressed masses of mounted elephants charging one another. Unfortunately, none of the historical personages are brought into real focus–they all seem plaster figures–and the linkage between events isn’t successfully clarified. Though one has to admire the richness of the recreation and the writer-director’s devotion to bringing his nation’s past to life, “The Legend of Suriyothai” seems to reduce history to what a great British scholar called “just one thing after another”–an amorphous, unconnected mass of details.
The lesson here is that while buffs might regret the fact, historical films need to be carefully shaped: selection and arrangement of material are essential if the final product is to be effective as a movie. Trying to include everything, or refusing to spotlight certain figures and episodes over (or even to the exclusion of) others will only lead to confusion and incoherence. Narrative films can’t manage what large scholarly tomes do, nor what documentaries can accomplish, and they shouldn’t try. Ultimately “The Legend of Suriyothai” puts cinematic tools at the disposal of a fundamentally uncinematic purpose. As such, despite moments when the exotic spell it creates is intoxicating, the film as a whole is ungainly and, in the end, not very enlightening.