Siam’s First Foreign-Produced Feature Film

Bangkok of the 1920’s was a very different city to what it became from the late 1960’s onwards.

In the early years of the 1920s the adventurous and innovative Canadian-born, American-based film producer, director and screenwriter Henry MacRae came to Siam. After obtaining the consent and assistance of local authorities, MacRae made the first feature-length film by a Hollywood studio in Siam and starring an all-Siamese cast. Titled Miss Suwanna of Siam it premiered in June 1923, but not without attracting local controversy. Sadly, the two copies of the 35mm silent film left in Siam have been lost, or possibly intentionally destroyed, and no copy of it exists among the American archives.

Born in Toronto in Canada in 1876, Henry MacRae began making movies and serials during the silent era in Hollywood from 1912 onwards. He is credited with a number of innovations from using artificial light for interiors, to shooting at night, the wind machine and double exposure. His output eventually exceeded 130 films and included Tarzan the Tiger, the first Tarzan movie with sound, made in 1929, the Flash Gordon serial (1936) and his final movie Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, made in 1940, the year MacRae died.

In 1922 he travelled to Southeast Asia. After making a film in the southern Philippines he came to Bangkok to do the same for Universal Studios. His first task was to obtain government permission to make the film, which would star local actors.

In an article entitled ‘Picturesque and Unusual Siam’ that appeared in the 1924 edition of the Film Yearbook, MacRae wrote, ‘His Majesty The King, is a graduate of Oxford, England, and believes he is a second Shakespeare, that is the Shakespeare of Siam. He spends a great amount of his time translating Shakespeare into Siamese and producing these dramas and comedies with his own people- actors from what they call The Royal Entertainment Company. These actors, both men and women, are adopted into the Royal Entertainment Company when they are children and have a life-long job. They receive a satisfactory salary and their expenses for living, and are all given titles, after they reach a certain age. I felt that His Majesty would be interested in moving pictures, and after considerable maneuvering I finally secured an audience which resulted in securing the entire company’s assistance together with the free use of the King’s 52 automobiles. His Majesty’s 600 race horses, the free use of the navy, the Royal Palaces, the railways, the rice mills, thousands of miles of rice fields, cocoanut (sic) groves, klongs and Elephants, and white elephants at that. The white elephant of which we have heard so much, is on close inspection not even light colored; the only distinction being a number of white spots on their ears and having white eyes. But they are a very sacred proposition with the King and the natives, and every white elephant discovered is the property of the King, and is given a special palace to live in with a number of attendants, and always has the association of a pure white monkey.’

A prince of the Royal Court noted in his diary, ‘Today Mr Henry A. MacRae came to see me. I assured him of two things: first, travelling; second, finding a place for film processing and screening. Above these, he has to take care of himself. For our benefit, he has to give a copy of the film to the State Railway in return…’ At that time it fell to the Royal State Railways to oversee such diversities as films and the promotion of tourism. When the film was completed, MacRae did indeed give a copy to the State Railways, as well as one to King Vajiravudh.

The film itself was a romance, written and directed by MacRae, with Robert Kerr as assistant director. Kerr would return to Siam in 1928 to direct The White Rose, a film shown in Bangkok in September that year.

The two lead actors in Miss Suwanna of Siam were Sa-ngaim Naveesatien as the heroine Suwanna, and Ram Projtasart as her love interest. As MacRae later noted, ‘The women of Siam are rather a fine looking lot some of them very attractive and always very clean in dress and manner.’ Suwanna suffers her father’s disapproval but eventually finds true love as well as filial reconciliation. Although it was basically a standard romance, MacRae and his film crew apparently used every opportunity to include as much exotic footage as possible, most of it in Bangkok.

‘We managed to secure some very excellent scenes of the King in action and also his Prime Minister. The most interesting features of Bangkok…are its wonderful temples or watts (sic) as they are called. The temples cover about 30 acres of ground and are built of stone and brick, and decorated with gold leaf and inlaid with mother of pearl. A form of Siamese worship is to paste a piece of gold leaf on some part of the temple, even the outside of the wall that surrounds the watt. The native priests are peculiar looking fellows with shaved heads and dressed in long yellow cloaks. They are called priests of the Yellow Robe and are not allowed to keep any money that they may receive, longer than 24 hours.’

Of the filming in Siam, MacRae wrote, ‘One of the interesting features of making a picture with the Royal actors was that they would become very serious in the work but if any counter attraction occurred they would all disappear. On one occasion I had a long scene all rehearsed and started to shoot. When the principal character actor was supposed to come into the scene he was nowhere in sight. I finally discovered that he was taking a bath.’

The film title, in Thai, has been variously written as Nangsao Suwan, Nang Sao Suwan or Nong Sao Suwan. In spite of the existence of the Thai General System of Transcription for transliteration of Thai into English, the eponymous lead character in the film has been written variously as Suwan, Suwann, Suwarn, Suwarna, Suvarn, and Suvarna. Two alternate titles of the film include The Gold of Siam and Kingdom of Heaven.

‘When our picture was finished the King had it presented in his palace with his entire court in attendance. He was delighted with it, and as the titles were in English he showed his extreme cleverness in translating the titles into Siamese as the picture was being shown. The whole court greatly admired the picture and we were given a decoration,’ MacRae stated in his Film Yearbook piece.

MacRae’s movie had its premiere on Friday night 22 June 1923 at the Nakhon Sri Thammarat theatre. The Monday 25 June edition of the Bangkok Daily Mail newspaper carried the following report on the second night screening:

‘On Saturday night last, there were record attendances to witness the film ‘Suvarna of Siam’ and incidentally to aid in support of the Siam Red Cross, the management having most generously undertaken to give all the takings to that most excellent institution.

H.R.H. Admiral the Prince of Nakhon Ratchasima was present at the Phathanakorn, where a most excellent programme was provided.

Naturally an immense amount of interest centered upon ‘Suvarna of Siam’ the local drama-film upon which Mr. Henry Macrae, Mr. Robert Kerr and Mr. Dal Clawson have been at work for some time past. The film is of special interest as it is the first big thing of the kind ever made in this country and it has been so constructed as to afford the greatest collection possible of scenic backgrounds, thus affording a sort of panorama of the country with the story of Suvarna running through it all, like the leit motif of an opera. The story itself has all the necessary features of melodrama, love, hate, revenge, injured innocence, false accusation, man-slaughter, etc., etc., and it all ends up nicely and pleasantly with the long-lost heir coming to his own and the lovers wandering off hand in hand into the bright future.

And all this wanders through a lot of real life scenes, from Their Royal Highnesses the Princes Damrong and Purachatra sitting “at the receipt of custom” to “elephants a pilin’ teak,” golf at Hua Hin, the Raek Na ceremony, a Bangkok fire, and views upon views of palaces and wats, incidentally proving a really first-class advertisement to the State Railways and various other of Siam’s modernities.

The film is certainly well worth seeing, from the scenic standpoint alone and all concerned in its production merit all credit for good work well done. It will be shown tonight again at the Phathanakorn and Hong Kong cinemas and we certainly advise all who have not seen it to do so.’

Prior to its release, it has been suggested a censorship committee ordered the cutting of scenes in which a real prisoner was executed. If this is true it appears very strange that a journalist writing in the Sambhand Thai newspaper is quoted, ‘I would like to blame the local officer who did not save the honour of the country by forbidding them to do so. The execution will represent the barbarism of Siam.’ Surely this suggests the finished product retained the execution scenes.

It may well be this controversy concerning the execution scenes led to the copies of the film disappearing: perhaps simply discarded or intentionally let deteriorate.

Although it was apparently intended for show outside Siam, there is no evidence of any overseas screening, either in the United States or anywhere else. Given the expenses involved, the film must have proved a financial flop. Three screenings over just three days could not possibly have recovered costs.

All that exists of the film today is some promotional material held at the Thailand National Film Archive.