What I like about doing the research for this On Screen series is finding out how scenes in certain countries are faked and filmed elsewhere or in the studio. Myanmar, or Burma as it was formerly known, is one such country where other countries have almost always had to fill in for this south-east asian country which has long suffered from internal conflict.
These struggles completely dominate almost all TV and films set in Myanmar and due to the slight relaxation of control by their government the country is relatively calm these days but watching these films still doesn’t do too much to put one’s mind at ease!!
Between 1926 and 1962 well over a dozen films were set in Burma as it was called back then. Many of these were set around the time of WWII and whilst I’m not gonna talk about them in this entry I will provide you with the following list:
The Road To Mandalay (1926); Mandalay (1934); The Girl From Mandalay (1936); Burma Convoy (1941); Moon Over Burma (1940); A Yank On The Burma Road (1942); Bombs Over Burma (1942); Rookies In Burma (1943); Burma Victory (1945); Objective Burma (1945); The Purple Rain (1954); Escape To Burma (1955); The Burmese Harp (1956); Never So Few (1959); Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and Merrills Marauders (1962).
‘Beyond Rangoon‘ (1995) was watched on YouTube a while back and it depicts events during the 8888 Uprising in 1988. (You can see it here). Its main star Patricia Arquette loses her passport at a political rally and, left to her own devices, she gets caught up in a fight for democracy as she and leader U Aung Ko travel through Burma as they try to escape to Thailand. The film, which has an emotional score by Hans Zimmer, was mostly shot in Malaysia with some scenes captured in Thailand.
American sci-fi action flop ‘Stealth‘ (2005) absolutely bombed at the cinema’s. This poor-mans ‘Top Gun‘ shows one scene quite early on in the film involving an aircraft bombing of a high-rise building in nighttime Rangoon. IMDb (which is never too reliable for it’s vague filming locations section) says that Zetland in Sydney, Australia was used as Burma in the film but I really wonder if thats true for it was surely Thailand.
In fact the very same site also mentions that the building was actually added by CGI to the west side of the highway leading from downtown Bangkok to Don Muang Airport. Whilst vehicles are driven on the left in Thailand they drive on the other side in Burma after it was changed in a statement of independence in 1970. However, in the aforementioned scene you can see cars being driven on the left!
In 2008 Sly Stallone mumbled his way through ‘Rambo‘ and indeed through war torn Burma to rescue a group of Christian aid workers in the long awaited (20 years!) follow up to ‘Rambo III.’ Burma is even more of a bloodbath than generalisations purvey as Rambo and a few cronies rampage their way through the whole country taking out the lot of them almost single handedly. Among his victims are a group of pirates and an entire squad of Burmese army soldiers whom he shoots with a jeep-mounted machine gun. Stallone justified this in a press conference by saying the violence in the film was to draw attention to the ongoing problems in the country.
‘Largo Winch II‘ (2011) was the original title for what became more commonly known as ‘The Burma Conspiracy‘ starring Tomer Sisley back as the title character alongside a much under-used Sharon Stone. Burma is only really seen in flashback scenes from a few years before and naturally its not very nice stuff. I haven’t seen the original Largo Winch film so sadly can’t compare them in any way but this one, though a bit disjointed at times, was quite an entertaining watch and Largo’s scenes with Malunaï (played by a Thai actress) were particularly moving at times.
Personally, I didn’t know too much about Aung San Suu Kyi until her release from house arrest back in November 2010 which was at a time when director Luc Besson was actually working on ‘The Lady‘ starring Michelle Yeoh in the biopic about the icon. They were filming in Bangkok on a six week shoot at the time which was where most of the Myanmar scenes were filmed. Suu Kyi’s lakeside mansion outside Rangoon was recreated to exact dimensions in Thailand in a setting identical to the real house.
Besson scouted locations himself in Myanmar and even filmed in disguise at landmarks such as the golden pagoda (Uppatasanti) and the aerial shots of the river were done on the sly via a rented helicopter crossing the border from Thailand to Burma.
‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum‘ was a BBC TV comedy which ran for 8 series between 1974 and 1981 following the comic adventures of a group of misfits who formed an extremely bad Royal Artillery concert party touring the hot and steamy jungles of Burma entertaining the troops during WWII. It was written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft; the same duo responsible for ‘Dad’s Army‘ (1968-1977) which was also a sitcom set in WWII.
At its peak it managed to attract an audience of 15 million and was very much “of its time” as it controversially made jokes about the cultural differences between Indian, Burmese and Japanese people. It made the news last year when it was announced that it would never be repeated on our screens again as the BBC deemed it too racist for modern society.
‘The British Television Location Guide‘ book (2011) by Steve Clark and Shoba Vazirani has a short half page piece about where it was filmed and how it was (quite obviously) faked to look like Burma. Not surprisingly, the majority of filming was confined to the BBC studios but they did venture a bit further south on occasion. Indeed, they went all of about 40 miles south to the tropical climate that is Farnham in Surrey!! A good mix of clever make-up, heavy lighting, rubber plants and fake sweat made it slightly resemble the hot sticky climate of Burma. The first four series were set in India but from series 5 the concert party were posted “up the jungle” to Tin Min in Burma close to the front line.
His shows have featured in both ‘On Screen #1‘ and ‘On Screen #2‘ so far and this will be no exception either for Anthony Bourdain who, having moved to CNN, started off his new TV series in Myanmar. Season 1 episode 1 of ‘Parts Unknown‘ debuted on CNN back in April of this year with the witty, sarcastic and profanity-using American chef/TV personality exploring one of the most fabled areas of Asia with Yangon and Bagan being the places he visited. Finally…. a bit of on screen time devoted to showing the country in a positive light after fifty years of nightmare.
Update: The ‘Top Gear: Burma Special‘ aired on BBC2 in March 2014 and this time Jeremy, Richard, and James bought lorries cheaply off the internet and then embarked on a voyage across Burma into states which no western film crews had ever been. Their destination was actually the River Kwai in Thailand where they had to build a bridge over it which could carry their lorries. Now, I’m no car fan and don’t watch this show usually but am always keen to see the specials and this one was a most welcome addition for showing how beautiful the country really is.