|Seamen exercise on deck in Receiving Torpedo Boats.|
The crack of a croquet mallet signified the ceremonial opening of the fourth Salaya International Documentary Film Festival last weekend at the Thai Film Archive.
Dome Sukwong, director of both the festival and the archive, had tasked Royal Thai Navy officers with putting a croquet ball through three wickets before the festival could “officially” begin.
Fortunately, one of the captains made quick work of rolling a ball over the bumpy lawn and it wasn’t long before the audience was treated to an old story about the Royal Thai Navy in the rare film Receiving Torpedo Boats (การรับเรือตอร์ปิโด).
Shot in 1937, the documentary recounts the Navy’s historic first overseas mission, to Italy to take delivery of two tiny warships built there.
The film was made by Luang Kolakarnchenchit, a.k.a. Pao Wasuwat. One of Thailand’s best-regarded pioneer moviemakers, he started his career shooting newsreels for the Royal State Railway’s Topical Film Service. He was the cinematographer on the first Thai feature film, Double Luck, in 1927, and also shot the first Thai sound film, Going Astray, in 1932. When the Wasuwat Brothers established the Sri Krung Studio – a replica of which serves as the archive’s bright yellow Thai Film Museum – Pao was the go-to cinematographer. He made many sound films before his death in 1948 at age 48.
As far as Dome knows, Receiving Torpedo Boats is the only surviving complete film by the talented cinematographer.
Inducted last year into the Culture Ministry’s Registry of Films as National Heritage, Receiving Torpedo Boats might have been lost if not for the efforts of Captain Suwit Chanpensri of the Navy’s documentary team. Introducing the movie, Suwit said the two reels were found tucked away in a plastic garbage bag.
Sensing he had something important, he drove it himself to the archive, worrying along way about the film’s telltale odor of decay. The reels were indeed in pretty bad shape, but happily, at some point, some sailor had made a videotape copy, which was used to make the digital file projected at the festival.
Receiving Torpedo Boats follows the four-month, 24,000-kilometre voyage of the training sloop HMTS Chao Phraya as it carried Navy officers, seamen and cadets from Bangkok to Trieste in northern Italy, where a shipyard had built a pair of torpedo boats for Thailand.
It shows the ship making stops along the way, including Mumbai, Colombo, Aden, Egypt’s Port Said and Athens. There are strange rituals aboard, including exercise sessions that require the seamen to perform headstands and walk across the deck on their hands.
On the notoriously rough Indian Ocean crossing, Suwit noted, everyone aboard got seasick, except for the cameraman – Pao, much admired by the sailors, was probably immune from nausea thanks to his strict regimen of alcohol consumption, he said.
At the invitation of Thailand’s Italian allies, the Navy men undertook an extensive tour of the country, with stops that included Venice, Pisa and Rome.
Rough seas were again encountered on the return voyage. Drama ensued when an Italian engineer wanted to cut an anchor loose on one of the torpedo boats, fearing the weight would drag the vessel down. But the Thai sailors wouldn’t let him – they would rather drown in the sea than face harsh discipline if they returned to Bangkok without the anchor.
Taking a detour from the choppy waters, the two smaller torpedo boats were able to break away from the Chao Phraya. With narrow beams, the boats were able to navigate the 21-metre-wide Corinth Canal in Greece, reuniting with the training sloop in Athens.
Once back in Bangkok, the two boats were ritually blessed and named the HMTS Trat and Phuket. Both served the Royal Thai Navy until they were decommissioned in the 1970s. In all, nine of the small warships were built in Italy for Thailand. French gunboats sank two sister vessels, the Chon Buri and Songkhla, in 1941’s Battle of Koh Chang. One survives – the Chumphon, now berthed for public visits in its namesake town.
The film was shown without English subtitles, but another member of the Navy's team, Captain Araya Amrapala, grabbed a microphone and performed a running English translation. And added on to the film was around two minutes of new footage, featuring interviews with some of the surviving sailors from the voyage.
Capping off the screening was the presentation of a historic photo from the Navy archives to the Film Archive. It shows the two torpedo boats docked side by side with all the sailors on deck in their dress whites, while at a higher vantage point in dark clothing is a solitary figure, cameraman Pao, dutifully recording the proceedings.
“It’s Thai naval history and Thai film history in one photo,” Captain Suwit said.
Receiving Torpedo Boats screens at 3.30pm on Sunday, March 30 as part of Doc Day at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. For more details, see www.Facebook/SalayaDoc.
(Cross-published in The Nation)