My War

It wasn’t the heat that was getting to me. It wasn’t the seasickness, the overcrowded boat, getting jabbed in the ribs by the butts and muzzles of guns, or even the fact my right knee felt primed to explode.

We had been on the boat for seven hours, just drifting around the Gulf of Thailand, the temperature well above a hundred degrees, and us soldiers wearing itchy woolen shirts and trousers, oversized water-filled boots, and backpacks and guns. The only thing we didn’t have were helmets, which might have helped keep the sun off our heads.

It was important to crouch, though. That was stressed over and over. The enemy was hidden in the trees, possibly armed with sniper rifles, and a stray head above the bow would prove very messy. The heat, the discomfort, and this repetition of what it was we must fear had dragged morale to a record low. After long enough, we were actually eager to jump into the water, run to the shore, and throw ourselves onto the sand. What would happen next, no one knew.

The red arrow is pointing at the yours truly.

The red arrow is pointing at the yours truly.

*

Cambodia had fascinated me for as long as I’d been in Asia. It seemed more dangerous, more suited to an intrepid traveler, than the likes of Bali, Phuket, or Goa. The promise of landmines, mob “justice,” ubiquitous AK-47s, its de facto dictator, and the potential for a complete collapse back into civil war and the return of the Khmer Rouge all made it sound so very romantic. The town I’d chosen was famous for sexpats, drugs, corruption, and a freakishly high mortality rate among foreign tourists.

I’d bought an Irish bar in May, 2013, and by October I had hardly gone further than the supermarket. Business was good but my sanity was faring quite poorly. I was actually bored in Cambodia – undoubtedly one of the world’s most interesting countries.

One day I was writing an article for a French magazine when the editor asked me if I’d like to work as an extra in a movie. “Yes,” I said, rather immediately. He went on to say that it would pay and that it would feature well-known actors and directors. He told me that it was a war movie called Le Soldat Blanc (“The White Soldier”) set during the French occupation, and that the scene for which extras were required was basically a rip-off of the opening to Saving Private Ryan.

I didn’t care. I was already sold.

Back then I was working on a novella or novel (it never got finished, and looked like it was heading towards being the latter) about several generations of the same family who had fought on the Southeast Asian peninsula. I had done a lot of research into French Indochina, and it fascinated me. I was also going through a year-long phase wherein I convinced myself I could make a movie. The opportunity to see behind the scenes on a big movie was too much to pass up.

*

The day before shooting began, I was required to go for costume fitting at a swanky beach-side hotel. I was busy, and in an odd mood – perhaps drunk – and when I arrived there was a queue of drunken Russians outside. These, I soon learned, were my fellow extras. Despite having spent months trying to find suitable candidates in a town with as many Europeans as locals, the casting director had noted that it was nigh on impossible to find someone in this town that fit the criteria of being A) under thirty, B) not fat (ie thin enough to pass as a soldier), and C) believable as a French person.

Le Soldat Blanc filmingLong ago, I could speak French very well, but now I hardly know a word. When I arrived the Russians were waiting in the sun, and a handful of French people – looking to be in charge – were standing at the doorway. I walked immediately up to them and barked, “I’m here and I don’t have much time. Where do I go?” It was quite out of character, but I really didn’t have much time and I didn’t fancy standing in line for an hour.

I was taken through labyrinth of hallways to a few joining rooms that had been taken over by the production company. A very flamboyant man gestured at me and spoke in French until he realized I couldn’t understand him, and told me: “Dear, you don’t look like a soldier at all. You’re too skinny. You’re what we’d find if the movie was about breaking into Auschwitz.”

Alas, I was one of the few “French-looking” people they could find, and certainly the only person in the target age-group. The costume department, then, spent the next hour trying to make me look less like a concentration camp survivor and more like a kid who got mistakenly drafted a few years too early.

When I walked out of the building the line hadn’t moved, and my fellow extras stared daggers as I drove off.

*

The following morning, at 4am, I got on a bus with a few of the Russians. The casting director looked about ready to tear his hair out. He had needed forty extras, and had ended up with less than a dozen. It was also a French production, and most of the people on the bus could neither speak French nor English. It had “disaster” written all over it.

The film was being shot in Ream National Park, almost 20km east of Sihanoukville, but a good hour’s drive. The producers had more or less bought the rights to use the beaches and mangroves from one end of the park to the other, and had gone to the trouble of cleaning every piece of trash, leaving it nothing short of idyllic.

We filed off the bus to meet our new co-stars – the Cambodian Navy. Thanks to the impossibility of finding a semi-sober, non-obese, under-thirty Caucasian in Sihanoukville, this part of the script had been rewritten to include more “local” help. What the Cambodian Navy hadn’t been told was that they were actually playing the Vietnamese. No one dared tell them.IMG_7104

From the get-go, I was fascinated by the flurry of activity going on around me, but left somewhat in the dark by my inability to speak much French, or any Khmer or Russian. The casting director, however, seemed eager to keep me – as the closest thing to a believable French soldier – and informed of what would happen.

The schedule was set up like this:

The scene involved a unified Vietnamese-French invasion of Indochina at some unspecified point in the region’s turbulent history. There would be one boat (I don’t know why just one) and everybody would have to crouch down and wait for the order to storm the beach. The actors would go through their lines as the dialogue was filmed from every direction, and then we’d just jump off the boat.

That was it, except it would take two whole days. I couldn’t believe it. We would probably have hours of free time to roam the beaches….

They say that Rule #1 of making movies is that, no matter how interesting the final product, the process itself is soul-crushingly boring. I didn’t know this, or else I might have thought twice about agreeing to spend several days in the jungle with a film crew.

We began by getting into our uniforms which, outside the air-conditioned hotel room were rather uncomfortable. Before, I had been concerned by the itchiness. Now it was the sweltering heat. I was padded out because apparently being a 50kg man doesn’t make you exactly frontline material, and even at 6am it was unbearably hot.

*

Soon we were crouched on the boat. I kept being pushed to stand next to the lead actors, who went through their lines many dozens of times over many, many hours. My knees were giving way, and people were complaining loudly in their various languages. A woman was employed to put sunscreen on our necks, and another to pour water into our mouths. (We couldn’t be trusted not to hold the plastic bottles on camera.) The real actors handled it well. They were young, wild, friendly, strange people. Mostly it was their unbridled enthusiasm that got me. I didn’t know how they could keep doing their lines over and over.

In the beginning, I would take cues from the director on how to act. I was just an extra, of course, but in the West extras usually make some effort. It is their job, after all, they probably hope that it will lead to a speaking role. Here was an assortment of hungover people who didn’t want to be there anymore, mixed with the Cambodian Navy, who were busy sword-fighting with their guns.

Ream National ParkAt first I would try to convey a look of fear through my face. I never realized acting was so hard. “The enemy is on the beach. They will kill you when they see you,” the casting director – who had the best English – instructed me. I tried to look scared and probably failed miserably, but after a dozen or more takes, I just knelt there and hoped that I didn’t do any long-term damage to my knee.

The boat was spinning in the water as the sun rose, and as the day progressed morale dropped to abysmal levels, and I think the only reason that they stopped shooting was because it had become apparent that most of the extras wouldn’t return the next day if it went on much longer. I was certainly thinking that.

When we got back to the camp, the extras filed quickly onto a bus, where the driver had been sitting since 5am. It was now 5pm, and he’d been enjoying the air-con and doing a bit of karaoke. Predictably, when he tried to start the engine, the bus just spluttered and died.

After twelve hours of sitting in the sun, the extras had to push the bus along a jungle track until the engine ticked over just enough to start, and we managed to slowly wind our way back. It was evident that most people wouldn’t be returning, even to collect the money they were due.

*

The following morning I awoke and got back to the bus to find that indeed the majority of extras had bailed. Film-making isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, and in a town with as many bars as alcoholics, it wasn’t difficult to drown one’s sorrows.

I didn’t really know why I was there except that I’d become reasonably good friends with the casting director and would feel guilty if I let him down. Also, a certain vanity told me that having sat next to the lead actors for their speeches, I’d probably be featured prominently again, especially with fewer white people around. I certainly had no aspirations of a career in acting, but it would be cool to have maybe gotten a line or something to show my parents.

We were told the schedule for Day #2:

  1. Jump off the boat.
  2. Storm the beach.

It was more or less that simple, except that just jumping into the water once wasn’t enough. We’d have to do it over and over in order for the cameras to capture everything just perfectly. We did a few practice runs in our underwear, screaming and running with guns held above our heads, and it was actually fun.

This went on for a few hours, and then a few more. People started complaining about blisters from having water in their boots and everywhere else, and people were slipping on the metal and hurting themselves, or jumping on top of other people already in the water. One of the main actors got cracked in the mouth with a gun butt and bled. It was carnage.

After six hours of jumping into the water and running to the beach (which was only 10 meters away) the director decided that it would look better if the boat stopped at 50 meters out, and we ran from there. In order to ensure that his inexperienced extras looked sufficiently afraid, the director had instructed the effects team to carry out their work secretly, and when the first soldiers were only 5 meters from shore, one man began triggering explosives buried in the sand, while another opened fired with a paintball gun, spraying red paint into the water. People threw themselves to the ground, genuinely terrified, and it was probably the best take of the day.

But then it was back to the boat, and back to repetition.

*

Along Cambodia’s coastline, the water is ludicrously shallow, and so you can sometimes walk a half-mile out into sea. In this case at 50 meters I was chest-deep and it didn’t seem a problem. However, that soon started to change. Between the heat, the weight of the gear, the padding I was carrying to make me “less-Auschwitzy,” my months of drinking and smoking, and having effectively sprinted through water repeatedly for more than six hours, I struggled.

I struggled badly.

I kept it to myself and just did as I was told, but sprinting 50 meters through water is not easy at the best of times. In fact, some people would say it’s impossible. But, when you have an entire film crew watching you, you can’t be the last one there. You can’t trail behind. You have to get it right, or people will be angry.

The extras were carefully spaced and positioned, and for some fucking reason, I was the last man. I was at the 50 meter point, while some were at 15 and 20. As the takes went on, I started to feel light headed. I started noticing myself getting to the beach later and later, and started throwing myself down into the water instead of the sand.

At one point, one of the extras asked me, “Hey man, you okay?”Ream National Park

I couldn’t reply, so I waved his concern away and smiled, but he looked unconvinced. Other people were starting to watch me, too. It was embarrassing.

*

On the next take, I got most of the way to the beach and then woke up in the medical tent, slumped forward on a chair with the casting director and a doctor, and a girl giving me a head massage. (Khmers believe head massages can cure just about anything, and it certainly does feel good.)

After asking a few questions and getting some vague, confused answers, the doctor told me he was sending me back to town. “Exhaustion,” was the diagnosis. The casting director was red in the face, shouting about the director. “I told him, I told him,” he said. “It’s too much!”

I was helped back through the jungle and stuck in the crew’s temporary ambulance. My friend kept apologizing, and then handed me my money. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I got paid for the entire two days, even though I’d made it only one and a half.

We took off back towards Sihanoukville, and I kept feeling a mix of relief and guilt. I didn’t really care much about my lost career as a movie star. I felt bad for the casting director, felt contempt for the director, and quite pleased that instead of getting home at 9pm, I’d be home at 4pm with full pay.

I was worried, too, about my health. Working behind a bar isn’t exactly conducive to a healthy lifestyle. I had dropped a lot of weight and become very sedentary. That thought triggered a memory – one of the first from my time in Cambodia. It was the story of another French production company who had attempted to recruit “extras” from the local expat population. They were shooting a reality TV show that was purportedly filmed in Thailand, but to save money they’d come here and hired local drunks at a fraction of the price. The overzealous director had demanded these random barflies swim from one island to the next – a large distance – and had ignored the protestations of the various crew members, including the doctor. Predictably, one of the extras died. How they expected these poor men to make the swim, I don’t know, but the doctor and the director both killed themselves in shame.

That story was, perversely, one of my favorites when I first came here. It embodied the wildness of Cambodia – the fact that this is a place where anything goes, where everything is tinged with danger. Yet I had forgotten it, and in the end it was the lesson I should have remembered, rather than repeated as a bar story for a few months.

That I survived my own war story is a matter of luck. When you land face down, unconscious, in the sea, a victim of extreme exhaustion, you have to count yourself lucky. And hey, like I told the casting director as my jeep pulled away, “I think I’ll have the most convincing death scene in the movie.”

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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