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Cambodia versus Hollywood


Actress Daliah Lavi recalls the snakes, soldiers and sickness that plagued the production of Lord Jim in 1964

When Daliah Lavi invited Hollywood star Kirk Douglas to her tenth birthday party, the little girl had no idea that this would eventually lead to an unforgettable adventure in Cambodia. Jewish-American Douglas (Spartacus) was filming The Juggler in a kibbutz near Haifa in Israel in 1952, where Daliah lived with her German-Russian immigrant parents.

The actor saw the pretty kid with the olive skin and the dark eyes, and wanted to adopt her and take her to California. The parents refused. Instead Douglas left a generous donation that enabled Daliah to study ballet in Sweden until the age of 15. A life in Paris, an acting career in Rome and the female lead in the movie Lord Jim, mainly shot in the temples and jungles of Angkor in 1964, followed.

“Cambodia was a real adventure for me as a young girl”, the actress and singer, now 69, said in an interview with 7Days. “Looking back, however, I must confess that the creation was more of an adventure than the film itself.”

Screenwriter and director Richard Brooks bought the rights for Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim for just $6,500 in 1958. He was obsessed by the idea of turning the story of a British merchant sailor, who is discredited as a coward and wants to redeem himself, into an epic film. Brooks wrote the screenplay for three years, got a nine million dollar budget from Columbia Pictures, persuaded Lawrence of Arabia actor Peter O’Toole to star in the movie and travelled through Asia to find exotic locations.

However, an exotic actress for the significant part of  ‘The Girl’ was missing until October 1963.

“Richard Brooks found me during his stopover in Rome”, Daliah Lavi said. “Someone told him to see the movie Il Demonio. I played a girl who was possessed by evil spirits. Richard Brooks saw the film in a private screening and said: ‘That’s my girl! Who is she?’ He called my agent and sent me straight to Asia without even testing me. My mother came with me, since I was so young.”

Daliah Lavi and her mother Ruth flew via London, Cairo and Kuwait to Hong Kong, where filming began in the former British colony. In early 1964, a contingent of 110 American and British filmmakers flew to Phnom Penh and continued their trip with smaller airplanes to the final destination, Siem Reap. With Angkor Wat as a magnificent background, the set designers and an army of local craftsmen had erected the houses, pagodas and schools for the fictional village of mythical Patusan.

The western invaders stayed at the Auberge Royale des Temples, a quiet hotel that faced Angkor Wat and is nothing but a parking lot for busses and tuk-tuks today. Built in 1909 for the very first Angkor tourists from Europe and the US, the former hotel had an interesting history.

“Richard Brooks and Prince Sihanouk had a special deal”, Daliah Lavi said. “Cambodia would allow us to come and film, if the production company built an additional modern wing to the small hotel and hand it over to the Cambodian people afterwards.”

Indeed, Brooks spent more than half a million dollars on 45 new double rooms with air conditioning, showers and western toilets.

With unfamiliar outside temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius, a zoological mix of snakes, lizards, bats and mosquitoes, and no bars or nice restaurants in Siem Reap, the hotel became the most popular spot for the actors.

“Everybody was sitting together in the dining room”, Daliah Lavi said. “Only James Mason was a lonely wolf and not very communicative, but Peter O’Toole was good to me and protective like a brother.

And there was the cute little Khmer boy who played in the movie. He was in heaven, since he could stay in the hotel with us. The company ran into him in the streets of Siem Reap, when he was riding a funny bicycle. As a reward for his work they gave him a beautiful new bike, and of course money to his family.”

In addition to Angkor Wat, Richard Brooks chose Preah Khan as a main location and fortress for the movie villains, among them British actor James Mason (Lolita) and the German Curd Jürgens (The Spy Who Loved Me). Director of cinematography, Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia) also shot scenes in Bayon temple, at the South Gate of Angkor Thom and in the surrounding jungles and rivers.

Daliah Lavi considered Richard Brooks “a very disciplined and tough director, not physically, but he gave clear orders”. Just a few members of the crew knew about their director’s sad secret: “When we started filming, his mother died and he could not go home. He was very sad and felt extremely guilty. He was Jewish, and I am Jewish. I knew how hard it was for him not to go to the synagogue and say farewell to his beloved mum. Later Richard Brooks’ wife came to Cambodia, and that was very helpful for him.”

At first, the actors had a lot of spare time before full shooting began. “My mother was interested in the temples and made me go with her”, Daliah Lavi said. “It was amazing to visit all these places. Angkor Wat was surrounded by water, and many elephants and their babies were having a bath in it. We didn’t see many tourists, but many locals. And the women! I saw them bathing in the rivers or working in the rice fields with bare breasts. I think that was the first time for me to see women in public with no top. And the temples were full of monks in their orange robes. They took care of the temples while we were shooting. They also acted in front of the camera. All monks in the movie are real monks.”

But not everything was as nice and romantic as the sightseeing. In particular Peter O’Toole was upset about the simple living conditions, the bad food and the less beautiful aspects of wild nature.

Daliah Lavi said, “It was very hard to work in the humid weather conditions. And there were mosquitoes, bugs and snakes everywhere. One of the American crew members even died on that movie, because she was bitten by a cobra. She died very quickly and nobody could help her. After this incident we got lessons how to defend ourselves against the snakes. In our hotel we were safe. On location, they brought our own bathrooms and toilets. We lived in tents and had to stay there, until somebody came to pick us up. We were not allowed to wander around in the night, because snakes were hanging from the trees. It was very weird.”

Daliah Lavi was not bitten by a snake, but knocked out by bacteria. “I got seriously sick and had to fly to Phnom Penh. I spent a few nights at a hospital,  and that was very different from our western clinics. People were lying in the corridors, including myself, but the doctors saved my life and gave me all kinds of antibiotics. In the meantime, Richard Brooks shot other scenes without me, until I returned to Siem Reap. I had lost a lot of weight, and since the movie was not filmed chronologically, you can certainly see that I am skinnier in some scenes than in the others.”

While the actress was in the hospital in Phnom Penh, Prince Sihanouk’s attitude towards American visitors in his country got worse from day to day. Less than three months before, His Royal Highness had delivered a tirade against the United States, complaining that the CIA has been supporting anti-Sihanouk radio broadcasts from the bordering Vietnam jungles. In retaliation, Prince Sihanouk who until then had been neutral, announced he would strengthen the business relations with China and stop the insulting practice of all kinds of foreign aid from the capitalistic Americans. When the US withdrew their aid voluntarily, the anti-Americanism in Cambodia suddenly threatened to turn into violence.

Rumour had it, that a series of spontaneous anti-American demonstrations was being planned in Phnom Penh. The first was scheduled for the second week of March 1964. Richard Brooks took this danger seriously, and doubled the work schedule to escape from Cambodia one month earlier than originally planned.

“I did not worry about me”, Brooks admitted in an interview one year later, “I was worried about my film”.

Suddenly the director understood why he was not allowed to hire local farmers as movie extras, but had to employ 300 Cambodian soldiers. They were watching Brooks and every step of his crew.

“There was a sense of excitement in the air,” Daliah Lavi said. The worst case scenario was that the film crew could be surrounded by those 300 Khmer soldiers when the anti-American demonstrations started in Phnom Penh. Richard Brooks gave a clear order: “Hurry up and get the hell out of here!” The crew worked in two shifts, 18 hours per day, Brooks directing at daylight and technicians mounting the night scenes.

On the March 3, 1964 all 110 film people left Cambodia and travelled to London, where the interiors and special effects were filmed at Shepperton Studios. Richard Brooks listened to the news carefully and learned that in far-off Phnom Penh 10,000 people were marching in the streets, shouting “Yankee, Go Home!” and attacking the British and US embassies.

In a radio broadcast Prince Sihanouk denounced the film company as “western imperialist invaders.”

Later His Royal Highness gave the worst review that Lord Jim and its producers ever received: “For a film producer (even one of real talent) what is Cambodia? The ruins of Angkor... and that is all. So, a run-of-the-mill script is hurriedly written, one or two flashy stars are hired, one adds a mixture of eroticism and violence, advance promotion dwells on the same old hackneyed themes (...scorpions lurking in boots... the poverty of the people... etc.) and the whole plot is put in motion.”

Lord Jim was released in US cinemas on February 25, 1965 and was a total box office bomb. Peter O’Toole had to accept a failure in his filmography and added Cambodia to his red list immediately: “If I live a thousand years,” O’Toole said in an interview with Time magazine, “I want nothing like Cambodia again. It was a bloody nightmare. I really hated it there.”

In contrast, Daliah Lavi does not look back in anger: “Filming in Cambodia was a great experience. Something of this size does not happen to you every day. I was too young to fully understand the big opportunity we had in those days. This came later. But my mother was phenomenal, she took all her photos back to Israel and told the people of our village about the unique temples. When she did her presentation, the room was packed with visitors.”

Lord Jim was the first big Hollywood feature film in Cambodia – and the last one for almost four decades. Bombed by the US during the Vietnam War, destroyed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, taken over by Vietnamese troops in the 1980s and caught by a civil war in the early 1990s, Cambodia and its temples were a no-go-area for film crews. Even Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields about the life and survival of Dith Pran (who, by the way, was a Khmer-English-interpreter on the set of Lord Jim) had to be filmed in neighbouring Thailand in 1983.

When the UN Peace Corps arrived ten years later, the backpacker tourists followed soon and finally the filmmakers, too.

“We will bring Cambodia back on the map”, director Simon West promised in 2000 and sent Angelina Jolie to Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Bayon and Phnom Bakheng for the filming of  Tomb Raider – Lara Croft.

The film incarnation of the computer game heroine started a renaissance of tourism in Angkor and swamped the temples with tourists from all over the world. Daliah Lavi never returned to Cambodia. “My husband and I went on a boat cruise to Vietnam. We were not far from the Cambodian border, but we did not go. It was very stupid not do the short trip and see all the changes after such a long time. I would love to see it again. If there is any opportunity, it would be fun to return to Cambodia after almost 50 years.”



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