Chapter 3: The Rat Race

(Beginnings of Speakeasy Digital Singapore)

Believe it or not, 50 rats were imported from the States for the filming the P.O.W. scene by the river, where De Niro, Savage and Walken are forced to play Russian roulette against one and other. When John Savage flinches as he pulls the trigger, and only grazes his skull, he is thrown into a submerged bamboo cage, to await rat torture.

Movie still where Steven (John Savage) was thrown into a rat infested pit.

After long, expensive delays, largely due to extortion by Thai military officials, by the time the rats were to make their appearance, there was only one listless rodent left alive, and it didn't look like it would make it through the day.

Cimino was frantic to find a replacement rodent, so yours truly was summoned and sped two kilometres downstream, in a long-tail boat, to the nearest village to try and rustle up a rat, tout suite. The best I could come up with on such short notice were two 15-centimeter-long centipedes, a couple of scorpions and three fat, healthy tarantulas. Fortunately, the rat lasted three takes on John Savage’s head before it gave up the ghost.

 During those intense river and jungle scenes, Barry and I weren’t needed much on set. Our daily routine was to pilfer a case of Miller’s beer every morning from the caterers’ tent, split it and head in different boats up, and downstream, to delay river traffic when the cameras were rolling. Gianfranco Astori, the caterer, was a very understanding and kind man who produced great food under extremely trying & difficult conditions.

 Barry and I were each assigned a policeman or armed soldier, for authoritative backup, as often the local boat drivers were unwilling to suspend their livelihood for the sake of some falangs out in the jungle; perhaps out of pique because they had not been hired by production. On a few occasions they simply refused to stop while filming was in progress, even with a few shots fired across their bows. Cimino would scream blue-murder over the walkie-talkie. Each time I wondered if I still had a job.

 As short as the P.O.W. segments are on film, they took a month to complete; each day adding to the director’s anxiety. While he was approaching apoplexy, the times on the river were my fondest memories the entire production.