Chapter 5: The 36-Hour Day

River traffic control was mostly an exercise in hard relaxation. Every morning, Buddha Butler and I, would remove a case from the field kitchen to allay the effects of the heat. As well as the case, we would lift a large block of ice; most handy as I kept my fishing gear and a bong on board the boat. The bong wasn’t an issue; many of the policemen and most of the boat drivers smoked.

I caught about 27 different species of fish during that time, including fresh water stingrays and blowfish. I remember one curious fish that resembled a brook trout in coloration, but had skin of a shark-like texture and a snout like a pig. Its Thai name translates to Moo Pla (pigfish). Altogether there are, or were, nearly an hundred different varieties of fish in the River Kwai river system. At lunchtime I would bring my morning catch to the caterers, which made me quite popular with the Thai staff.

 Sometimes when the fish weren’t biting or there were delays upstream, the policeman, or soldier on duty in the boat and I, would take turns shooting empty beer cans with AK-47s and M-16s. It was a tough job.

 If you’ve seen Deerhunter, you might have noticed that most of the shots with beer, in them, the beer was Millers. I heard an entire container load had been shipped from the States. 

I became quite close to John Savage, Stevie, and sat with him several times after wrap, having a beer and watching the river run; sometimes he played my guitar.  We would watch the Cha Phaya River traffic from his Oriental Hotel room and talk of life, on a couple occasions until dawn. What a nice unprepossessing and accessible man. I believe John came from Pennsylvania, of Polish or Ukrainian parents.

In Bangkok I spent many evenings with John and Katrina Franken, Richard’s wife who was hired as stills photographer. Once, we worked 36 hours straight, shooting night-for-night, day-for-day, and night-for-night again. There were many time and budget concerns and Mike Cimino was pushing everyone & everything very hard.

Richard and I were taking his planing longtail boat across the Chao Phaya River in the late afternoon after the day’s wrap, to film a nighttime refugee scene on the Thonburi side of the river.

On the way, we had a small mishap with a rice barge in one of the canals. Richard hurt his arm and my ankle was twisted. We tied up by a local hospital and explained we had to work with pain throughout the night. The Thais were very understanding and provided us with morphine.

The Chao Phraya River, Bangkok (Present Time)

The Chao Phraya River, Bangkok (Present Time)

The next morning, exhausted, we started back across a very choppy river. I was securing stuff when I heard Richard shout, “Oh shit!” I looked up and we were going up the side of a freak wave. For a second we were airborne, and then the boat came down with a crash on the crest of a following wave. The next thing I noticed was the aluminum strip on the gunwale flapping strangely up and down.

It took another couple seconds to realize the boat had cracked in half and was taking on water at speed. Gingerly, Richard coaxed the sinking vessel to the Oriental Hotel pier and tied up. Within a minute, the weight of its four-cylinder Toyota engine pulled the boat under and snapped the mooring line. That was the end of the Richard’s long-tail and a very long 36-hour day.