THE prisoners of war were at breaking point. All day long they had been kept at a Thai railway marshalling yard in the tropical heat, covered in grime, drenched in sweat, prodded and pushed by Japanese guards shouting from the tops of cattle trucks that the prisoners were expected to board.
The wagons were there to transport them to the infamous Death Railway running from Thailand to Burma – but the prisoners couldn’t take any more.
Ignoring shouts of ‘Wait’ and ‘Hold on’ they walked off . . . the film set.
It was the last day of shooting on The Railway Man, a film starring Oscar-winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.
Based on the book of the same name by British war veteran Eric Lomax, it is an account of how he came to terms with his treatment by Japanese torturers in Thailand 70 years ago.
And just as it had affected the real Second World War prisoners on the Burma-Siam railway – also the subject of David Lean’s 1957 Oscar-winner The Bridge On The River Kwai – the tropical heat, lack of food and relentless orders were too much for MANY OF the 100 extras playing British victims of Japanese brutality on set in Bangkok.
MOST just walked off, leaving only 17 Iranians and a handful of backpackers to complete the shooting in the Bangkok darkness and production company officials complaining about ‘agitators’.] The mutinous extras complained that many of them started work at 6.30am yet were not fed until 5pm when they were given a small, COLD dish of boiled rice with a tiny serving of chicken curry.
(FOR THOSE WHO COULD STAND IT, THE SAME MEAL HAD BEEN AVAILABLE AT BREAKFAST!)
In return, they got 1,800 Thai baht for a 13-hour day (£36.42 per day or £2.80 an hour).
The last straw came with an announcement by German production manager Ralf Eisenmann that overtime would be paid at just 200 baht (£4) an hour and the extras would get just half that for transport home after midnight.
It made even the most dedicated of the extras unwilling to continue despite pleas for co-operation by managers, who, they said,told them that the film’s budget had been blown heavily in Britain. Fortunately for the film-makers, enough extras in British PoW uniforms remained to complete the final scene,which onl required 20 of the 70 available.
Extras playing the Japanese guards were too polite to complain.
The Railway Man is the story of Lomax, a Scottish officer in the Royal Signals who was tortured by the Japanese Kempeitai military police after being taken prisoner in Singapore in 1941 and sent to work on the Death Railway.
The trauma affected him for most of his life and he was treated by the Victims of Torture foundation.
Firth plays Lomax the returning veteran, with Jeremy Irvine taking the role of younger Lomax. Kidman is his wife Patti.
The mutiny in Bangkok is unlikely to have any effect on the way the industry treats extras in Thailand.
Film companies come to Thailand for its cheap labour and they pick up extras to play foreigners in films by word of mouth, or through leafleting bars.
Tom Stanton, from Peterborough, was one of those who refused to do the overtime. He lives in Thailand, making a living through modelling and advertising work, both of which are better paid than the film indusrty. He said: ‘Most of the people here earn much more money from other jobs. But if they’re not busy, then they’ll do this kind of extra work as you get to meet a good group of people – who you only see on films – and it’s usually a good craic.’
‘I’m surviving on 200 baht per day so an hour’s overtime will last me a whole day. I might even have a beer!’ he said.
The Railway Man is due for release next year.
The producer and co-writer of the film Andy Paterson accepts that soem extras threatened to go home but blames this on agitation. He said that there had beem more than enought extras willing to work over time.
“The extras came back day after day and had a great time..I know my productions inside out and take great pride in the way we treat people.
“The one journalist we allowed to visit set in Thailand was the Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye. He declared our set to be the happiest he had ever seen. “
ARE THEY TAKING THE PITH?
“I HAVE to salute the extras on this film because the conditions were awful – with a standard 13-hour day in blinding tropical heat and a rate of pay I’ve not seen since summer farm work as a teenager.
“On the first day I left home at 5.45am and did not get back until after 8pm – without a chance for a shower and fed with only one dish of rice and pork. In the afternoon, a Thai woman who was playing a railway station bystander had collapsed in the heat and was treated by medical staff.
It was during one of more than 20 takes of a scene on a platform at Bangkok’s main train station.
“At the end of the day we were forced to stand in rows and allowed to go into the changing area, ten at a time, to collect our own clothes.
“At 8.15am the next day, I was given the same khaki uniform, unwashed from the day before. It was still drenched with sweat. They agreed to give me a dry shirt when I complained.
“It must have been even worse for the ‘Japanese guards’, who were placed on top of the trains for hours. There had been rumblings all day about the conditions and pay, which had already been cut from an initial promise of 2,000 baht (£40.47) to] 1,800 (£36.42).
“Before my second day was due to finish, the production team tried to select who they needed for the last take, but almost everybody walked off the set and they were left with a bunch of Iranians and Chris Ashford, who said he was getting by in Bangkok on 200 baht a day.
“Back at the changing area, I had to get help from two Thais to peel the shirt off my back. Again there were no showers so we had to put clean clothes on top of filthy bodies”.