Sunday, 27 January 2013

Full Metal Racket: When Maclean met manga

This piece ran recently in the South China Morning Post's 'Rewind' column, which looks back at a film, album and book unified by a common theme. I took on the big guns this time, taking aim at Alistair Maclean's classic WW2 epic The Guns of Navarone and its unexpected second life as the inspiration behind a cult Japanese video game.

Guns. Big shiny guns. Boys do love their lethal weapons, as anyone who ever buckled up a low-slung holster, fumbled a High Noon quick draw and shot down an imaginary Indian (or Cowboy) can attest.

Boys also love a good war story. War? What is it good for? It’s the measure of a man, the red badge of courage, the triumph of right over might. It’s the stuff of a thousand Commando comics. Gott im himmell. We can be heroes.

Therein lies the genius of The Guns of Navarone, Alistair McLean’s epic tale of infiltration, sabotage, and derring do where eagles dare. McLean conflates the ultimate test of mettle with two unfeasibly large bits of metal. It’s mental, man’s man manna from heaven, the stuff of a thousand stiff upper lips and endless war movie tropes. And it’s more or less true.

The titular guns are massive Nazi canons mounted on top of a vertiginous cliff on an Aegean island overlooking a crucial seaway, beyond which 1,200 Allied troops sit stranded. If they aren't rescued quickly, they die. Keith Mallory, a New Zealand mountain climber, must infiltrate the island, scale a 400 foot cliff, spike the guns and save the day, along with his team of mumbling, mostly moustachioed misfits, anti-heroes and freedom fighters.

The Guns of Navarone is the sine qua non of suicide missions and a page-turner non pareil; a vertical and vertigo-inducing antithesis to its only serious rival for Best-World-War-2-Book-Made-Into-Classic-Movie, Paul Brickhill’s horizontally claustrophobic The Great Escape.

The mission is implausible yet somehow believable. You suspend scepticism as McLean weaves his terse, tense prose, even as his heroes hang from the fraying threads of spinning subplots. (The excellent film starred Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven at the peak of their powers).

“First, you've got that bloody old fortress on top of that bloody cliff. Then you've got the bloody cliff overhang. You can't even see the bloody cave, let alone the bloody guns. And anyway, we haven't got a bloody bomb big enough to smash that bloody rock. And that's the bloody truth, sir,’’ says RAAF Squadron Leader Howard Barnsby, a quote that serves as synopsis.

These impossible odds and insurmountable obstacles were what inspired now-legendary videogame designer Hideo Kojima to create the enduring, quirky and cultish Metal Gear Solid franchise for Playstation, selling over 25 million copies worldwide.

In a review of the book (and later film), Kojima names it as the main influence on Metal Gear Solid. “The sense of satisfaction after completing the mission that is supposed to fail, after overcoming the harsh environment and destroying the invincible fortress … The coolness of making the impossible possible. What influenced me the most is this element of The Guns of Navarone. It is this catharsis you feel after infiltrating a place no-one else can, and completing a mission no-one else can. It is this courage and ecstasy of overcoming
limits and making the impossible possible that I wanted to
experience in a game!’’

Friday, 4 January 2013

Snakes on a Plain: the weird life and foolish death of the 'Snakeman of Sisaket'

If you want wack-jobs wont to live in small spaces with fierce critters, then it's hard to beat amazing Thailand. In the land of the Scorpion Queen and the Centipede King, one would hardly choke on one's cornflakes to learn there is indeed a 'Snakeman', from the dry dusty plains of unlovely Sisaket province in darkest Isaan. This one from the vaults originally ran in the Sunday Telegraph magazine (UK) and South China Morning Post's Postmagazine. It was later picked up by National Geographic channel, who coaxed me back to Sisaket to be part of filming for a piece on the 'Snakeman of Sisaket' for its 'Hunter/Hunted' series (Series 1: Victims of Venom ... see it here ) While filming a segment in the Red Cross snake farm in Bangkok, the gung ho serpent wrangler dropped a fiesty cobra on the floor inches from my feet. It then slithered through my legs before he pinned it with his snake-wrangling rake and restored it to its plastic box piled upon dozens of other snakes in plastic boxes waiting to be milked of their venom. I'm all for getting deep into the story, but a cobra bite to feel what the Snakeman felt before he popped his clogs would have been going too far, even by my usual silly standards ...

PHAO BUACHAN SMILES through a web of wrinkles, spits a jet of bright red betel juice through what's left of her crimson teeth, and regards me with a rheumy eye. 'I can't speak about my son without begging his permission,' she says. 'I'm scared the snakes will come, and they'll be angry.'

She hands me a candle and a stick of smouldering incense, and we pick our way through a building site at the back of her wooden house to a white shrine dappled with shards of coloured glass and tiny mirrors. She nods. I kneel, mumble a few words and deposit the candle and incense in a jar of sand. Her prayer is longer, a rambling entreaty punctuated by slow-motion prostrations. When she's finally finished she stands, smiles again and says, 'Now we may speak.'

Her son, Boonreung Buachan, was the 'Snakeman of Sisaket'. In 1998, he had a fleeting taste of international fame when he appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records for spending seven days in an enclosure with venomous snakes.

Before and after setting the record - which still stands - Boonreung made a living by performing throughout Thailand. In his hour-long shows, he would pluck cobras from wooden boxes and drape them round his neck, stroking and kissing them as he kept up a steady patter of cobra lore. He would milk their venom, letting people get close as the deadly, viscous liquid oozed from scimitar fangs.

The sense of danger was heightened for those who knew him because Boonreung was epileptic and prone to seizures. While his friends say he never had an attack during a show, the risk weighed heavily on the snakeman's mind.

International attention was to come his way just once more. Unfortunately, he wouldn't be around to enjoy it. Three months ago, Boonreung, aged 34, was bitten by one of his pet cobras while putting on a show for three tourists. He collapsed in the dirt beneath his parents' house in Ping Pong village, a parched corner of one of Thailand's poorest provinces. By the time he was taken to hospital, his respiratory system had all but shut down. He never recovered.

'A lot of people came after he died, but since then, no one,' says Phao, in her village of Ping Pong, 640km northeast of Bangkok. 'I'm glad you've come. I don't want the world to forget about my boy.'

The Buachans, while far from wealthy, became the envy of the poor farming village because of the success of their son. Their humble house is a palace compared with some nearby. Phao says she knew her second son was special from the start. 'When he was born, he had a patch of scales on his waist,' she says. Psoriasis, perhaps? 'No, no,' she insists. 'These were real scales - like a snake.'