The day the filming had to stop
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The day the filming had to stop

An article headlined "The man, myth and legend" on Wednesday by Tatat Bunnag marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Thailand's biggest-ever film star, Mitr Chaibancha. The actor plunged to his death at the age of 36, while filming a helicopter scene at Jomtien for Insee Thong (Golden Eagle). Mitr had insisted on doing his own stunts and was clinging from a rope ladder dangling from the copter but couldn't hold on. He truly is a legend.

I remember that day well, which is a bit alarming considering it was 50 years ago. Travelling back to Bangkok after a gruelling journey which had begun at dawn in the Cambodian town of Battambang, I was already late for my shift at the Bangkok Post on Ratchadamnoen Avenue.

I was totally unaware of Mitr's death as our taxi ground to a halt in gridlock on Lan Luang Road. There was mayhem on the streets with thousands of people milling about. I thought there might have been a coup. But then the taxi driver informed me about Mitr's tragic accident and that his body had been taken to Wat Sunthon Thammathan on Lan Luang, not far from our office. Such was Mitr's popularity fans couldn't believe their screen hero had died and they converged on the temple in a state of mass hysteria.

Eventually I made it into the office, totally knackered, but eager to relate silly "war tales" I had experienced on my Cambodian expedition. But the editor was not impressed, curtly noting "Crutch, you're three hours late", and it seemed prudent to save my Cambodian yarns for another day.

Dynamic duo

Mitr made more than 300 films and his popularity was such that when he died, 18 productions came to a standstill because he starred in every one of them. Mitr made a lot of action movies but also "rom-coms" in which his love interest was usually Petchara Chaowarat. They made a staggering 165 films together, which is pretty amazing even for Thailand. They were the kingdom's Tracy and Hepburn.

I only saw their films on occasions if I happened to be in a remote province where there was not much else to do. The films were "lengthy" to put it mildly, but they were hugely popular and often featured someone falling into a khlong, prompting much mirth. It was even funnier if it happened twice.

Street cred

On trips to the more remote provinces in those early days it was always useful to be aware of Mitr and Petchara. Just the very mention of their names would prompt eyes to light up and rural people were clearly proud that a foreigner was aware of them. I made far more friends simply from knowing those film star names rather than my painful attempts at speaking Thai.

On occasions I was even praised for my Thai language skills even though the only words I had uttered were "Mitr" and "Petchara". It kind of gave you a certain street cred, especially in Nakhon Nowhere.

Stairway to the 'Golden Mile'

It seems Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have finally been cleared of pinching the opening riff of their massive hit Stairway to Heaven, with the US Supreme Court this week declining to review the case. The song always reminds me of one of the establishments on the "Golden Mile'' of New Phetchaburi Road, catering for GIs on R&R from the Vietnam war.

It was 1972 and I was sitting in the Las Vegas bar with an English friend who was a talented guitarist. He had spent some time the previous week teaching the lead guitarist of the Thai band the same riff that prompted all the recent litigation, and he was keen to see how the musician handled it on stage.

The guitarist did pretty well, although the singer struggled a bit with the frenetic ending, which admittedly even stretched Plant's vocal chords. Still it was great to hear such an iconic song being played live in a Bangkok establishment.


It was in the Las Vegas bar around that time there was an entertaining incident one evening when a giant air-conditioner exploded. There was brief pandemonium and tables and chairs went flying as the GIs in the audience, momentarily forgetting they were not in Vietnam, believed it might be an incoming mortar and dived for cover. Afterwards they had a good laugh and within half an hour the place was heaving again.

Heaven sent

Given the Stairway to Heaven title, it was pity that the band weren't playing across the road at the larger and aptly named Thai Heaven. It was a huge place with hundreds of "waitresses'' on hand to ensure the American visitors would not forget their Bangkok experience. One wonders if the girls could relate to the opening lines of Stairway: "There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold/And she's buying a stairway to heaven."

Although I never heard the Thai Heaven band play Stairway, they had a bash at songs like Sunshine of Your Love and Satisfaction with varying degrees of success. However, the GIs weren't too bothered about the quality of the music as long as it was loud and there was an angel to dance with -- and there were plenty of those.

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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