In James Jouppi’s (Thailand 1971–73) long, rambling and detailed memoir — Wars of Hearts And Minds — about his time in-country in Thailand and readjusting to the U.S. — there are a seven pages, 565 to 572, that focus on the cult (to some people) movie, Volunteers released in 1985.
For those who missed Volunteers this is briefly the plot: Lawrence Bourne III, played by young Tom Hanks, is a spoiled rich kid in the 1960 with a large gambling debt. After his father, Lawrence Bourne Jr. (George Plimpton), refuses to pay his son’s debt, Lawrence escapes his angry debtors by trading places with his college roommate Kent (Xander Berkeley) and jumps on a Peace Corps flight to Southeast Asia.
In the Peace Corps Lawrence is assigned to build a bridge for the local villagers, working with two other PCVs: Washington State University graduate Tom Tuttle (John Candy) and the beautiful, down-to earth Beth Wexler (Rita Wilson) (whom Hanks married after the film was over. Now, who says the Peace Corps doesn’t do some good?)
Well, back to the film. What the three PCVs don’t realize — the plot of the film — is that the bridge is coveted by the United States Army, a local Communist force, and the powerful drug lord Chung Mee (Ernest Harada).
Each PCV gets involved with one of these political groups. The moral being that the villagers would be better off without these idealistic Peace Corps Volunteers.
The film also spoofs a number of David Lean epics, including Lawrence of Arabia, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as, the Washington State Fight Song used in place of the “Colonel Bogey March.”
According to Sandra Blakeslee, in an August 18, 1985, article in The New York Times, the film was conceived in 1979 in conversations between producer Walter F. Parkes and writer Keith Critchlow while they were on a 17-hour flight to the last world film festival to be held in Iran. Parkes recalled talking about writing a film about ”having a New England Brahman heir who is a consummate hustler and put him in the weirdest situation we can think of. The Peace Corps was the perfect milieu. His values are antithetical to the average Peace Corps volunteer.”
When Sargent Shriver was given the script to read by Volunteers Director Nicholas Meyer, Sarge complained that the script was spitting on the American flag and demanded changes in the script. The agency asked Mr. Meyer to make three alterations: 1) Change Thailand to Burma, because the Peace Corps never was in Burma; 2) Don’t mention the C.I.A. in the same breath with the Peace Corps; 3) And change the name Peace Corps to something else.
The changes were never made, and by the time Volunteers was released, Shriver was no longer director–he left the Peace Corps in 1966– and other Peace Corps officials were willing to endorse the movie.
Now here’s where the history of the movie origins gets muddy, so let me try to get it straight, or as straight as I can, from reading James Jouppi’s memoir of Thailand, plus emails he sent me over the last few weeks. There are several narratives and you have to follow the time-line (not the money!) to understand what happened to Jouppi forty years ago.
We’ll start in 1977, two years before the movie was “conceived” on that plane ride to Iran. James Jouppi began to write his first memoir, A Journey to Nakorn Panome. Two years later, in ’79, he read a story in Parade Magazine about Dr. John Shade, Executive Director of the Pearl S. Burke Foundation. The article said the foundation was working with Amerasian children in Thailand, the sons and daughters of American Air Force personnel and Thai bar girls whom the airmen had abandoned in Thailand after the Vietnam War.
Jouppi, who was at that point working as a union carpenter apprentice, wrote Dr. John Shade and asked if he had any interest in his memoir, A Journey to Nakorn Panome. Shade said, sure send it to him.
In late May of 1979, Jouppi hears back from Dr. Shade about the memoir which was, as Jim writes today, “almost as long as this new memoir” which, as I said, is entitled War of Hearts and Minds and is 618 pages long.
Dr. Shade writes Jouppi in praise of the memoir and says it should be a movie. On June 5, 1979, a Hollywood producer writes Jim to say Dr. Shade had told him about Jim’s memoir and he wants to read the manuscript.
Following that, Jouppi receives a copy of a letter that Dr. Shade had written the producer, saying something to the effect that “the writing was worthless unless the producer used his magic to make it marketable.” The memoir had to be fictionalized and changed, Shade added.
The Hollywood producer is Bob Shanks, a former producer of the Jack Paar Show and 20/20, among other television programs. He was leaving t.v. and going into film production.
While Jouppi isn’t taking credit that A Journey to Nakorn Panome, which was never published, might have been the source of the movie, he did write me, ”Thailand is a very indirect culture. Truth and untruth are interchanged much more frequently and blatantly than Americans are used to.”
According to Jim Jouppi the idea for the Volunteers movie might have originated in the same year — 1979 — independent of any Peace Corps related source. It came, according to everyone involved with the film, from a Keith Critchlow and Walter F. Parkes in their conversation flying to a film festival in Iran; they say they sketched out the idea.
However, as Jim Jouppi points out: “ That is doubtful. There could not have been a film festival in Iran in 1979, because the Ayatollah had his revolution starting at the end of January that year and strongly suggested all Westerners leave the country. So how could the idea for the movie have originated on Critchlow’s flight to the film festival?”
Jouppi, however, is not trying to take any credit for the movie. He believes, as he wrote me on December 3, 2011: ”I think my work was used as a starting point for something which became quite different.”
Jouppi is not the only Thailand RPCV who thinks the film might have been based on what he had done as a PCV. At the Peace Corps Thailand 45th anniversary Jouppi ran into an RPCV who thought it was his bridge that was the basis of the movie. The problem was, according to Jouppi, this RPCV was still building his bridge in Thailand when the film was being made in Mexico.
Volunteers was filmed in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. The filmmakers built a Thai village based on the Karen tribe of Burma’s Golden Triangle, building the world’s “longest suspension bridge” which was more than 250 yards long. A cast of over 100 people from all over the world, including Thai families, spent two and a half months filming.
“The Peace Corps fascinated me,” Mr. Meyer said in the Sandra Blakesleee New York Times article. “I’ve always thought of it as being the one useful thing the Federal Government has done since the New Deal. But I have always wondered, ‘Is it altruistic?’”
Meyer would be quoted by Blakeslee: ”No. It’s not altruistic if you accept my fundamental principle, which is, ‘Everything is connected.’ By helping people to make a better life, you ultimately help to preserve your own skin. That’s as selfish as you can get.”
“Art reflects life and if there is a message to Volunteers,” Mr. Meyer sums up, “it is that the Peace Corps wants to help people, not to change them.”
Well, all James Jouppi wants to do is set the record straight from his years in Thailand. It’s all in War of Hearts and Minds: An American Memoir is available on Amazon.