Volunteers — The Movie. The Subplots. The RPCV.

In James Jouppi’s (Thailand 1971–73) long, rambling and detailed memoir war-hearts-mindsWars 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.

The book sells for $45.95 in hardback; $35.95 in paper; $3.95 as an e-Book. Or check it out at: www.iuniverse.com

6 Comments

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  • What a fascinating story – Thais’ truth interchanged with untruth, filming a Thai story in Mexico, film idea originating on a flight that could not have happened with the Ayatollah’s revolution in Iran, and the quote, “By helping people to make a better life, you ultimately help to preserve your own skin. That’s as selfish as you can get.” Thank you John and James for this background and setting the record straight. Now I definitely want to finally see this film.
    Pax in the New Year and ad infinitum,
    Geri

  • I know too much about the problems of working with Hollywood where ideas are often claimed by several people to comment on the origins of the idea for the film, but I do have an interesting story related to this film. I am not sure of the exact date, but while this film was being discussed I was back in DC working for VISTA and Sarge was in charge of both Peace Corps and OEO (The War on Poverty) of which VISTA was one agency. One morning he saw me in the elevator over at OEO and asked me to come to his office for the entire afternoon. When I did, he said that there was a script called Volunteers that was written about the Peace Corps in Thailand. He gave me a copy and asked me to read it, since he knew I had been in Thai I as a volunteer. He was quite upset by the script. I had no idea if he thought he could stop the movie from being produced, but he had connections. I read it, and while I didn’t like the story, I tried to calm Sarge and told him that it had humor and I didn’t think it would hurt the Peace Corps because everyone knew it was just a funny movie.

  • I guess only a writer would know what it’s like to spend 2,000 hours writing what’s inside ones gut, having the euphoria of thinking it will become a movie, that the truth will finally come out, and then seeing something like Volunteers come out instead, a movie supposedly independent of what that writer has written: a movie which, coincidentally of course, makes a mockery of the experiences the writer has written about.

    Back when George Bush was presdent, I wrote him about this movie. I even invited him and his movie industry and government friends to a Beyond War Barbeque at my house, on May 15th, I think, of 2004. (He didn’t even RSPV). I did that because I believed that the Tom Hanks character in Volunteers was based on the personalities of George Bush and Roland Betts, one of Bush’s best friends as they were graduating from Yale in 1968. Betts dodged the draft by teaching school in Harlem for an organization set up for draft dodgers called Teachers, Inc, and the early scenes of Volunteers seemed like an embellishment of a scene from Secrets of the Tomb (by Alexandra Robbins) about the young George Bush, actually just a footnote in her book, and the life of Roland Betts in Harlem. There were also other things in the movie that pointed towards a George Bush connection, at least to me, but, admittedly, I was looking for the connections when I saw the movie again after Bush was president.

    Evenso, I believed in 2004, when I invited George Bush and his friends to a barbeque at my house, that Bush himself knew the connection between himself and the movie was real, and I still believe the movie Volunteers has much more to say about George Bush and his world view that of anyone associated with Peace Corps. That’s what’s discussed on pages 565 to 570 of my memoir. There’s also a lot on pages 431 to 504 concerning what I was doing while writing and also before and after Volunteers came out. I was basically living my life as if what I’d experienced in Peace Corps was a valid experience while everyone, including the volunteers I’d known in Thailand, were trying to convince me that what I was dealing with wasn’t something which could be dealt with in the present. The problem, at least to one of them (a volunteer friend stationed where the CIA operation was outed, one of my best PC friends} was that I wasn’t loose enough, that I was too tightly wound or something. John Shade at Pearl Buck was the exception, and he’s the one who, without even asking for my permission, urged Bob Shanks in Hollywood to read what I’d spent a year or more writing and use it for the basis for a serialized TV movie. I’d actually read about John Shade’s work with Amerasian children in 1977, just before starting that writing project, and the article about Dr. Shade’s work is included in an addendum of that writing project.

    Anyway, when Keith Critcholow, an old Bush classmate from Yale, later wrote the screenplay for Volunteers, he was working for Mr. Betts who was the CEO and founder of Silver Screen Partners. Silver Screen produced about fifty movies for Tri-Star in the mid 1980s, but, according to what I’ve read, this wasn’t just Critchlow’s project because there were many writers involved. George Bush, at the time, was on Silvere Screen’s Board of Directrors. Betts apparently was a big Bush booster, from being the rush chairman at Bush’s junior year fraternity at Yale to helping him buy the Texas Rangers baseball team after his stint at Silver Screen was over. As nearly as I can tell, neither Bush nor Betts were involved in the writing process, but Critchlow was employed as a strategic communicator at the National Risk Management Organization (or some such) as recently as 2007, and his employer there was also a graduate from the Yale class of 1968. Yale alumni apparently are tight. I think there’s even more Yale alumni who were involved in Volunteers. (at this late date, I’ve forgotten some of my research.)

    I may be way off on some of this and other things as well, but my writing has never been sanitized to’ fit any political agenda or intended to fit a trend or have a focused target audience. It is, of course, influenced by ego. No writer can get around that. I guess that’s why it bothers me that even people who know, in advance, that the movie Volunteers was a farce would rather see the movie than read what I wrote. People focus on the presentation reality. I guess I do that a lot myself. But I’d like to thank John Coyne. He took the time to go back and forth on this with me several times when he obviously has a lot of things on his plate. Every day another Peace Corps saga. He must get up very early in the morning. .

  • Judith,

    Your recollection is very important. Shriver left the Peace Corps in 1966. So this discussion that you recount occurred years before Jim wrote his memoir.

  • Joey, and Judith,

    I don’t know if anyone is still reading here, but I’d like to take a turn again.

    From what I’ve read, the people who made Volunteers did get it cleared by Peace Corps before the movie was made, which would have been about 1984. But Judith says that Sargeant Shiver was upset about the script twenty years prior to that. That means Keith Critchlow, who wrote the screenplay for Volunteers, was graduating from high school when Judith was talking to Shriver about a script for a movie entitled Volunteers.

    Of course, it could be said that the script Sargent Shriver read and the script Keith Crithlow wrote were two entirely diffirent scripts, but, if that’s the case, it seems strange they had the same title. It also seems strange, if there was some connection between the two, that Critchlow would give no credit whatsoever to the original scriptwriter whose work was being passed around. And it must have been being seriously passed around if Sargeant Shriver had had it on his desk and spent an afternoon talking to Judith.

    And too, why would Sergeant Shriver have been concerned about the production of a movie which wasn’t to be filmed for twenty more years? Anybody could have written a script and sent it to Sargenat Shriver, but that doesn’t mean he would have read it? So why did he read this one? Why did he take this script eriously as if it might actually become a movie?

    So, I ask myself, was there actually a script which Shriver read, something which upset him because it was seriously being considered for a movie, something which then sat around for twenty years before Keith Critchlow picked it up and highjacked the story? Or is Judith fabricating her story? At least, I have to say it bothers me that, after saying she doesn’t want to comment on the origins of Volunteers, she tells a story which would demonstrate, at least to me, that she must feel she knows more about the orgins of the movie than other any other RPCV out there. That is, if what she wrote is true, she becomes the expert on this subject.

    Not that she actually cares. She also wants us to believe she never had a dog in the fight and doesn’t now.

    .Sorry, Judith, but that’s how I’m affected by what you wrote. I served in Thailand, the Land of Make Believe, just as you did, and I know how truth and untruth can be combined in such a way as to be become almost impossible to unravel. I know how lies are presented as truth and truth as being an uninformed and culturally insensitive opinion. I know how lies can be told in such detail, and so innocuously, that they are often mistaken as truth. I know how Peace Corps feels the successful volunteer is the one who “goes with the flow”.

    I’m talking about Thailand RPCVs, not Hollywood scriptwriters here, and if I’m pissing you off, Judith, if you’re even reading, then maybe we connect. Maybe you understand where I’m coming from. Nothing personal, mind you. I don’t know you, but if the origin of the movie matters at all, which it does to me if no one else, just because of my prior investment in trying to get to the truth, then what do you think?

    Do you really think Critchlow picked up the script you talked to Sargent Shiver about and highjacked the movie? Do you think that script sat somewhere in a slushpile for twenty years? Would that be it? Was the movie at all like what you read in Shirver’s office?

    Why did Shriver want to spend an entire afternoon with you thalking about the script before you’d even had an opportunity to read the script? If Sargeant Shriver wanted your opinion of the script, why wouldn’t he have wanted to spent an afternoon with you AFTER you’d read the script. And why did you think the script was funny? Is that because, in your opinion, there was no factual basis for the movie? Or do you just want whoever read your comments to believe that? Why was it just a joke to you then? Is it just a joke to you now?

    And how did it that script get to Shriver’s office in the first place? Who sent it to him? Who was the original screenplay writer? If Sargeant Shriver was pissed off at the author of that script enough to talk to you for an entire afternoon about it, he must, at some point, have mentioned who that author was. So who was it? Who wrote the original screenplay?

    I just saw The Graduate on TV. Dustin Hoffman asking Mrs. Robinson all the questions. Did you do it in a car? What kind of car was it? Was it a Ford? He was pissing poor Mrs. Robinson off. Anyway,like Dustin Hoffman, I just wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes, both in Thailand and over here, because that stuff affects me. I wish i could believe you Judith.

    Sorry if I offended. Jim Jouppi

    .

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