The genre of movies about the American West in the late nineteenth century known as “Westerns” are very specific to that time and place, but they are also universal as well.
In dealing with a frontier area where you had new settlers, outlaws and indigenous peoples all living together and interacting with each other (with lots of guns and violence), the content of Westerns can be applied to many other parts of the world.
A few years ago a Thai film maker made a wonderful “Thai Western,” called Tears of the Black Tiger (Fa Thalai Chon). This film was to a large extent influenced by earlier Thai movies from the 1950s and 1960s that had already emulated the Western genre. The result is a wonderful “localization” of that supposedly distinctly American genre.
After seeing Tears of the Black Tiger years ago, from time to time I’ve thought of other parts of the world where one could make a great Western. Mongolia would work, as would Argentina, as in both places you have that mix of frontiers, settlers, indigenous peoples and outlaws.
I was just reading an issue of the Sarawak Gazette from 1 October 1895 and I found an article about Sandakan, on the eastern side of the island of Borneo, which at that time the British North Borneo company was attempting to control.
This was not easy, as this was very much a frontier zone consisting of dense jungle and various indigenous “tribes” (some of whom practiced headhunting), including a group that lived largely on boats in the sea that the British and Dutch often viewed as “pirates,” known as the Bajau.
In the Sarawak Gazette on 1 October 1895 there is a report from Sandakan about one Bajau leader, Mat Sallie, and the efforts of the British to capture him which would fit perfectly in a “Western” movie.
“On the 19th August there was considerable excitement here when it was reported that Mat Sallie a Badjow [i.e., Bajau] who had previously given the Bornean Government trouble, had appeared in Sandakan harbour with something like thirty-five native craft, manned with close to a hundred of his followers, all being fully armed.
“The ostensible motive of Mat Sallie’s demonstration was to lodge a complaint with the Government, but, as he committed an illegal act by coming with an armed force, he was forbidden to land.
“The whole fleet then retreated to Bahaha, a small island at the entrance of this harbour. Mr. Cook, the officer in charge – His Excellency the Governor being absent on a visit to Davel Bay – took every precaution to prevent an attack on the town should that have been the Badjow’s intention.
“Two steam launches with a posse of Sikh police patrolled the harbour and bays all night, but Mat Sallie made no further sign, and in the morning it was reported that he had proceeded with the whole of his fleet in the direction of Labuk river.”
Later the Governor returned and sent a group (consisting of Superintendant of Police Mr. Jones and fifty Sikhs) “to proceed in pursuit of the renegade” with “with instructions to capture the man, dead or alive.”
They found Mat Sallie in a kampong (village), and demanded that the villagers hand him over.
“The villagers having been demanded to deliver up Mat Sallie replied with a few shots. Hostilities then commenced in earnest, and after a rather smart skirmish, Mat Sallie and his men were completely routed.
“With the small force at his command, Mr. Jones did not consider it prudent to pursue the enemy into the jungle. After looting the kampong, it was destroyed.
“On our side, one Sikh was badly wounded. The casualties of the enemy could not be ascertained; they were no doubt heavy, for over 500 shots were fired.
“Further steps to be taken to secure the marauder are being considered.”
If there are any filmmakers out there who ever read this blog, take my advice: The world needs to see a “Borneo Western”!!
Ok, so people riding horses and herding cattle probably won’t fit, but you have everything else: a wild frontier, outlaws like Mat Sallie the Bajau pirate, law enforcers (His Excellency the British Governor and Superintendant of Police Mr. Jones), and posses of Sikhs getting sent out to capture renegades “dead or alive.”
I totally predict a box-office hit.