Travel & Film: the truth behind the tales…

Travel & Film: the truth behind the tales…

Without a doubt, one of the best things about travelling is just how much you can learn about the places you visit and the things you see along the way. We found ourselves continually fascinated by the history of every town, city and country we stepped foot in – it seemed that everywhere we went; there was a story behind every idiosyncrasy or landmark we encountered.

A lot of these stories have been immortalised in film and it’s always interesting to see just how accurate Hollywood movies are in depicting the ‘true story’ behind iconic events and cultures. Here are a few well known films that (supposedly) depict the history of some of the most fascinating countries we’ve ever visited…

Seven Years in Tibet

Anybody who has ever set foot in Tibet will know that it is one of the most mesmerising places on earth. Not just in terms of the scenery or the unique feeling you get, knowing that you are literally standing on the top of the world, but also because of the captivating Buddhist culture all around you. We had so many questions when we visited this amazing country – many of which unfortunately couldn’t be answered, as our guide was reluctant to speak freely about many of the issues Tibet still faces.

The making of the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt and David Thewlis, resulted in both stars being banned from ever entering China. The Chinese government didn’t like the insights the film gave into the suffering of Tibetans after the invasion of Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The film is based on the book of the same name, written by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, on his experiences in Tibet between 1944 and 1951 (during the Second World War). In the film Heinrich (aka Brad) and co-mountaineer Peter (David Thewlis) are climbing in Northern India when they are imprisoned by the British Army due to their German passports. They manage to escape and cross over into Tibet, traversing the treacherous plateau.

They are eventually welcomed in Lhasa and start settling into a new way of life, with Brad (sorry, Heinreich) becoming friendly with the young Dalai Lama. Heinrich starts tutoring the Dalai Lama and they become close friends. He stays in Tibet until the Chinese invasion, standing by him and the people of Tibet as the Chinese take over. The end credits list the atrocities suffered at the hands of the Chinese both during and after the invasion.

The film was predominantly shot in Argentina, Austria and Nepal, which explains the authenticity of the landscapes; however the director did admit that two crews secretly filmed in Tibet itself (about 20 minutes worth of the final film!).

The Killing Fields

We are slightly ashamed to admit that we really didn’t know much about Cambodia when we arrived there in October 2010. As soon as we crossed the border, we were reminded of India or Pakistan, mainly because of the dirt roads, tuk tuks, lack of pavements and multitude of barefoot children running around the streets. It was instantly obvious that Cambodia was still rather poor but we never could have comprehended the horror that lay behind this country’s history. We learned so much about the suffering that the people of Cambodia had endured in the all too recent past, and the things we saw and heard at the Killing Fields will stay with us forever.

We didn’t know it then, but there was a film made in 1984 called The Killing Fields – following the experiences of two journalists Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg, during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. They become friends whilst investigating many of the atrocities that occurred during this time, but eventually Pran is turned over to the Khmer Rouge and is forced to live under their totalitarian regime. He becomes a labourer under the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” policy where they sought to purge all culture and traditions from within Cambodia and replace them with their own ideals. This resonates with the stories we heard whilst in Phnom Penh about the teachers, artists, and intellectuals who were singled out and systematically executed under the orders of Pol Pot. Pran decides to act ‘simple-minded’ and tries to escape several times, stumbling across the mass graves filled with murdered Cambodians during one attempt. Eventually he does escape and makes it across to Thailand.

Whilst playing a journalist in the film, Haing S Ngor (aka Pran) was actually a doctor prior to the Khmer Rouge regime and was one of the millions forced to work in labour camps. He spent four years there before fleeing to Thailand like his character and his involvement in the film gives it the authenticity it needs to tell the true story of what really happened here.

Good Morning Vietnaaaam!

films, good morning vietnam

I’d like to think that anyone who has been to Vietnam or is thinking about going; has heard of Good Morning Vietnam, set in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. A comedy-drama based on the career of DJ Adrian Cronauer who brought his own unique brand of laughter to the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS). Much to the dismay of his superiors, who think that his humour is entirely inappropriate, Adrian proves hugely popular with the troops. The story takes you through his fight to stay on the air as well as his friendship with a Vietnamese local, who turns out to be a member of the Viet Cong. As well as being funny, the film also gets across the seriousness of the war in Vietnam, although as you may expect, the film wasn’t made in Vietnam itself, but neighbouring Thailand instead!

We learned so much about the Vietnam War whilst travelling through this stunning country and the most important thing for us was to hear the stories from both sides. No matter what you hear at school or on the big screen back home, the truth is never as clear cut as it may seem. There really are no winners in war!

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Once again, we had no clue about the significance of the Bridge on the River Kwai. Yes, we had heard of the film with that name but didn’t know anything about the story behind it until Rich and I visited Kanchanaburi in Thailand. The film itself is a work of fiction but is based on the construction of the Burma Railway (aka the Death Railway) between 1942 and 43 by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war. The railway was commissioned by the Japanese during WW1 who needed a new supply route to aid in their conquests throughout Indochina. They used POWs and Asian labourers to build it and kept them in appalling conditions. 106,000 of them died as a direct result of building the railway and the bridge, whether from overwork, starvation or disease.

The film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry, however it has been somewhat criticised for its negative portrayal of the British army. The real life conditions that the labourers lived in were also far worse than depicted. At the end of the film the bridge is blown up by Allied officers, but this didn’t actually happen. The steel bridge exists to this day and we should know; not only have we walked on it, we also rode the train up to Nam Tok over it!

We were also able to visit the beautiful, serene cemetery in Kanchanaburi where thousands of POWs were buried, a humbling experience for both of us.

Rabbit Proof Fence

Anybody who has read some of our posts on Australia will know that we fell head over heels for this country as soon as we stepped foot in Darwin. We didn’t expect to love it so much nor did we expect to discover so much about Australian history. There are many many glorious things about Australia but one subject that continues to mar the reputation of this nation is that of the ‘stolen generation’. Again, we were completely ignorant when it came to this chapter of recent Aussie history but soon learned about the way in which aboriginal children were taken from their families and sent to live in ‘civilised’ white society. Most were sent to orphanages and trained to work as domestic servants or labourers and often suffered from terrible physical and emotional abuse at the hands of these so-called ‘civilised’ Australians.

australia, films, rabbit proof fenceThe 2002 film ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ tells the true story of three half-caste aboriginal children, Molly, Daisy and Gracie, who were removed from their parents, sent to an institution and taught to forget their families, culture and their past lives and ‘trained’ to re-invent themselves as members of White Australia. They begin plotting their escape and eventually manage to – embarking on an epic journey back to Western Australia, travelling 1500 miles on foot with no food or water. They follow the ‘rabbit proof fence which enables them to navigate their way home, with a government official (played by Kenneth Brannagh) and an aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) hot on their heels. The film was based on a book written by Daisy’s niece, Doris Pilkington Garimara, and gives viewers an emotional reality check as they follow the girls’ journey through the stunningly beautiful, yet harsh Australian Outback.

Which places have you been to that you knew nothing about beforehand, other than perhaps what you had seen or read in films or books? We’d love to know…


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  1. October 17, 19:14 #1 Aisleen Author

    Hi Martin, Thanks so much for the recommendation! And I will definitely be looking up River of Time – I don’t read NEARLY enough travel books and this sounds like one I really should read 🙂

  2. October 15, 21:10 #2 Martin Presland

    Try The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine. First US film to be shot on location in Vietnam & has some stunning locations. A great adaptation of Grahm Greene’s prescient novel.

    For more on Dith Pran’s story, read River of Time by Jon Swain, who was a journalist in Cambodia & is played by Julian Sands in The Killing Fields. Probably my favourite travel book, it brilliantly captures the beauty & spirit of Vietnam & Cambodia.

  3. October 13, 22:50 #3 Aisleen Author

    Thank you Mary, what a lovely comment – i’m glad you enjoyed our post. There is still a HUGE list of films I want to see relating to some of the places i’ve been to – finding the time to watch them is always the problem!! One of my favourite things about travel is being able to immerse yourself within a country, its history and culture – makes it all the more real and much more memorable than just reading about it in a book/

  4. October 13, 21:31 #4 Mary @ Green Global Travel

    Thank you* Beautifully written descriptions of the films and of how they relate your own travels and experiences abroad. Thank you for this very thoughtful and inspiring post! I have yet to see Rabbit Proof Fence……*

  5. May 16, 07:55 #5 Aisleen Author

    Hi Larissa! Thanks for posting! These directors are always very loose with their definitions of ‘nearby’ aren’t they! I love seeking out places i’ve seen in films or on tv, its always really interesting. Its funny, i was just talking with my brother the other day about the bridge that featured in the Harry Potter films and now that you have actually named it in your post, I know now where to find it!! 🙂 ps. love that you’ve picked up on our use of the word Oik! lol

  6. May 15, 04:11 #6 Larissa

    My husband and I have always loved an off-beat film from the ’80s called “Local Hero”. It’s the tale of a Houston oil man who travels to a secluded village in Scotland full of charm, quirky characters and surprising insight. The scenery was absolutely beautiful so we set out to find it last year on a trip to Scotland. We found most of the filming locations, but to our surprise the village was on the eastern side of the country, while the “nearby beach” was actually about 100 miles away on the other side of the country. We wrote a post about it: It was definitely worth the trip!

  7. January 19, 10:35 #7 Aisleen Author

    no problem! glad u enjoyed reading it – thanks so much! 🙂

  8. January 18, 21:15 #8 DTravelsRound

    Thank you for putting this list together. Recent history really intrigues me and I love to learn about places I visit and their past. Pinned so I can refer to it when I head on my next journey!