The Legend of Suryothai is neither a thoughtful film nor a dramatic one. If you go, you go for the elephants and palanquins, the poisonings and beheadings, the sets and the costumes. It is with these elements in mind that Francis Ford Coppola and a team of technicians from American Zoetrope recut and remixed (and, it's been said, shot new footage for) what was once an eight-hour miniseries and then a three-hour feature into what is now a 142-minute storybook epic.
The film's original director Chatrichalerm Yukol is both a lifetime friend of Coppola (they attended film school side-by-side) and a bona fide Thai prince. Yukol displays mastery of the camera and an impressive, Lucas-like talent for orchestrating pomp and circumstance on a grand scale. The legend tells the rather unsurprising story of the mid-16th century Queen Suryothai in Siam (now Thailand), the palace intrigues around her (mostly plotted by the evil would-be usurpers of the U-Thang Dynasty), and the constant threat of enemy Burma. This is a gilded world, glowing and pulsing with opulent costumes and hordes of extras, met with an enthralling, old-fashioned score by Richard Harvey.
The pageantry and full-scale war sequences excite the senses. At times, the episodic tale generates interest with its unusual situations, like an early moment when Suryothai establishes her youthful capriciousness by telling her cousin (and love interest) "All I really want is an elephant," leading to the Thai equivalent of a rodeo. The nifty slash-and-burn action sequences become increasingly spectacular. Fully-stocked gondolas memorably clash, and archers, swordsmen, and riflemen (and women) enact various frays, like the explosive siege of Suryothai's Kingdom of Ayutthaya (the ancient capital of Siam). In this way, Coppola's edit sneaks up on you, with most of the action backloaded into the last half-hour, culminating with gladiatorial battles on elephant-back.
For these reasons, The Legend of Suryothai is worth seeing, but the stunted drama makes it a slog. For starters, don't put much stock in the film's disingenuous title. We only rarely see the story through Suryothai's eyes, a problem emblematic of the filmmakers' failure to make the characters identifiable. Because the acting tends to be starchy when it should be heated, and the characterizations lean on overripe banalities, we watch impassively the characters' tragedies and glories. Coppola's cut can only do so much to fabricate a rhythm, with sometimes head-scratching transitions.
This clunky epic might make good fodder for adolescents needing exposure to other cultures, though the long, inert dialogue scenes and classically gory gestures--like throat slicings and impalings--rule out the film for younger children. As ornately designed by Yukol and punched up by Coppola, the rest of us will find The Legend of Suryothai a toss-up.