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Chatri Chalerm Yukol is a prince of Thailand, but that doesn’t make him the sort of Will- or Harry-level celebrity that Americans might expect. “I’m very, very small,” emphasizes the soft-spoken Yukol in his clear—if sometimes Asian-structured—English. “I’m a cousin of the queen, so I’m a nephew to the king. We have the same great-grandfather.”

“I’m not in line to be king,” adds Yukol, a veteran filmmaker dressed in the international director’s uniform of black and gray. “No, no, not at all. I might be in the line of Francis Ford Coppola.”

Coppola is, in fact, a longtime acquaintance. Yukol and the Godfather director attended UCLA together, although the two were not close pals. The 60-year-old prince quickly notes that his old schoolmate is “two years older.” (In fact, Coppola is 64.)

The two men share more than college memories. Although Yukol is little known outside Asia, he has directed more than 25 features. Now Coppola has lent his name to the first Yukol film to be released in the United States, The Legend of Suriyothai. “Francis Ford Coppola presents” this old-style epic, which features as much court intrigue, erotic gamesmanship, and battlefield action as—but more elephants than—any American or European imperial drama. Although it’s been trimmed for stateside audiences, it’s still a crash course in the complex hierarchy of 16th-century Thailand, which Yukol sometimes calls Siam.

Then as now, the country had many princes and princesses, and even a second king and queen. “Thailand was a big country,” Yukol explains. “It was difficult to rule. So actually they had two kings. One king would be ruling over the capital, and the other king would be on the border, where he’d fight. Usually, when the first king died, the second king would become king. That’s how it worked.

“Think of it like this,” he suggests. “You have King Bush now. Who resides right here, in Washington, D.C. But you still have a lot of other kings. From Minnesota you have one king. And Los Angeles, Sacramento. Each of them has its own royalty.”

Suriyothai, the wife of embattled King Chakrapat, sacrificed herself to save her husband during a 1548 battle against Burmese invaders. Or at least that’s the way it’s shown in The Legend of Suriyothai, a bloody, colorful pageant that fills in more than a few blanks in the queen’s story, which rates only three lines in the Thai royal records.

When the movie opened in Thailand in August 2001, a major bank introduced a Suriyothai account, checkbook, and ATM card. Fourteen of the film’s characters appeared on a line of beer cans, and British composer Richard Harvey’s theme song became a hit.

“It is history,” Yukol says, who also scripted the movie. “Everybody knows about Suriyothai. We have a monument to her. She is the most well-known figure in Thailand. The place where she died is now a tourist attraction. Like Plymouth Rock.

“But of course, it’s 600 years ago,” he concedes. “It’s actually my interpretation of history.” Ironically, the film owes less to Thai accounts than to the memoir of a Portuguese interloper. “It’s based,” says Yukol, “on the writing of Mendez Pinto, a mercenary of that time.”

Although Thais are proud that their country is the only one in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by Europeans, Portuguese mercenaries were common in the region at the time. “After they conquered Goa, they wanted to go to China and Japan,” Yukol explains. “But they had to go through the Strait of Malacca. So they wanted a city called Melaka. But Melaka belonged to Siam at that time.”

In the 16th century, Portuguese mercenaries played a major role in unifying warring Thai kingdoms into a single country. “It was the same in all the world at that time,” says the director. “I believe it was because of the gun. The Portuguese introduced the gun to Thailand. With the gun and with the tactics they used, they could subjugate all the small states.”

Thailand’s Queen Sirikit commissioned The Legend of Suriyothai, and she helped arrange $15 million in financing, an unprecedented amount for a Thai film. She also chose the star, M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi, who had never acted before. “She is a lady in waiting to the queen. She had the bearing and mannerisms of royalty,” Yukol notes. “The queen suggested I use her. Even though she’s a millionaire.”

To increase the film’s commercial appeal, the other major roles went to well-known Thai performers. But the technicians came, Yukol says, “from all over the world. From America, Britain, Germany. We got a cinematographer from Czechoslovakia and a sound man from California. He had a contract for eight weeks, and he’s still in Bangkok, working.” The director kept the editing in house, literally: He and his daughter, Pattamanadda Yukol, did it.

Although he’s been making films for almost 40 years, this is the director’s first historical epic. “Usually I make small films about social issues. I just finished a movie about a romance between a middle-aged woman and a younger man.” The Legend of Suriyothai was made on an entirely different scale: It was filmed at historic locations—some of them digitally enhanced—and used the proverbial cast of thousands, including much of the Thai army and navy and a reported 160 elephants.

“Two hundred,” Yukol corrects, eyes twinkling. “But it’s not hard to get elephants in Thailand. We had to train them for the battle scenes. Apart from that, we didn’t have to train them too much. Just get them not to stampede. They were pretty indifferent.”

He admits, however, that setting up a second take of a battle scene could be time-consuming. “To get all the elephants back in line,” Yukol says, “it takes two, three hours”—one reason the entire shoot lasted two years.

Then the crew went to American Zoetrope, Coppola’s production facility in Napa Valley, for post-production. “Francis saw it, and he liked it,” Yukol remembers. “He told me that this film could be shown outside the country. Which I didn’t believe, because the film is about Thai history. I don’t think anyone else beside the Thai people would be interested. But he told me it wasn’t history—it was a good story. Like a Shakespeare play.”

The Thai version of The Legend of Suriyothai ran 185 minutes, and the director has “a five-hour version that we hope to show as a miniseries. It explains every single character in the film.” But for the United States, Yukol recalls Coppola informing him, “the film was too long. People in the West aren’t going to sit through a three-hour Thai costume drama. So he volunteered to cut it, to streamline it. It’s pretty good to have Francis Ford Coppola cut your film.

“He flew over to Thailand and stayed in my house for two weeks. He and my daughter cut it down. Then my daughter went to Napa to do some more cutting.” The finished U.S. version is 142 minutes.

For American viewers, the director notes, “we eliminated a lot of subplots. The objective in Thailand was to teach people about our history. So a lot of characters were taken directly from the history books. But they weren’t all really important to the story of Suriyothai.”

Contrary to some accounts, however, Coppola did not supervise the filming of any revised scenes. “No, no, no,” insists Yukol. “As a matter of fact, Francis was strongly against reshooting. We did do some reshooting, but that was my idea.”

The interview completed, Yukol poses for a few photos. His wife adjusts the collar of his blue-gray shirt, then takes a peek through the viewfinder to assess the composition of her husband’s imminent portrait. “She’s the second king,” says Yukol. —Mark Jenkins