Jim Thompson’s Life After Death

November 10, 2011 § 5 Comments

Jim Thompson in the Living Room of his Bangkok House, circa 1967/Courtesy Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company

Jim Thompson (b. 1906) was an architect, Army officer, OSS operative, art collector and entrepreneur. In the years after World War II, he transformed homemade Thai silk into a thriving industry, in the process lifting some ten thousand impoverished weavers out of poverty and into comparative wealth. Jim Thompson’s silks, whose dyes and weaves he devised, soon found their way into Buckingham Palace and onto Broadway, via the costumes for “The King and I. Along the way, Thompson became famous, as did the Thai-style house he built to showcase his superb collection of Southeast Asian art. Then, on Easter Sunday of 1967, Jim Thompson vanished in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and the mystery of his disappearance eclipsed the story of his life.

Jim Thompson was also the subject of my first film, “Jim Thompson, Silk King” (2001), and the reason I became a documentary filmmaker. In the expatriate communities of Asia where I grew up, Thompson was not merely famous; he was a household name. My father had met him, as had many of my parents’ friends, and the Thai Silk Company store in Bangkok was a primary destination for every westerner who visited Thailand in the 1950s and 60s. Because he was not merely a person but a brand, Jim Thompson’s disappearance struck our world like a bomb. The event was so odd and disturbing that my mother instructed me to “go to the library and find out what happened to him.” I was eight years old at the time, and eight months away from my first visit to Thailand.

I never found out what happened to Jim Thompson, though over the years I developed various theories about that Sunday in the Highlands. More importantly, I  became interested in his life, particularly his accomplishments in the silk industry, Southeast Asian art and traditional Thai architecture. Each of these feats would have been notable in itself; the fact that a non-Thai-speaking foreigner had left his mark on all three after the age of 40 impressed me enormously. As the years went by, I often thought about Jim Thompson’s life and hoped someone would make a serious film about it. When no one did, I learned the basics of filmmaking, tracked down his biographer, secured the permission of Thai Silk Company to film at its factory and main store, and flew to Thailand.

The result was not only the biographical documentary but a second film about Thompson’s Thai house, now a museum showcasing his art collection. (There would have been a third Thai documentary, about silk weaving, but no one cared.) “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” went to festivals, won a prize, got on TV and came out on DVD. Then came what I call The Jim Thompson Business: years of correspondence from conspiracy theorists, distant Thompson relatives, and a guy who wanted me to fly to Kuala Lumpur so that he could tell me what his dead father saw in the Highlands that Easter Sunday. (I didn’t go). There were inquiries from movie producers seeking the (perennially unavailable) rights to Thompson’s biography for a feature film, and inquiries from movie producers wanting to make a film based on a fictional character who resembled Jim Thompson. And a series of emails from a writer named Josh Kurlantzik, who was working on a book about Americans in Thailand after WWII, including Jim. Would I care to be interviewed? Of course I would; I also let him borrow footage of my interviews, newsreels and various other materials from “Jim Thompson, Silk King.”

Four years later, the resulting book has reached publication, only it’s called, The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War. (Why Kurlantzik danced around his subject is a mystery, since he had every right to write about Thompson, but he did the same with my interviewees in Thailand.) Although I haven’t read the book, I have read the new Foreign Policy article by Kurlantzik, which sheds light on Thompson’s political activities in Thailand and Laos during the Vietnam War. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Kurlantzik was able to obtain Thompson’s CIA file which, though heavily redacted, quashes the idea that he was a politically uninvolved businessman. As I learned from my own research, Thompson remained deeply committed to anti-colonialism and national self-determination in Southeast Asia, and scoffed at the prevailing Domino Theory. These beliefs put him on a collision course with various governments, including his own, and no doubt sealed his fate.

In making “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” I wanted to shift the focus of public interest from Thompson’s unsolved disappearance to his remarkable life. Then I tried to walk away from The Jim Thompson Business, only to learn that, as with the CIA, one can never really leave. Earlier this year, I optioned my documentary for a feature film. The script is in progress; if it gets made, I’ll let you know.

Note: DVDs of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” and “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection” can be ordered from www.hopeandersonproductions.com

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