...I arrived in Taiwan, as scheduled, in late November, excited and ready for more.
Taiwan was what they call a "rough location." In 1965, Taipei was far from the Eden of the Orient, the garden spot of the Far East. The city was famous for its spectacular National Museum and its exotic brothels (not necessarily in that order-especially for the troops sent there from Vietnam for a week of R and R). It had no discernible traffic pattern: the thousands of taxis and pedicabs bounced off each other routinely like fun-fair bumper cars; and municipal plumbing had not yet been introduced, so that one stepped gingerly over the gutters of human waste that crisscrossed a city that simmered in sewage and reeked of latrines.
After our arrival, cast and crew were assembled for Thanksgiving turkey in the Army PX and given a pep talk to prepare us for the long months ahead. We were granted limited passes to the Army base, where, on occasion, old John Wayne movies were shown for the military; but we were advised, for our own safety, to stay in our hotels at night. By day as well, the actors were restricted to hotel grounds and put on official "standby" because of an intricate shooting schedule that, depending on weather, river tides and currents, was hourly subject to change.
If I had my foolish heart set on exploring during this film, using Taiwan as my travel base in the Far East, it served me right to be brought up short. Not only weren't we allowed to leave the island, but we weren't allowed to leave the hotel. My detailed dreams of weekends in Hong Kong, side trips to Saigon, Angkor Wat, Manila-all dashed to smithereens.
My attitude on the film was less than professional, resenting as I did the constraints imposed on the cast-notably me. I was unfamiliar with such production procedures: the only location I'd ever been on was the lower East Side - not the Far East. After waiting for hours without working on the Shanghai dock set, I would wander off at will with my cameras, certain I would never be called, to photograph funeral processions, puppet shows, temple rituals, leper colonies - anything I found of interest in the small rural villages nearby.
In the role of Shirley Eckert, missionary-teacher, I was the essence of earnest, the soul of selflessness staring wistfully into the waters of the Yangtze in my summer seersucker and floppy straw hat. An angel of mercy come to save my fellow man. Far from type-casting for one who hadn't lifted a finger to save her fellow pheasant-for a girl hot from a fall shoot. And during the filming, little of Shirley's selflessness rubbed off on me.
One day I disappeared from the set to photograph a Taoist religious ceremony in the middle of a rice paddy where young barefoot initiates walked, entranced, through a bed of white-hot coals, unblinking and unscathed. When I was needed for a large master shot and couldn't be found on the set, they made it without me, only to have to set it up again and reshoot it when I reappeared, moments later, nonplused. No sooner would I return than Steve McQueen would take off on his motorcycle, while the insurance representative blanched, or jump onto the back of a passing water buffalo and get bucked off in the mud. And the crew would settle down to wait again.
Steve was friendly during the shooting, inviting me to dinner in the house rented for him with his wife, Neile, and kids; advising me-in a well-meant attempt to get me to "loosen up"-that what I really needed was to "get it on" with some of his buddies.
His buddies were hardly my idea of heaven: he'd arrived in Taiwan with a commando unit of six stunt men, none under six feet and all ex-Marines. They were like his personal honor guard, and when he moved, they jumped. Hard- drinking, hard-fighting - as time on the island ticked by, McQueen and his gang grew increasingly restless and often spent nights on the prowl, roaming the little city, drinking, heckling, picking fights and pummeling.
Coiled, combustible, Steve was like a caged animal. Daring, reckless, charming, compelling; it was difficult to relax around him-and probably unwise-for, like a big wildcat, he was handsome and hypnotic, powerful and unpredictable, and could turn on you in a flash.
He seemed to trust no one and tried constantly to test the loyalty of those around him, to trap them in betrayal. Yet for one so often menacing, he had a surprising, even stunning, sweetness, a winning vulnerability.
But he seemed to live by the laws of the jungle and to have contempt for those laid down by man. He reminded one of the great outlaws, a romantic renegade; an outcast uneasy in his skin who finds himself with sudden fame and fortune. One had the sense that it came too late and mattered little in the end. And that he tried to find truth and comfort in a world where he knew he didn't belong.
On one of those rare days when the cast and crew were all accounted for, the weather well-behaved, the tide up and the current steady, Wise had just called "Action" on the prow of the gunboat when in the distance what looked like a herd of seals appeared, shiny black heads bobbing, swimming slowly but surely into the background of the shot. A launch was dispatched to investigate and returned with the information that they were not, in fact, seals but Nationalist frogmen training to recapture the Chinese mainland, and so we waited forty-five minutes until they swam past and out of frame.
It was oddball incidents such as these, coupled with unruly tides and uncooperative weather, that helped lengthen our stay in Taiwan from two months to four.
Of that time I worked, at most, three weeks. Over the other thirteen I paced my Golden Dragon Suite in the Grand Hotel (once occupied by Ike and Mamie Eisenhower), read so much I thought my eyes would fall out, and ordered room service. Food assumed mythical proportions, and, by the time I left, so did I.
While eager for "exotic locations," I was innocent of their downside disadvantages. "Exotic" locations were, by definition, difficult: out of touch, hard to reach. Alien. Strange. What's "colorful" for the tourist becomes uncomfortable for the new resident, who, a few weeks after arriving, slides stonily into culture shock from so much color. So many rice paddies. So much night soil. So little plumbing. So much. "Mongolian barbecue." So many water-buffalo burgers. So much Mandarin. So little English. And months of reading Stars and Stripes.
If my first film was all women, my second was all men: the actors played sailors by day and sailors by night-banding together, tearing up the port, drinking, carousing, "cruising for a piece of ass." I hardly regretted not having that option, but I was lonely nonetheless.
The spar I clung to in a sea of strangers was Richard Attenborough, then one of Britain's leading character actors - a terrifically bright and enthusiastic man who energized a room upon entering it. He was a veteran of long locations and knew how to cope and what to expect. He filled his free time acquiring art and informing himself on the island's poliitics, making underground contacts with the clandestine opposition on Taiwan.
With him, I felt instantly at ease. Over long Chinese dinners we discussed our interests. He told me that his dream was to direct a film on the life of Gandhi and asked if I would play the cameo role of Margaret Bourke-White, who had photographed Gandhi shortly before his death; he thought I resembled her. I smiled and told him she was one of my heroes; I was flattered to be asked.
He hoped to begin the project as soon as possible, he said, and was funneling all the proceeds of his acting into its development. But in spite of his passionate conviction, for the moment Hollywood wasn't buying it: the life of a little brown man spent in fasting and spinning-who would pay to see such a film?
I made other friends on Taiwan: American bureau chiefs who briefed me on the island and generously took me on tours; U.S. military brass and eccentric Europeans living in self-imposed exile; and Taipei's diplomatic circuit, whose dinner parties I attended. But these were strangely doomed and depressing dinners, for Taiwan, at that time, was the kiss of death for a diplomat and his family-the last living post for officers of protocol, the place diplomats were sent to die. Languishing in their Taiwanese teak, comforted by crates of consular Scotch, they recalled once promising futures, brooded on their failures and ignored the steady glares of resentful wives.
I missed my home. My parents and my brother-my brother, growing bigger by the day. I missed my friends. I missed America. I even missed California: I dreamed of Disneyland and the House of Pancakes. Hamburger Hamlet. Thirty-one Flavors. I had had enough adventure. Enough exotic. I wanted to go home.
Finally, after four months, we moved on for another month's shooting in Hong Kong-the Big Apple of the Orient, Gateway to the East. Now this was more like it, more what I had in mind: Hong Kong was humming, and there I was happy; free, at last, to leave my room, discover, explore, make friends. Journalists and old hard-core colonialists led me through the mysterious maze of the walled city, took me sailing on sampans, on rickshaw rides around Macao, and down into dank opium dens. By the time we'd finished in Hong Kong, I'd settled in and made a fine life there; I was in love with the city and hated to leave.
We assembled again in Los Angeles for the sixth and final month of shooting at the Chinese mission reconstructed on the Fox Ranch in Malibu; I returned to a bigger, blonder brother and the comforts and coziness of home, where I celebrated my twentieth birthday. Yet no sooner had I finished the film than I was off again on another trip, a travel opportunity I couldn't resist.
Excerpt source: Knock Wood, Candice Bergen, Linden Press/Simon Schuster, 1984