There’s a scene in Saint Jack (Peter Bogdanovich, 1979) when Jack Flowers, played with charm and grace by Ben Gazzara, returns to the Singapore Chinatown shophouse where he’s employed as a ship chandler (a go-between for local traders and foreign vessels). His reappearance there, after a sour venture running an R&R camp for the US army, feels like a defeat. While the young Indian-Singaporean factotum Gopi pours him a whisky, he drifts to the doorway to watch the bright, bustling street outside. The dark interior creates an almost-silhouette of Jack, a nod to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). Keener eyes may note an object sitting prominently on a table in the right foreground: a tin of Milo.

This powdered drink, combining chocolate, sugar, malt, and milk solids, produced and distributed by Nestlé from the 1930s and invented in Australia, was especially successful when sold in Southeast Asia as a calcium and vitamin-rich beverage for children. In today’s Singapore, Milo is still guzzled by kids (including my own). So, why did this multi-generational nostalgia-trigger for Singaporeans end up in a corner of Saint Jack? We can’t know for sure, but it’s one of many specific touches and elements that reveal the film’s craving for authenticity. 

To tell its story – of a white man’s adventures in the tropics – Saint Jack hardly needed to be authentic. Some critics, like Vincent Canby in the New York Times viewed it as a failed attempt to revise outdated colonial narratives.1 The film’s specificity to Singapore in 1978 (the year it was shot), was easily missed by those unfamiliar with the city-state. Looked at today, this unique texture folds into the film’s surprisingly progressive stance on LGBTQi+ characters and racial diversity, rendering it less “problematic” than it has any right to be, given the protagonist exploits the bodies of Asian women for profit. 

Saint Jack is adapted from an early book by Paul Theroux  – raunchily fictionalised from his experiences as an English literature lecturer in Singapore between 1968 and 1971. Theroux’s evocation of the sights and sounds of place is superlative, but the basic narrative could be transplanted elsewhere. In 1977, Bogdanovich visited Singapore and other Asian cities: Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Manila. Options to shoot in each were researched  and budgeted. The producer Roger Corman championed Manila – where he’d forged profitable partnerships – but Bogdanovich insisted on Singapore.

This created problems. There was almost no filmmaking infrastructure left after postcolonial Singapore “separated” from the recently formed Malaysia in 1965, and its once-thriving Malay-language film studios shuttered or moved to Kuala Lumpur. The stars, directors, and crew of those films had left the country, moved into local television, or changed careers. There was also the perception of Singapore’s government as censorious and aggressively protective of its public image. Bogdanovich was sure that Theroux’s book was banned (it wasn’t), so the challenge of shooting in a foreign locale was doubled by his plan to shoot in secret. He submitted to the Ministry of Culture a synopsis for a fake film called Jack of Hearts, which included a scene in which Singapore is praised for its “extraordinary” modernisation. Although we don’t see any building work in Saint Jack, the syncopated thwack of a construction site’s pile drivers is repeatedly heard on the soundtrack, a ubiquitous sound in the 1970s (and still common today). The film visually communicates a less celebratory attitude towards progress – low-rise shophouses contrasted with the first hyper-modern skyscrapers looming over them.

In order to pull off this caper, it was necessary for Bogdanovich, Gazzara, and the French production chief Pierre Cottrell to get to know Singapore as well as possible during their three months of preproduction. This was unusually long for an overseas shoot, when filmmakers tend to arrive a week or two before shooting, relying on fixers for local knowledge and logistics (a practice that continues to this day). Cottrell roamed the island, joined country clubs, and befriended the rich and influential, including Jewish lawyer David Marshall, Singapore’s first “Chief Minister” during its transition to self-rule. While Cottrell flew in the Dutch camera department and French sound team, he also sought out local freelancers with TV and film experience to join the crew, one of whom probably planted the tin of Milo.

Bogdanovich and Gazzara decided that Theroux’s book and the screenplay didn’t reflect what they saw, and, in the name of “research”, interacted with as many sex workers and party girls as possible. We can hear the results in the rewritten dialogue, such as when Nina (Nina Bagharib) – playing a high-end sex worker-slash-party girl proffered to a visiting US Senator (George Lazenby) – listens to his banal compliments about Singapore – “All the mysteries of the East with all the comforts of the West” – and retorts: “But it’s boring. I prefer Paris.” 

Casting was an extension of the research, and several of those who portray sex workers were from the profession, including Diana Voon as Mammy, a female brothelkeeper who rants about “police making trouble for me”. This verisimilitude reaches its highest point in the casting of Bridgit Ang as herself. Ang worked in Bugis Street in central Singapore in the late 1970s – a famous “red-light” district combining street food stalls with nightly shows by trans performers and sex workers. It had featured a decade earlier in the British-American film Pretty Polly (Guy Green, 1967). Bogdanovich and Gazzara wanted to shoot in what they knew as “Boogie Street” and since Ang was the most celebrated performer there, she was their first choice to cast. They adapted a section from Theroux’s book and started it in Bugis Street. In the film, Jack brings a client – an American tourist – to meet Bridgit, a scene that appears to be almost entirely improvised, complete with wandering vibrator salesmen playing themselves. They shift to Mammy’s house (in Telok Kurau, east of Singapore), where they watch an “erotic” dance given by Bridgit and another trans performer credited as Lily Ang. It’s a re-enactment of a private show doubtlessly performed for clients. Aside from the director placing the camera (a discreetly distanced shot, no movement, no close-ups), the scene was blocked by Ang, who chose her scene partner, costume, and also music (the Thunderball theme which Bogdanovich later switched to Goldfinger). Ang was reportedly firm in her demands, and in order to record this soon-to-be-vanished moment of social-sexual history, the filmmakers complied.

Throughout Saint Jack we hear the sound of “Singapore English” circa 1978. It’s a highly colloquial vernacular combining Malay, Hokkien, and Tamil phrases as well as Chinese grammar rendered into English, with distinctive rhythms and intonations. We hear it in how Gopi ends his sentences with “lah”, Jack’s exchanges with hotel manager Bob (Osman Zailani) and his “Girl Friday” Judy (Judy Lim), and especially Jack’s irascible housekeeper Esther (Elsie Quah) – “If you don’t eat you die!” This mode of speech wouldn’t be heard in Singapore-made films until the 1990s. By then the term “Singlish” had been coined, followed by humorous dictionaries and comedy albums. Singlish was fated to be exaggerated in broad comedies like Forever Fever (Glen Goei, 1998), so the snatches of it in Saint Jack are a rare document of quotidian Singapore English spoken naturally, not for comic effect. 

Bogdanovich was not averse to borrowing material if needed. Neither he nor Gazzara felt qualified to write dialogue for the doomed-to-die American soldiers in the R&R scenes, so he gave them lines from Michael Herr’s Vietnam War book Dispatches, most likely unaware that Herr had recently been hired to lend authenticity to Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), filmed in the Philippines. Another key source, I suspect, was the 1978 edition of Insight Guide, a sophisticated tourist’s handbook to Singapore, which not only contained endorsements of Bugis Street, but a key piece of precolonial mythology: the legend of Sang Nila Utama, the prince who founded Singapore in 1299. This comes into play after Jack is kidnapped by gangsters as punishment for setting up his own brothel. They tattoo obscenities on his arms (making him literally a marked man) and he goes to another tattooist to have them obscured by inked flora. As he drunkenly endures this process (and Gazzara insisted on actually being drunk), he tells his friend, William Leigh (Denholm Elliott), how an encounter with a tiger prompted Utama to name the newly discovered island Singapura (Lion City in Sanskrit), because “the dummy” didn’t know the difference. “So what can you expect… a place that gets started like that?”, Jack wonders. Earlier in the film he also expresses distaste at a police raid of a night club – “Hypocrites”. 

These resentments fester at the heart of Theroux’s novel, and Bogdanovich and crew – in their struggles to make their own movie – experienced them first-hand. Yet, by the end there’s no place Jack would rather be. As the credits roll on the final frame he’s disappeared into a landscape he truly loves, off for another shot of whisky with a Milo chaser. The expression of deep ambivalence towards Singapore is perhaps Saint Jack’s most authentic gesture.

Saint Jack (1979 USA 112 mins)

Prod Co: New World Pictures Prod: Roger Corman Dir: Peter Bogdanovich Scr: Howard Sackler, Paul Theroux, Peter Bogdanovich, based on Theroux’s novel Phot: Robby Müller Ed: William Carruth Art Dir: David Ng

Cast: Ben Gazzara, Denholm Elliott, Joss Ackland, James Villiers, Lisa Lu, Monika Subramaniam, Judy Lim, George Lazenby


  1. Vincent Canby, “Saint Jack, Adventure Melodrama: Yesteryear’s Exotics”, New York Times (27 April 1979): https://www.nytimes.com/1979/04/27/archives/screen-saint-jack-adventure-melodramayesteryears-exotics.html.

About The Author

Ben Slater is the author of Kinda Hot: The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore (Marshall Cavendish, 2006), and you may contact him for copies. He’s also a screenwriter and educator who’s been based in Singapore for over 20 years.

Related Posts