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"He cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath"

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | February 9, 2011 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | February 9, 2011 |

Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

The headhunters of Borneo are one of those fascinating historical groups like pirates and ninjas that are not only real, but of whom the legends are pale shadows of actual historical events. When movies are made out of these sorts, they tend to get toned down, because the real events stretch the suspension of disbelief to a breaking point once the story is cast as fiction.

The background of the story is fairly simple. The tribes of the interior of Borneo had long practiced head hunting as a ritual, but the tradition offended civilized British and Dutch sensibilities. And so through a great deal of effort, and imperial leverage, they managed to mostly suppress it. Then along came World War II and an invasion force of Japanese soldiers. Their idea of civilization was even less sensible to Western sensibilities, and ironically contained headhunting of a different sort. The stories are rife in the historical record of the nightmare of atrocities that accompanied Japanese occupation throughout Asia during the war. Starvation, slave labor, systemic mass rape, live vivisections, executions on a whim.

So the Dayak tribe of Borneo was somewhat less than pleased with the Japanese presence on their fine island. Given this particular tribe’s remote location, they may have managed to just more or less sit out the war that had little directly to do with them anyway, except for two events that propelled them into a full scale guerrilla war. First, when the Japanese swept through the island, they also made sure to take prisoner any westerners, which in that particular region meant missionaries, their spouses, and their children. It turned out that noncombatants made just as good of targets for officer sword practice as prisoners of war. While Christian missionaries had only made limited inroads into any substantial conversion of the population, the Dayaks deeply respected them as spiritual, peaceful men. That they would not only be butchered, but in a perversion of traditional Dayak ritual was beyond the pale.

The second event was the crash landing of an American bomber crew in 1944 in the Dayak territories. A handful of nineteen year old Americans, some terribly wounded in the crash, they assumed the worst when taken by the Dayak. Instead, the Dayak subscribed to the ancient enemy-of-my-enemy rule, and proceeded to hide and protect the Americans from the hunting Japanese. Fighting with blowpipes, spears and swords, the Dayak held off the Japanese for months.

When the British learned that there was an American air crew deep in the jungle being hunted by the Japanese, they did the only logical thing: they drafted an ethnographer who had spent years in the Borneo interior, promoted him to Major and dropped him into the jungle with a squad of commandos. Major Tom Harrisson made contact with the Dayak, exchanged his commando gear for native garb and used his cultural expertise to recruit an army not only by appealing to the native interests in driving out the Japanese, but by re-legalizing headhunting by fiat, just so long as the heads in question were Japanese.

It’s a fantastic set up for a film, and as one pages through the tales that come out of the jungle through the lens of years, scenes write themselves one after another. One American is blinded, essentially helpless without the aid of the Dayak. The Dayak developed the tactic of using nude women to draw the Japanese soldiers into traps. The Americans are invited to a post-headhunting feast. Harrisson lights upon the idea of building an entire runway out of bamboo so that a rescue plane can land in order to airlift out the wounded.

The centerpiece of the film has to be whoever plays Tom Harrisson, a sort of cross between a swashbuckler and Lawrence of Arabia. Johnny Depp is the actor that leaps immediately to mind, playing the character as a toned down Jack Sparrow. The key is in the story’s potential for mixing tragedy with the humor of the situation in retrospect, with the larger than life insanity of Tom Harrisson. You just can’t go wrong with the story of a man whose biography is titled The Most Offending Soul Alive.

Just to make it easy for Hollywood, there is already a nonfiction book on this story by Judith Heimann, and a short documentary put together by PBS (embedded below, or available here).

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.