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Don Gordon Bell

Si nous aimons rire d'un certain cinéma déviant, nous sommes très loin de mépriser les hommes et les femmes qui s'y sont impliqués ou compromis. Il nous a ainsi paru enrichissant de faire raconter le nanar et son univers par les gens qui l'ont vécu de l'intérieur. La diversité des intervenants et de leurs réponses nous a rendu encore plus proches du cinéma que nous aimons : vous découvrirez, au fil des entretiens que ces différentes vedettes ont bien voulu nous accorder, des informations précieuses pour le cinéphile et le cinéphage, des anecdotes cocasses et, en esquisse, le portrait attachant de personnages souvent hauts en couleur.
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Don Gordon Bell (page 6)

We've been told more than once that the stunt work and general shooting conditions were often quite risky in Filipino actioners. As we know you've been a stuntman yourself, would you have any personal anecdotes about it?

Doing stunts was very risky because we had no real training, it was all on the job. The first time for me was in "Ito Ang Lahing Filipino" or "The Saga of the Philippines" (1977) a television series that covered the history of the Philippines. Cirio Santiago was director for this episode. I remember being asked if I could do a high fall from two-stories, falling head first and somersaulting into a three-layer stacks of cigarette boxes with some foam rubber on top. I had seen one setup the day before and watched the stuntmen preparing the boxes carefully. When you fall into this setup (we had no Air Bags in those days) it absorbs the fall quite well. The trick was to have the willingness to do it and not make a stupid mistake.

Well, one of the stuntmen told me what to do, how to just drop the rifle after "jerking" after being hit by several hits from the good guys. I was then to just pitch forward and my momentum would take me head over heels to the center of the boxes. They told me that it would have to be in one take, and of course I was one of the last shots of the night, almost 3 AM when we finally did the take. I had practiced getting "Hits" all night and took my place. From up on the wall of Intramuros Fortress in Manila at night I could hardly "see" the top of the boxes because of the lighting. I did everything well, pitched forward and sailed into the darkness below, a loud groan covering my fear and excitement. Bam, crunch, and it was over. I remember Dir. Cirio's voice "You alright, babe?" I shouted back "I am okay, was it good for you?" Then it took the stuntmen 15 minutes to pull me out, and by the time I turned in my rifle and costume I found that the bus with extras had left without me. Welcome to show business.

Don and colleagues (among whom R. Lee Ermey, the Gunny from "Full Metal Jacket", here with grey goatee), posing in authentic costumes of 1898-1906 Filipino-American War during the shooting of "Ito Ang Lahing Filipino" (1977), a television series that covered the history of the Philippines.

So we learned on the job, doing many different 'death' scenes in various action films. On another episode of "Ito Ang Lahing Filipino" I also did a stunt on horseback, by mistake. I had been asked by Director Jose Mari Avellana if I could ride a horse. The American Calvary were part of the American-Filipino War sequence and they needed twenty men. I had ridden many times in California in the ranches that rented horses for $5 per hour. Usually the horses knew how to get rid of their inexperienced riders by going under a tree or just jumping a fence. While many of my friends had to walk back to the ranch, I always managed to stay on, but was certainly NOT a cowboy. One must stretch the truth in order to get 'a part' sometimes. "Can I ride a horse? Sure!"

We had old Polo horses, retired but rather spirited, and everything was going well until the 'Charge at the Filipino lines' sequence. The gunfire was spooking the horses so they came up with the idea of charging and firing as we twenty came up on line. Then all hell broke loose as the muskets opened fire! My horse was in the lead, and I had the reins in my teeth Rough Rider style! My pistol was in my left hand and I waved the fake Saber in my right, urging my men on. When the guns fired, my stallion had just jumped over a fence and came upon a small gully. He stopped suddenly his head down, sending me flying over his head in a somersault. I tucked my head and rolled over, hitting the ground on my back but continuing up and onto my feet. My training in judo saved me. My saber was slightly bent but the cameras were still rolling, so I raised my saber and ran up the gully towards the waiting Filipino line. I was met with a volley of black-powder blanks as a dozen muskets fired at me. Firing three shots of the revolver, then jerking like I had been 'hit' numerous times, I fell mortally wounded. I died gloriously in front of the cameras, with the other Calvary troops riding away in the background. After the shot, Jose Mari came up to me and asked with a knowing grin, "Did you plan that?" Later he recommended me for my first bit part as Private William Grayson, the US soldier who fired the first shot on the San Juan Bridge that started hostilities between the USA and the Filipino Insurgents.

I was willing to try any stunt and practiced on and off the sets, seeking help from stuntmen who were more than willing to teach me and other foreign extras and character actors. My martial arts skills were great for movies but I had to learn "Movie stunt fighting techniques". For example you have to SLOW down fight moves so the camera lens catches everything. Camera speed is slowed down to 18 frames per second instead of the usual 24 frames and the stunt fighters must coordinate their moves. Then, when it is shown at faster speed the action is seen to be real.

Michael James and Don in "Warriors of the Apocalypse" a.k.a. "Searchers of the Voodoo Mountain" (1985), directed by Bobby A. Suarez. Don said he took the watch off later before shooting !

One of my funniest stunts was for the movie "Naked Vengeance" directed by Cirio Santiago. My character Arnie was one of the five rapists of the Female Lead. Arnie worked in an ice factory and his death by the revengeful woman was to be gored by ice hooks and sent sliding down into an ice-crushing machine. I had to slide down a ramp with two huge blocks of ice behind me. The stunt men 'greased' the ramp with oil but could not get enough speed and after several attempts I came up with an idea. I saw a kid with a skateboard and 'rented' it from him. I duck-taped it to my stomach, had wardrobe sew up my uniform together and walked over to show Dir. Cirio Santiago my device. He smiled, "You thought of that? Okay, Sige, let's try it."

Dir. Cirio gave some special instructions to the stunt coordinator unbeknownst to me. On the first take, the two stuntmen shoved the ice blocks with me in front with a mighty heave. It worked so well that I was TOO fast, two camera crews could not pan quickly enough. So we went again, with a third camera added inside the "ice-crushing machine" for a view of my terrorized face going to my death. The stuntmen pushed me harder, even though I told them to take it easy, and I came rushing down toward the camera crew inside! They barely rolled out of the way as I came crashing inside, with both blocks of ice hitting me, one after another, then pinning me underneath both blocks. I could not move an inch as I heard Cirio call out, with an effort not to laugh, "You alright, babe?". Not able to move I shouted back, "No! I am NOT alright... I can't move. Did you get the shot, Direct?" He then had to laugh, as he gave the call to wrap after checking each of the camera crews. By the time they got me out from under the ice, most everyone had left the set. It was a wrap, buses had gone, and I had to hitch a ride with the camera crew.

When and why did you eventually left the Philippines? What have you been doing since? Nick Nicholson told us you were an Army Chaplain during the first Desert Storm, is that correct?

In 1985 or 1986, Ken Metcalfe introduced me to director Oliver Stone and Military advisor Capt. Dale Dye, during pre-production of "Platoon". I was being considered as both on staff and for a small part when I got the news that my mother was very ill. Remember I had only established contact with my family after seven years of absolutely no word from me. I called my father and made the critical decision to return to the States. Thus I told Ken to consider Henry [Strzalkowski] and Nick [Nicholson] to be his assistants, for they had the experience and Nick the military training to do a great job. I do not regret my decision, for my life was heading in another direction.

During the first Iraq War in 1990-91, I re-enlisted into the US Army Reserves (I was too old for the US Marines). I was willing to go and serve because I had seen action, not as a chaplain, but I was in a Military Police unit. We were ready to deploy to the theater when at the last day before flying out we were informed that orders had changed. So I spent a year in the US Army Reserves but did not actually get to Kuwait. War has been much a part of my life, from my birth in Korea, teens in Vietnam and youth in the Philippines where, ironically, survivors like Romano, Nick and I, who had been under real fire, found ourselves doing films ABOUT war. Sons of Warfare, c'est la vie, c'est la guerre. But I am a man of peace!

After a couple of years I became very active in church activities. I studied to help others through counseling and prayer ministry. Over the years I saw films with my friends from the Philippines and would tell others that I was once one of 'le cadre du artiste guerrilla'. My harmonica playing led to being on several worship teams of Contemporary Christian Music, and in 1995 I went to my homeland Republic of Korea several times. Churches invited me to stay and live in the land of my birth. I have lived here since then, searching for my Korean Natural Mother with the blessings and understanding of my Adoptive Parents. I became involved with NGO's, that are helping many thousands of Korean Adoptees who are returning to learn about their homeland. I became a teacher of English, married a Korean Police Officer, and actually settled down. I appeared in several local Television shows, but nothing like my days in the Philippines. They were the best of times, and even the bad was part of being 'in the film business'. It was the greatest and most adventurous time of my life. Thank you so much, for this opportunity to share my story.

Don in Korea, in 2007.

We believe you have some request...

Oh yes, I did want to ask you to put in somewhere that the Vietnamese girlfriend I think I mention after the "Apocalypse Now" filming was finished was the mother of my son. I did not know about him (a love-child) when she suddenly received her visa and had to leave for France. Her name I can only remember as Quan Thi Nguyen, a member I was told by others of the royal Annamese family, but she remarried a French businessman familiar with Vietnam, who adopted our son. I was only 26 and a poor struggling actor, I lost contact after awhile, but Quan wrote me that he would grow up knowing my name and that I was in the film business. If by chance, by some strange coincidence of life, perhaps my son might come upon Nanarland, then we would have an interesting story. I already have had the luck of finding my daughter Mary, whom I had fathered with a Filipino actress named Susan and we expect to meet in the next year in Florida [Nanarland: in our correspondence, Don lengthly explained us how he had committed « the very offense [his] 'birthfather' had done », having a daughter, then a son, and then « 'punishing' [himself] by having a vasectomy at the age of 28 in order to prevent another bastard child by [his] acts of self-indulgence »]. Maybe this story could find its way into some other publications and , "Voila!". You see, this is the main purpose that I was so interested in your site, not for my own self-esteem, but for the small chance that my son might come across Nanarland through search engines and then make contact. I would like to meet him in this life. It would complete in some way my desires to find peace with the past 'demons, mistakes, guilts'. Thank you again.

Updated on September 12, 2016: Since this 2009 interview, my life went on. I've been living in Seoul, Rep. of Korea until my divorce in 2010. Then I returned to Manila, Rep. of the Philippines in Sept. of 2011 and soon found myself back in the game. I have done 15 Indie films as both an actor and Stills/BTS (Behind-The-Scenes) photographer. I am well-known for my previous years from 1975-85 in the local and international film-making industry. I cover all the film festivals and both local films and international films, and have earned a 'name' for myself because I know how to 'tell a story' with my shots.

Don and actor/director Mark Dacascos on the set of "Showdown in Manila" (2016).

I am semi-retired but always busy! I am teaching several students in photography techniques and always improving myself with skills. God willing I will someday do my own film, script and story, actors, director, hey! Why not? My Facebook name is Don Gordon Bell and you may find many of my FB albums on the current and past film-making done here in the Philippines. I love what we do, and will continue as long as possible. La grande vie!!!

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