A jolly fine old adventure
from The North West frontier of London
, 19 Feb 2006
J. Lee Thompson's enjoyably imperialist if dated adventure appeared, from a creative point of view, at the most successful period of his variable 40-year career. Between 1957 and 1962 he directed such striking films as Woman In A Dressing Gown, Ice Cold In Alex and Tiger Bay, before concluding a continuous good run with The Guns Of Navarone and Cape Fear. Squeezed between Alex and Navarone, North West Frontier (aka: Flame Over India) shows many of the same characteristics of bravery and derring-do - the present film only differing in that it wears its old fashioned politics most conspicuously on its sleeve, and sets its adventure amidst the conflicts of an earlier generation, that of 1905 in India.
A stolid Kenneth More plays Captain Scott, charged with escorting a young Indian prince 300 miles to safety through rebel held territory, the principal journey of which is aboard a train filled with a compliment of contrasting passengers. There's a feisty American woman Catherine Wyatt (Lauren Bacall); a suspicious half-caste called Van Leyden (Herbert Lom); Bridie, a stereotypical British gent (Wilfred Hyde-White); the arms dealer Peters (Eugene Dickers), as well as Lady Windham, (Ursula Jeans). Outside of this circle of principals is the amiably compliant engine driver Gupta, played by veteran Asian actor-director I.S. Johar. Johar appeared in relatively few British films, but was to pop up again in another British classic a few years down the line, Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). It was rare for Asian personalities to appear with any great consequence in British cinema at that time, and it is a tribute to Johar that he brings a modicum of dignity to a role otherwise written full of typical obsequiousness.
It's the driver who fills the vacuum between the rebellious natives, their sympathisers and the humane smugness of the British ('Half the world mocks us, and half the world is only civilised because of us,' says Lady Windham). Despite his subservience Gupta declines to do more to further his own cause or join in the Hindu Muslim strife fomenting around him: 'Guns for Gupta? Oh no sir... other man has different religion, why should Gupta mind?' By constantly referring to himself in the third person, 'Gupta' assumes a greater significance than a single personality - perhaps even more than Little India the train also carries safely or the fleeing prince, Gupta is a symbol of his country, a moderate whose survival is paramount if the British are to be justified.
As gorgeously photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth, the setting in Thompson's film is a dusty, treacherous environment, the hills and plains home to bloodthirsty rebels, ruthless hordes seeking to destroy civilisation. A decade later, Unsworth was to work on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In North West Frontier we are confronted with another hostile environment, much of which is equally inscrutable to the Europeans who travel through it. As previously noted, much of the action takes places in the environs of the train; its engine nicknamed 'Victoria' which soon assumes the worthiness of England itself. As Van Leyden acidly observes: 'Our little train is like our little world, trundling through space.' Surrounded by revolting locals, facing a series of physical obstacles to progress, the 'little world' has to fall back on itself, sustaining itself with bravery and improvisation to some how 'make it'.
Like Hauptmann Otto Lutz in Thompson's Ice Cold In Alex of two years before, Van Leyden is an outsider, brought within the bosom of a small, travelling, British orientated community. Similarly, he provokes an ethical debate that provides the most interesting dialogue of the film. Unlike Hauptmann however, he eventually proves a rotten egg - but not without first providing some lines which to the modern ear seem far less threatening and radical than the original writers intended them to be. With ironical relish Van Leyden reads Gibbons' Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, and along the way loses few chances to snipe sarcastically at those around him: 'You think God is only on the side of the British?' he jibes, 'See what happens when the British are not around to keep order?' all the while arguing that those who oppose them are 'not children (but) grown men
fighting for the freedom of their own country.' Van Leyden is also a key player in many of the most memorable scenes of the film - inncluding the one that most remember, as he stands menacingly just behind the young prince who's playing close to the dangerous, whirling spokes of a pump wheel.
If Van Leyden eventually oversteps the mark of a reasoned (and reasonable) response to British occupation, then he finds a suitable opponent in Captain Scott. As played by the More, the bluff and unimaginative soldier has some explaining to do himself, principally to Wyatt, who is less than impressed by his rigid adherence to his martial calling. Despite her growing romantic interest in him she is not entirely convinced by his protestation that soldiers 'are not machines... we're humans like anyone else.' Van Leyden's bitter comment on British-led civil order in mind, it is she who leads the most striking sequence in the film, as the Empress of India encounters the massacre of the refugees at Bihvandi Pura. In these post-Rwandan, post-Reverend Jim Jones days, the massacred innocents in North West Frontier can still shock, if now sickeningly familiar. Thompson's viewers would probably have had to cast their minds back to Second World War atrocities to gain a context and the sight almost jolts matters to radical attention.
But this is a jolly old adventure; the British can clearly not be implicated in what is a native tragedy, wrought by natives, and so the audience is not permitted to stay at Massacre Halt too long. By the time the train reaches the end of its journey there's been time to sing the boating song from the Henley Regatta without a trace of irony, to outsmart the attacking insurgents and finally see off Van Leyden's dastardly sort. Despite the last minute appearance of caricatured British officer, Thompson's film ends aptly enough on a Kipling quote, and once again all seems so clear cut and right in the world... some will miss the cynicism of a modern film. Others will revel in it.
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