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Fans of colonial adventures like The Wind and The Lion might find MGM's new DVD of North West Frontier a pleasant surprise. It's a large-scale epic filmed on location that features warring rebel cavalry, an imperiled English outpost and a desperate race to escape the slaughter on a rickety, unreliable train. Although the English star Kenneth More has first billing, the always-interesting Lauren Bacall draws our attention in an atypical action-aventure film.
English director J. Lee Thompson made consistently good dramas and small-scale thrillers in the 1950s, turning heads with his sweat-soaked desert war tale Ice Cold In Alex and striking pay dirt with the excellent Tiger Bay, a suspense film starring tiny tot Hayley Mills in her first role. That led to this large-scale epic in CinemaScope and color.
North West Frontier (American title Flame Over India) has a lot in common with John Ford's Stagecoach in that it's essentially a tale of a motley mix of Anglos confined in a train car, racing across an Indian plain trying to evade "bloodthirsty savages". It may be a blatant reworking of Stagecoach as the original story was co-written by John Wayne's son Patrick Wayne and Maureen O'Hara's husband Will Price. The final screenplay was adapted from a script by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, the writer of eleven Ford films.
1905. Intrepid Captain Scott (More) rescues a child prince just before a horde of rebels overruns his father's palace, killing everyone. Scott takes the child to the besieged fort city of Hasarabad, but misses the last train out The young prince must be saved to defeat the rebellion -- the locals are loyal to his bloodline. English administrator Sir John Wyndham (Ian Hunter) doesn't know what to do, as armed relief may not be able to save the fort in time.
The resourceful Scott enlists the aid of railroad employee Gupta (I.S. Johar), who is able to repair a tiny switchyard engine capable of pulling a single coach out of rebel territory. In a daring escape, the train rams its way through the fortress gates and gets away before the siege cavalry can stop it. On board are Gupta, Scott, the little prince, Sir John's wife Lady Windham (Ursula Jeans), bureaucrat Bridie (Wilfrid Hyde-White of My Fair Lady), shifty arms dealer Peters (Eugene Deckers) and Van Layden (Herbert Lom), a Dutch-Indian journalist who forces Wyndham to allow him aboard. Accompanying the prince is his American governess Catherine Wyatt (Lauren Bacall), a feisty woman with experience in India.
At the very first rail stop, Scott's desperate travelers discover that rebels have ambushed the previous train and slaughtered every man, woman and child. Catherine finds a living baby in the carnage, and brings it along. Tensions stay high as the tiny group discovers that the rebels have sabotaged the rails in more than one place. One of the passengers is acting suspicious as well, and may be trying to subvert the flight to freedom!
Filmed in 1958, the exciting and suspenseful North West Frontier could have been written in 1929, or 1860 for that matter. It takes the attitude that India's childlike primitives would slaughter one another indiscriminately if it were not for the benign guardianship of their selfless, noble English administrators. We all love or at least enjoy wonderful colonial stories like The Four Feathers and Gunga Din, but North West Frontier comes along too late to get away with its reactionary tone -- the filmmakers clearly think that India and Pakistan should be begging their English masters to return. Of all the English films in denial over the End of Empire, this may be the worst case.
Acted with spirit and style, the passengers are strict stereotypes. The stately Lady Wyndham expresses contempt for the ungrateful savages, who do not appreciate the many years of hard work put into India by dedicated men like her husband. Gupta talks to his engine in Pidgin English, like a latter-day Gunga Din. Catherine puts forward an assertive personality (how could Ms. Bacall not?) but spends a lot of time serving tea. The cheerful Bridie chirps happy thoughts, but still betrays the opinion that Van Layden, a "half-breed Muslim", is by definition socially unacceptable. Captain Scott thinks that Van Layden's parentage is reason enough to distrust him. And everybody has harsh words for Peter's self-important arms merchant -- simplifying the rebellion to simple terrorism.
Herbert Lom's Van Leyden is a real piece of work, a sneaky, resentful zealot who takes advantage of the accommodating English for his own purposes. He reveals his religion by balking at picking up a pigskin box, and offers a constant stream of menacing anti-British remarks. And sure enough Van Leyden turns out to be not only lazy and selfish, but a kill-crazy demon as well. The insensitive screenplay believes every bit of this racism is fine and dandy. It's as if the writers read Rudyard Kipling but ignored his sympathies for the Hindu and Muslim underdogs.
The movie portrays the rebels as faceless delinquents with no cause except anarchy. The Muslim horsemen trying to stop the train behave like "stupid" Indians in American westerns, breaking only one rail and weakening just one bridge. They harass the train with rifle fire, but press a real attack only once. They're easily deterred as soon as noble Brits put up the slightest resistance.
J. Lee Thompson's direction is not bad, with many dramatic angles as the train moves through hostile territory or stands exposed to enemy fire while Scott and company try to repair a rail. The crowd and action scenes are acceptable and certainly expensive-looking. We can't tell if the giant palaces we see are miniatures or not -- they look real.
The pacing can be very uneven, as people often stand talking when quick action is needed. The train pauses at the massacre site much longer than it ought to: More and Bacall play a long scene amid a welter of corpses, surely knowing that the unseen killers could return at any moment. Considering the general incompetence of the rebels in this movie, I'm ready to make guesses about other ways these hundreds of people could have been killed: Zombies? Natural causes?
Kenneth More was one of England's most popular actors at this time; I find him essentially charmless in this particular outing. Lauren Bacall plays her role straight, as if doing an Indian version of Blood Alley. She probably had the most experience with distant locations, having braved equatorial jungles while on location for The African Queen. A specialist in surly, menacing ethnics, Herbert Lom walks away with the show. He received few starring roles (1962's Phantom of the Opera) but was always in demand.
In terms of a simple story effectively told, North West Frontier makes the grade. Turn off your political brain and it will be a surprise treat, a large-scale vintage adventure thriller that slipped under the radar. But don't show it to any minorities, foreigners or people sensitive to outdated colonial attitudes!
MGM's DVD of North West Frontier is a good-looking enhanced transfer of this interesting big budget obscurity. The rest of the disc is so plain-wrap as to be embarrassing. Loading the DVD takes one directly to the film; there are no menus and no extras. Chapter stops occur at roughly ten-minute intervals but there is no chapter selection feature; one just steps through the movie.
No subtitles are included, which means that hearing-impaired viewers will need to rely on bulky closed captioning. MGM's cover artwork is a dull picture of a train; original 1960 artwork was more exciting (see above). Even at its budget price, this disc shows that MGM (actually, Fox) is willing to invest little or nothing in their library DVD releases.
It's said that J. Lee Thompson rode the good work of his assistant directors and stunt arrangers on North West Frontier into the plum directing assignment on The Guns of Navarone. Thompson then did a sensational directing job on the dark thriller Cape Fear, cementing his reputation so thoroughly that he was able to coast through a thirty-picture career crowded with expensive flops, cheap flops, and finally a series of awful Charles Bronson movies. But the remarkable Tiger Bay absolves him of everything.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
North West Frontier rates:
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