Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
If Rudyard Kipling isn't always approved children's fare any more, it's not because he's a bad
writer, just that many of his stories are based on colonial attitudes when Indian subjects of the
Queen were considered third-class citizens. We all know how ironic he
could be about whites in India from his short story The Man Who Would Be King, but the
majority of his early work posits India as this giant adventure playground for white Englishmen.
Even though it has a certain respect for the 'colorful' aspects of Indian culture, this MGM
production of Kim keeps up the idea that there's some higher nobility in being white, and
that when the two cultures come together in harmony, it's a happy accident. The halfway decent
kid's adventure has also been given Cold War implications. Like the original, young Kim is basically
an underage spy. The movie isn't made by great talent, and even with the resources of MGM, it
comes off looking a bit cheap. It's not my idea of an MGM classic.
Kim (Dean Stockwell) is a British orphan who passes for an Indian
boy in the streets of Lahore, running cons and swindles and doing petty crimes for horse trader
and secret British spy Mahbub Ali, the Red Beard (Errol Flynn). Soon Kim is running messages for
Colonel Creighton (Robert Douglas), the colonial intelligence chief, while assisting as a beggar-boy
for a noble Lama from Thibet (Paul Lukas). Hurree Chunder (Cecil Kellaway) and Lurgan Sahib (Arnold
Moss) are also spies; Kim breaks his promise to attend school to carry out a secret mission in
the North when the real agent is killed. Kim charms his way into the camp of two Czarist agents
plotting war; and Mahbub Ali has to rush to rescue him.
First of all, it was a great gimmick to concoct a story about an artful-dodger kind of Lahore
street boy, with a white kid posing as Indian. In that respect Kim plays as a junior
The Four Feathers, where the way to fool treacherous foreigners is to always keep
one's disguise. Kim's spying talent earned him mention in our old Boy Scout manuals, which used
the famous memory game, Kim's game, as one of its exercises.
Dean Stockwell isn't particularly English, but he's a good little actor with a big attitude.
Unfortunately, his favorite activity is stealing food for his Lama from poor people, and running
other con games. He is daring and reasonably resourceful, and only meets his match in an evil
emissary (Thomas Gomez) who sees through his avoidance of hypnosis.
England in this Kipling story is perceived as the great, wise power keeping India from falling
prey to unscrupulous foreign invaders (!), and Kim is essential in foiling a Russian (natch) plan
to infiltrate and conquer through secret mountain passes. This is either incredibly convenient
for the assignment of post-war villains, or more of the kind of mix-n-match enemy shuffling done for
the 1936 Charge of the Light Brigade.
Top-billed Errol Flynn is only in perhaps twenty minutes of footage, and is given a few moments of
ladykilling to please his fans. His first target is the sultry Laurette Luez of D.O.A.,
equally sinister here. But he slips in and out of the picture and is really a supporting player.
I do know that
Flynn was not popular with the MGM brass, and this may have been a quick way of fulfilling a
contractual agreement before clearing out of that studio. Even with his beard, turban and
red boots, he looks about as Indian as Abraham Lincoln. 2
Paul Lukas is reasonable as the wise Lama, although there's nothing remotely Eastern about him. Kim's
friendship and devotion to him is the best thing in the show, but it's still on the weak side; the
transcendant ending for the Lama is as hollow as the bad special effect used to present it.
The biggest disappointment is in the direction and the production itself. Victor Saville was more
successful as a producer (Kiss Me Deadly) than a director, and most of the staging here is
unexciting and drab. Worse, the color of the location shooting looks a little sick, as if something
had gone wrong with the Technicolor cameras, and every time the show cuts back to a crummy MGM
interior set, the show just cries out Fake. The Lone Pine, California locations for the North of
fool any of us either: we expect to see Randolph Scott ride up at any moment. 1
These weren't the best years for MGM, and Kim isn't a classic by a long shot. Some of the
spy games and maneuverings with assassins, etcetera, are fairly interesting, but it's
definitely not a keeper. It is fun to see Cecil Kellaway hidden under his makeup and beard, and
Arnold Moss (the alien of The 27th Day) uses his velvet voice to good effect as a trainer
of colonial spies.
Warners' DVD of Kim is a beauty, with elements in perfect shape, so if you think Savant's
opinion is a crock, you'll love this disc. Andre Previn's quick-cobbled score sounds fine and
helps hold the disparate production styles together. Previn wrote that he did lots of this kind
of writing for MGM, some for credit and some not.
The disc comes with two of those old pre-War MGM travelogue shorts about India, that show the
exotic sites in Technicolor and regale us with condescending talk about the natives. There's also
an original trailer and a quickie text essay on Rudyard Kipling in the movies, basically a short
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good --
Supplements: two Fitzpatrick Technicolor travelogue shorts, trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 20, 2003
1. The location footage
looks very much like some other early color system filtered into Technicolor after returning
to the U.S.. When this footage is used in process photography, any illusion of Stockwell or
Flynn actually being in India goes down the drain.
2. I get
conflicting info, most helpfully from Dick Dinman, who tells me that Errol Flynn was very popular
around MGM at this time. Other information I have says that he was snubbed for studio events and
despised by Louis B. Mayer. It's not that relevant to my interview, and I shouldn't have made the
statement without being completely aware of all the facts.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson