“KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” (1953) Review

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“KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” (1953) Review

Twentieth-Century Fox was never a studio that I would associate with movies about the British Empire. Mind you, the studio had released several during the period between its formation in 1935 and the 1953 release of “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES”. Yet . . . it never seemed to produce many productions on European imperialism in compare to studios like Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Just recently, I watched “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” and discovered that it was a remake of John Ford’s 1929 adventure film, “THE BLACK WATCH”. And both movies were film adaptations of Talbot Mundy’s 1916 novel, “King of the Khyber Rifles”. However, the 1929 film seemed to be a closer adaptation of Mundy’s novel, than this 1953 film that starred Tyrone Power. Was I disappointed by my discovery? Honestly, no. I have read the synopsis of the original novel. It did not quite pique my interest the way Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts’ screenplay did.

“KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” told the story of a Sandhurst-trained British Army officer named Captain Alan King, who has been assigned to a North-West Frontier Province garrison near the Khyber Pass in 1857. His fellow officers, including his commander Brigadier-General J.R. Maitland, discover that King’s mother was a Muslim and native Indian before subjecting him to many subtle forms of bigotry. His roommate, Lieutenant Geoffrey Heath, even moves out of their quarters in protest to sharing a bungalow with someone who is not completely white. Only the general’s daughter, Susan Maitland, harbors no prejudice against King and slowly begins falling in love with him.

The garrison under Maitland finds itself facing a political storm in the form of an Afridi deserter named Karram Khan, who has created his own following among nearby local tribesmen. Unbeknownst to the British garrison, many native sepoys (soldiers) across British India are in an uproar over British acquisition of more Indian kingdoms and the new Enfield rifles. When Maitland discovers that King knew Karram Khan as a boy, he orders the latter to train and command a company of native calvary troopers to deal with Karram Khan. But when he becomes fully aware of the romantic feelings between the younger officer and Susan, Maitland considers an earlier suggestion of King’s . . . one that could endanger the latter’s life.

When I began to watch “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES”, I had no idea of how I would regard it in the end. Superficially, it seemed like the typical pro-Imperial adventure film that Hollywood had been churning out since the silent era. The movie featured the usual Imperialist adventure traits – dashing, yet handsome British officer/hero, the charming heroine that happened to be daughter/sister/niece of the hero’s commanding officer, Muslim fanatic leader and villain, Northern Indian tribesmen under the villain’s leadership, and personal connection between the hero and the villain (well . . . sometimes). I also wish that “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” had been ten to fifteen minutes longer. If it had, then the narrative would not have seemed so rushed.

One could also see that the 20th Century Fox Studios gave little thought to the movie’s production values. Despite the presence of A-list actors in the cast – Tyrone Power, Terry Moore and Michael Rennie – I could not decide whether Fox Studios considered “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” an “A” or “B” movie. Everything about the movie’s production design and visual style seemed to reek of a “B” movie. The only exception seemed to be Travilla’s costume designs, especially for Moore. I have one last major problem with “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” – namely British actor Guy Rolfe, who portrayed Karram Khan. I realize that the Hollywood industry was (and continues to be) reluctant to give non-Western or non-white roles to non-Western actors. I suspect this is something that will last for a very long time. But . . . poor Rolfe was forced to don blackface for his role as the Northern Indian rebel. I found this unnecessary, especially since a dark-haired and dark-eyed white actor with a slight tan could have portrayed this role. Many natives of the region are among the most light-skinned in the India subcontinent. But blackface . . . for a character who was supposed to be a native of Northern India? Rolfe looked like a performer of a minstrel show – being held in Calcutta.

But despite the subpar production values, the rushed ending and Guy Rolfe’s makeup, I must admit that “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” proved to be a decent, yet almost mediocre film. I certainly had no problems with the performances. Tyrone Power gave an intelligent, yet charming performance as the movie’s leading character – the very competent Alan King who is torn between his parents’ two worlds and his feelings for the leading lady. I noticed that he did not bother to attempt a British accent. I did not mind. He still managed to project the style of a man born and raised in Europe . . . or by Europeans. More importantly, he skillfully portrayed a man torn between his loyalties toward his father’s people and resentment toward their treatment of him. Terry Moore did not bother to hide her American accent as well, despite portraying the young and English-born Susan Maitland. And she also gave an intelligent and spirited performance that I found personally appealing. I was especially impressed with her acting in one scene in which she conveyed Susan’s disgust toward the bigotry that surrounded Alan King. Michael Rennie’s portrayal of Susan’s father, Brigadier-General J.R. Maitland, struck me as very interesting. On one level, he seemed like the typical intelligent and well-bred British officer that seems to be idealized in many other film productions. Yet, behind the idealized portrait, Rennie subtlety revealed General Maitland’s insidious bigotry and wiliness to send Captain King to his death in order to nip any potential romance between the mixed blood officer and his daughter. One last performance I have to comment upon was Guy Rolfe’s portrayal of the Afridi leader, Karram Khan. Yes, I found his blackface makeup offensive. But I also cannot deny that he gave a surprisingly subtle and intelligent portrayal of the tribal leader determined to rid his country of the invading British. I found it odd that his character was described as “fanatic”, but I never got that vibe, thanks to Rolfe’s subtle performance. He simply portrayed Karram as an intelligent and charismatic leader who is not above utilizing violence to achieve his goal.

Earlier, I had commented that “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” possessed the basic ingredients of a typical imperialist adventure film made in Hollywood. Trust me . . . it does. And yet, the movie’s screenwriters undermined the Imperialist genre by transforming the main character into an officer of mixed Anglo-Indian blood. The screenwriters also did not hesitate to convey the ugly bigotry that existed in British India. I was also impressed by how they touched on the issues that led Indian sepoys to rebel against the British military and government leaders in 1857 – especially the distribution of the new Enfield rifles. Many sepoys feared that the cartridges of the new rifles were coated with beef and/or pork grease and would compromise their religious beliefs. This fear played out in an interesting and intense scene in which King’s men were hesitant to follow him into battle as long as he insisted upon them using the rifles. I could not help but wonder if the more realistic politics of British Imperialism have been found in other imperial adventures released by Hollywood during the post-World War II era.

In the end, “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” proved to be an . . . interesting movie to a certain extent. Yes, the movie ended on an abrupt note. And it possessed all the attributes of your typical Hollywood imperial adventure. Yet, thanks to the screenwriters and director Henry King, the story undermined its more conservative element with a somewhat realistic portrayal of the Alan King character and his impact upon the other characters in the story. “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” also benefited from excellent performances from a cast led by Tyrone Power.

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Top Ten Favorite HISTORY Documentaries

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1850s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1850s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1850s

1-Django Unchained

1. “Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this Oscar winning tale about a newly freed slave who searches for his still enslaved wife with the help of a German-born bounty hunter in Mississippi. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

 

2-The Charge of the Light Brigade

2. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1938) – Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland starred in this exciting adventure story set in both British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

 

3-Race to Freedom The Underground Railroad

3. “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad” (1994) – Courtney B. Vance and Janet Bailey starred in this television drama about the adventures of four slaves who escape from a North Carolina plantation, while being tracked by a pair of slave catchers. Don McBrearty directed.

 

4-Skin Game

4. “Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. starred in this dark comedy about a pair of con artists who clean up in a slave selling scheme in Missouri and Kansas, before their scam finally catches up with them. Paul Bogart directed.

 

5-Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

5. “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) – Stanley Donen directed this famous 1954 musical about six backwoodsmen brothers When a backwoodsman in the Oregon Territory, who decides to marry after their oldest brother brings home a wife. Jane Powell, Howard Keel and Russ Tambyln starred.

 

6-The First Great Train Robbery

6. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crighton wrote and directed this adaptation of his novel about three Victorian criminals who plot to rob a shipment of gold for British troops serving during the Crimean War, from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

 

7-Wuthering Heights

7. “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven starred.

 

8-Westward the Women

8. “Westward the Women” (1951) – William Wellman directed this excellent Western-adventure about a trail guide hired by a Californian rancher to escort a wagon train of women heading west to marry men who have settled in the rancher’s valley. Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel and John McIntire starred.

 

9-Mountains of the Moon

9. “Mountains of the Moon” (1990) Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen starred in this historical account of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke’s expedition to find the source of the Nile River on behalf of the British Empire. Bob Rafelson directed.

 

10-Jezebel

10. “Jezebel” (1938) – William Wyler directed Oscar winners Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in this adaptation of Owen Davis Sr.’s 1933 play about a headstrong Southern woman, whose actions cost her the man she loves. Henry Fonda and George Brent co-starred.

Top Ten Favorite BRITISH EMPIRE Novels

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Below is a list of my current favorite novels set during the British Empire:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE BRITISH EMPIRE NOVELS

1 - Flashman in the Great Game

1. “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) by George MacDonald Fraser – Set between 1856 and 1858, this fifth novel in theFlashman Papers Series is about cowardly British Army officer Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion.

 

2 - Shadow of the Moon

2. “Shadow of the Moon” (1957/1979) by M.M. Kaye – This is a love story between an Anglo-Spanish heiress and a British Army officer before and during the Sepoy Rebellion.

 

3 - The Bastard

3. “The Bastard” (1974) by John Jakes – Set during the final five years before the American Revolution, this tale is about Phillipe Charbaneau aka Philip Kent, the Anglo-French bastard of a nobleman forced to seek a new life in the American Colonies.

 

4 - Flashman and the Dragon

4. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser – The eighth novel of the Flashman Papers reveals Harry Flashman’s experiences in China during the Taiping Rebellion and the British march to Peking during the Second Opium War.

 

5 - Noble House

5. “Noble House” (1981) by James Clavell – Set during two weeks in August 1963, this novel is about a British businessman in Hong Kong, who struggles to save his family’s company from financial ruin through a deal with an American corporate raider.

 

6 - Zemindar

6. “Zemindar” (1982) by Valerie Fitzgerald – This novel is about a young Englishwoman named Laura Hewitt, who accompanies her cousin and cousin-in-law to India to meet the latter’s wealthy half-brother. All three get caught up in the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion.

 

7 - Tai-pan

7. “Tai-Pan” (1966) by James Clavell – Set during the immediate aftermath of the First Opium War, this novel is about a British trader and his dealings with his family and enemies during the formation of Britain’s Hong Kong colony.

 

8 - Liberty Tavern

8. “Liberty Tavern” (1976) by Thomas Fleming – This novel is about a former British Army officer, who operates a New Jersey tavern and serves as guardian to his stepchildren during the American Revolution.

 

9 - The Far Pavilions

9. “The Far Pavilion” (1978) by M.M. Kaye – This bestseller is about a 19th century British Army officer, who had spent his childhood believing he was Indian. He experiences love with an Indian princess and war during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

 

10 - Forget the Glory

10. “Forget the Glory” (1985) by Emma Drummond – This novel chronicled the experiences of an unhappily married British Army officer, who falls in love with wife’s maid during a long journey from India to the Ukraine during the Crimean War.

“THE DECEIVERS” (1988) Review

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“THE DECEIVERS” (1988) Review

I have heard of British writer John Masters ever since I saw “BHOWANI JUNCTION”, the 1956 adaptation of one his novels, on television years ago. Mind you, I did not love the film. But it did ignite an interest in a few of Masters’ stories – including his 1952 novel, “The Deceivers”

Not long after I saw “BHOWANI JUNCTION” on television, film producers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory made their own adaptation of Masters’ 1952 novel. Released in 1988 and directed by Nicholas Meyer, “THE DECEIVERS” told the story of Englishman William Savage, an officer with the British East Indian Company in 1825, who stumbles across the murderous activities of an organized gang of assassins and robbers calledThuggees, who worship the goddess Kali. Frustrated by his commanding officer/father-in-law’s refusal to investigate further, Captain Savage “recruits” a captured Thug named Hussein to help him infiltrate one of the gangs in order to expose the organization. Despite the risk of exposure and vengeance, Captain Savage finds himself undergoing a psychological transformation when he not only becomes close to his new companions, but also begins to succumb to the cult’s bloodlust and murderous behavior.

If one is expecting “THE DECEIVERS” to be one of those costume dramas or adventures on the epic scale, one is bound to be face with disappointment. In fact, I suspect that most critics back in 1988 were very disappointed with the movie’s small scale. Despite some large-scale action, a little horror and historical drama; “THE DECEIVERS” struck me as small-scale period drama and character study of an early 19th century man whose worldview would change in ways he had not imagined. At the beginning of the film, William Savage is not a highly regarded officer with the East Indian Company. Although he speaks several Indian dialects fluently, is dedicated to his duties as magistrate of his district and is friendly with the local aristocrat; his new father-in-law, Colonel Wilson, does not seem particularly impressed by him, especially since he refuses to succumb to the Company’s corruption by taxing the local inhabitants of nearly every rupee they possess. In the company of his father-in-law and other officers within the East Indian Company – including his friend George Anglesmith – Captain Savage seemed like the odd man out or the black sheep. But in the company of those Indian citizens inside his district and the sepoys (Indian soliders) under his command, he is very much the Imperial Englishman. This attitude is especially apparent following his discovery of the Thugs’ activities and their victims. He even go so far as to regard himself redeeming a Thug he and his men had earlier captured – a man named Hussein.

But when his father-in-law, Colonel Wilson, refuses to initiate any further investigations into the Thuggees; Captain Savage decides to take matters into his own hands and infiltrate one of their bands. He disguises himself as a native of Northern India and asks Hussein to help him infiltrate the latter’s own band of robbers. Although Savage eventually succeeds in his mission, his journey with the Thug band nearly tears apart his self-esteem as an Englishman and a civilized man. One of the movie’s more interesting scenes featured Savage, Hussein and the other Thugs engaged in a religious ceremony in which they pay homage to the goddess Kali. During this ceremony, Savage notices that the group’s priest uses an instrument similar to the thurible used during his wedding ceremony. He also discovers that underneath his so-called “civilized” English demeanor, he was capable of a great deal of blood lust and violence . . . including deliberate and cold-blooded murder. As I had earlier stated, the film ended on a triumphant note for Savage’s professional career. The East Indian Company appoints Savage as their main commissioner on the suppression of the Thuggee cult throughout the subcontinent. But despite this career high note, Savage’s psyche and self-esteem as an Englishman in India has been greatly shaken by his experiences with the Thug band.

For me, Savage’s emotional journey into darkness is probably the highlight of “THE DECEIVERS”. And this is due not only to the willingness of Michael Hirst’s screenplay and Pierce Brosnan’s superb performance to explore the darker aspects of Savage’s psyche. It is a pity that the movie ended up as a critical and box office failure. Personally, I feel that “THE DECEIVERS” was a lot better than most it is generally regarded. In many ways, it went against the grain of the typical British Empire action film. Perhaps it is not really an action film . . . and many critics and moviegoers could not accept this. Like I said, it is a pity that many were not willing to accept this aspect of “THE DECEIVERS”. Not only did I find it to be the movie’s most interesting aspect, but I also found it unusual for a movie set in pre-20th century British India.

Mind you, “THE DECEIVERS” is not perfect. I found the movie’s finale, which featured a pitched battle between Company soldiers led by Colonel Wilson and many Thugs to be a rushed affair. Before Nicholas Meyer could further delve into it, he switches his focus solely upon the wounded Savage’s attempt to evade a vengeful Feringea, leader of the Thuggee band with whom he had been following. I was also somewhat disappointed by the story’s handling of the George Anglesmith character. David Robb did an excellent job in his portrayal of the morally corrupt Anglesmith, who is also jealous of Savage’s recent marriage to Sarah Wilson. But the script did very little justice to his character, aside from a surprising revelation regarding his knowledge of the Thugs. There has also been a good deal of criticism directed toward the film’s handling of a Sati (Suttee) situation regarding the wife of a local weaver, who had disappeared, whose identity Savage had used to infiltrate Hussein’s Thug band. Savage’s use of Gopal the Weaver’s identity ended up having far reaching circumstances for the latter’s wife . . . circumstances that repelled a good deal of critics and moviegoers.

I have already commented on the excellent performances of both Pierce Brosnan and David Robb. I might as well touch upon the film’s other performances. Saeed Jaffrey was superb as the redeemed Hussein, who becomes disturbed by Savage’s increasing embrace of his darker psyche. Shashi Kapoor gave a warm, yet complex performance as Chandra Singh, the aristocrat who befriends Savage. Helena Michell gave solid support as Savage’s loyal and passionate new wife. Her father, Keith Michell, gave an intense performance as Colonel Wilson . . . even if there were times I found it a bit hammy. Another intense performance came Tariq Yunus, who portrayed the leader of Savage’s Thug band, Feringea. Fortunately, he managed to restrain the ham.

Visually, “THE DECEIVERS” is a gorgeous movie to behold. Most of the movie was filmed around Jaipur, India. Walter Lassally’s photography did a beautiful job in capturing the natural beauty of Jaipur’s local terrain. What made this particular appealing to me was the fact that a good deal of the movie was set in parts of India not occupied or inhabited by the British. I cannot say that “THE DECEIVERS” revealed the “true” India of the mid-1820s. But I found it interesting to view an India not populated by British cantonments or inhabitants. But the movie’s visual of the Indian countryside was not the only thing I found appealing. I also enjoyed the costumes designed by Academy Award winner Jenny Beavan and John Bright. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing the period fashions for both the British and Indian characters of the period.

I suppose there is nothing I can say to convince anyone that “THE DECEIVERS” is an interesting movie. It went against the grain of what many considered an enjoyable movie about 19th century British India. The movie seemed too focused on Savage’s internal psyche and less on any real action. But I enjoyed it, despite its dark topic (or because of it) and the lack of epic scope, I managed to enjoy “THE DECEIVERS”, thanks to Nicholas Meyer’s direction and a first-rate cast led by Pierce Brosnan.

“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

How is it that a movie about one of the most famous blunders in British military history could remain so entertaining after 74 years? Can someone explain this? Warner Brothers’ take on the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the Light Brigade of the British cavalry charged straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights during the Crimean War, is not what one would call historically accurate. Most of the movie took place in British occupied Northern India in the 1850s. Aside from the last twenty or thirty minutes, the movie really has nothing to do with the Crimean War. And yet . . . who cares? ”The Charge of the Light Brigade” is so damn entertaining that I found myself not even thinking about historical accuracy.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, and written by screenwriters Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh; the movie is an entertaining mixture about vengeance against the leader of a treacherous local tributary rajah in Northern India named Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon); and a love triangle between Geoffrey and Perry Vickers – two brothers who are British Army officers (Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles) who happened to be in love with the same woman – the daughter of a British general (Olivia DeHavilland) named Elsa Campbell. I might as well start with the love story.

On the surface, the love triangle in ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” seemed pretty simple – one woman torn between two men. Instead of having two best friends in love with the same woman, we have two brothers. But even that is nothing unusual. What turned out to be so unusual about this particular love story – especially in an Errol Flynn movie – is that the leading lady is NOT in love with the leading man. Within fifteen minutes into the story, the movie revealed that the leading man – namely Flynn – lost the affections of the leading woman (and fiancée) – De Havilland – to the secondary male lead – namely Knowles.

At first, it boggled in the mind. What woman in her right mind would prefer Patric Knowles over Errol Flynn? The latter had a more flamboyant character and was obviously the movie’s main hero. However . . . Knowles was not exactly chopped liver. Knowles was just as handsome as Flynn in his own way and a competent actor to boot. And his character – although less flamboyant than Flynn’s – had a quiet charm of its own. I also got the feeling that Flynn’s character seemed more in love with his job as an Army officer during the British Raj than he was with dear Elsa. Geoffrey Vickers seemed to have it all . . . until his brother Perry and Elsa’s little romance pulled the rug from under his self-assured life. And yet, he seemed damn reluctant to admit that Elsa loved Perry more than him. Reluctant may have been a mild word. Geoffrey seemed downright delusional in his belief that Elsa loved him only . . . and that Perry was merely harboring an infatuation for his fiancée. What made matters worse was that everyone – including Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) and diplomat Sir Charles Macefield (Henry Stephenson) – supported Geoffrey’s illusions. Only Lady Octavia Warrenton (Spring Byington), wife of British General Sir Benjamin Warrenton (Nigel Bruce) seemed aware of Elsa and Perry’s feelings for one another.

Before I discuss the movie in general, I want to focus upon the cast. Flynn, DeHavilland and Knowles were ably supported by a talented cast drawn from the British colony in 1930s Hollywood (with the exception of two). American-born Spring Byington and British actor Nigel Bruce were charmingly funny as the verbose busybody Lady Octavia Warrenton and her husband, the long-suffering Sir Benjamin. They made a surprisingly effective screen pair. Donald Crisp was his usual more than competent self as Elsa’s loving, but humorless father, Colonel Campbell – a by-the-book officer unwilling to accept that his daughter had switched her affections to the younger Vickers brother. Henry Stephenson gave an intelligent performance as the competent diplomat, Sir Charles Macefield, who is charged with not only keeping the peace, but maintaining British control in a certain province of Northern India. It was easy to see why Flynn’s character seemed to hold him in high regard. David Niven was charming, but not very memorable as Geoffrey Vicker’s best friend, James Randall. Only in one scene – in which Randall volunteers to leave the besieged Chukoti Fort in order to warn Sir Benjamin at Lohara of Surat Khan’s attack – did Niven give a hint of the talent that would eventually be revealed over the years. And of course, one cannot forget American actor C. Henry Gordon’s portrayal of the smooth-talking villain, Surat Khan. Gordon could have easily portrayed Khan as another ”Oriental villain” that had become typical by the 1930s. On one level, Gordon’s Khan was exactly that. On another . . . Gordon allowed moviegoers to see Khan’s frustration and anger at the British handling of his kingdom.

Olivia DeHavilland once again proved that even in a costumed swashbuckler, she could portray an interesting female character without sinking into the role of the commonplace damsel-in-distress. With the exception of the sequence featuring the Siege of Chokoti, her Elsa Campbell spent most of the movie being torn between the man she loved – Perry Vickers, the man she has remained fond of – Geoffrey Vickers, and her father’s determination that she marry Geoffrey. Elsa spent most of the movie as an emotionally conflicted woman and DeHavilland did an excellent job of portraying Elsa’s inner conflicts with a skill that only a few actresses can pull off. And DeHavilland was merely 20 years old at the time she shot this film.

I really enjoyed Patric Knowles’ performance in this movie. Truly. One, he managed to hold himself quite well against the powerhouse of both Flynn and DeHavilland. I should not have been surprised. His performance as a sleazy Southern planter in 1957’s ”BAND OF ANGELS” was one of the bright spots in an otherwise mediocre film. And two, his Perry Vickers was a character I found easy to root for in his pursuit of Elsa’s hand. I especially enjoyed two particular scenes – his desperate, yet charming attempt to be assigned to Chokoti (and near Elsa), despite Sir Charles’ disapproval; and his anger and frustration over Geoffrey’s unwillingness to face the fact that Elsa’s affections had switched to him.

There are four movie performances by Errol Flynn that have impressed me very much. Three of those performances were Geoffrey Thorpe in ”THE SEA HAWK” (1940), James J. Corbett in ”GENTLEMAN JIM” (1942) and Soames Forsyte in”THAT FORSYTE WOMAN” (1949). The fourth happens to be his performance as Captain/Major Geoffrey Vickers in”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”. Not many film critics or fans have ever paid attention to his performance in this film, which is a pity. I suspect they were so flabbergasted by the idea of him losing Olivia DeHavilland to Patric Knowles that they had failed to pay any real attention to his performance as the complex and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers. Superficially, Flynn’s Vickers is a charming, witty and very competent military officer. He seemed so perfect at the beginning of the film that it left me wondering if there were in cracks in his characters. Sure enough, there were. Thanks to a well written character and Flynn’s skillful performance, the movie’s Geoffrey Vickers became a complex, yet arrogant man who discovers that he is not very good at letting go at things that seem important to him, whether it was Elsa’s love or a desire for revenge against the villain. In the end, Geoffrey’s flaws became the instrument of his destruction. The amazing thing about Flynn’s performance as Geoffrey Vickers was that it was his second leading role. And the fact that he managed to portray such a complex character, considering his limited screen experience at the time, still amazes me.

As I had stated before, the movie’s historical account of the Crimean War and the infamous charge hardly bore any resemblance to what actually happened. The movie seemed to be about the British’s interactions with a Northern Indian minor rajah named Surat Khan. The British, led by diplomat Sir Charles Macefield, struggle to maintain a “friendly” relationship with Khan, while his men harass British troops in the area and he develops a friendship with a visiting Russian Army officer Count Igor Volonoff (Robert Barrat). The phony friendship and minor hostilities culminated in an attack by Khan against one of the British forts in his province – Chukoti, which is under the command of Colonel Campbell. The battle for Chukoti eventually turned into a massacre that only Geoffrey and Elsa survived. But more interesting, it seemed like a reenactment of an actual siege and massacre that happened at a place called Cawnpore, during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58 . . . three to four years after the setting of this movie. For a movie that is supposed to be about the Light Brigade Charge and the Crimean War, it was turning out to be more of a fictional account of British history in India during the 1850s.

But the movie eventually touched upon the Crimean War. After the Chukoti Massacre, Surat Khan ended up in hot water with the British government in India. Due to his friendship with Volonoff, he found refugee with the Russians. And he ended up as a guest of the Russian Army during the Crimean War. Following her father’s death, Elsa finally convinced Geoffrey that she is in love with Perry. And the regiment of both brothers – the 27th Lancers – is also sent to Crimea. According to Sir Charles, their posting to the Crimea would give them an opportunity for revenge against Khan. But when the 27th Lancers finally received an opportunity to get their revenge against Khan, Sir Charles denied it. And so . . . Geoffrey took matters in his own hands and ordered the Light Brigade – which included his regiment – and the Heavy Brigade to attack the artillery on the heights above the Balaklava Valley. This is so far from what actually happened . . . but who cares? I enjoyed watching Flynn express Geoffrey’s struggles to contain his thirst for revenge and eventual failure.

And then the charge happened. My God! Every time I think about that sequence, I cannot believe my eyes. Part of me is horrified not only by the blunder caused by Geoffrey’s desire for revenge . . . but by the fact that 200 horses and a stuntman were killed during the shooting of that scene. Flynn had been so outraged by the deaths of the horses that he openly supported the ASPCA’s ban on using trip wire for horses for any reason. At the same time, I cannot help but marvel at the brutal spectacle of that scene. No wonder Jack Sullivan won the Academy Award for Best Assistant Director for his work on this particular scene.

On the whole, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” is a very entertaining and well-paced spectacle. Frankly, I think that it was one of the best movies to be released during the 1930s and certainly one of Errol Flynn’s finest films. For those who honestly believed that the Australian actor could not act . . . well, they are entitled to their opinions. But I would certainly disagree with them. On the surface, Flynn seemed like his usual charming and flamboyant self. However, I was very impressed at his portrayal of the self-assured and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers, who found his private life slowly falling apart. Olivia DeHavilland, Patric Knowles, Donald Crisp, C. Henry Gordon and Spring Byington gave him excellent support. Thanks to Jacoby and Leigh’s script, along with Michael Curtiz’s tight direction, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” turned out to be a first-class movie with an interesting love story with a twist, political intrigue, well-paced action and a final sequence featuring the charge that remains mind blowing, even after 74 years.

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

I have read several novels about the historic event known as the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-1858 (aka The Indian Mutiny, or aka the First War of Indian Independence). And the main characters in each novel have been British. I have not seen one movie about the event. And after seeing 2005’s ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”, I still have not seen one movie about the Sepoy Rebellion. But this is the first movie I have seen that touches upon the subject. 

Actually, ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is really a prelude to the Sepoy Rebellion itself. Directed by Farrukh Dhondy, it is based upon the life of Mandey Pandey, an Indian sepoy (soldier) of the British East India Company, who served as the catalyst for the 1857-58 rebellion. The movie began with Pandey facing execution for violently protesting against the use of new rifles issued by the East India Company. Pandey, along with his fellow soldiers believe that the rifles’ cartridges have been greased by animal fat – beef, pork or both. Since many Hindus and Muslims view this as an abhorrent, they consider the cartridges an insult to their religious beliefs. Pandey’s conflict with the Company (East India Company) rule also manifests in a few violent clashes with an aggressive and bigoted British officer named Hewson. In the end, not even Pandey’s friendship with his company’s sympathetic commander, Captain William Gordon, can save him from being convicted and executed by the regimental commander. His execution eventually inspired other sepoys to view him as a martyr and continue the major revolt against British rule he has instigated.

I have been aware of ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” for nearly two years – ever since I read about it on theWikipedia site. But I never thought I would get a chance to view it, until I discovered that Netflix offered the movie for rent. And if I have to be perfectly honest, it is a pretty damn good film. However, it is not perfect. I suspect that it is not historically accurate. This does not bother me, considering that most historical dramas are not completely accurate. However, I have one minor and one major complaint about the movie. My minor complaint centered on the occasionally melodramatic dialogue of the British characters. Aside from Toby Stephens, who portrayed William Gordon and Coral Beed, who portrayed the daughter of the regimental commander, Emily Kent; I was not that impressed by the British cast. I found them rather hammy at times. However, I had a real problem with the occasional musical numbers that interrupted the story’s flow. The last thing I wanted to see in a costumed epic about a historical figure are three to five minute musical numbers. They seemed out of place in such a film.

But if I have to be honest, there was one musical number that did not interrupt the story’s flow. It featured a dance number in which a group of courtesans – led by a woman named Heera. Heera’s performance attracted the drunken attention of Pandey’s main foe, Lieutenant Hewson. And Pandey found himself in a fight against the British officer to prevent the latter from pawing and sexually assaulting Heera. But that was simply one of many interesting dramatic scenes featured in”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”. Another featured a tense moment in which Pandey attempts to help Gordon convincing the other sepoys that the cartridges used in the new rifles are not greased with animal fat, by loading the rifle. However, this action backfires when Pandey eventually becomes convinced that he had been wrong. But the cartridges and Pandey’s reaction to them turn out to be the tip of the iceberg in the conflict between the growing resentment of the sepoy and the British rulers.

Although most of the movie centered on the dark aspects of the British Empire, it did touch upon one aspect of Indian culture with a negative note – namely the funeral practice of sati. Pandey and Gordon had saved a young Indian widow from the sati funeral pyre and Gordon spent the rest of the film saving her from being killed by her in-laws. However, the movie is about Mangal Pandey and the negative aspects of British imperial rule by 1850s India. The movie featured the corruption generated by the East India Company’s production of opium in India and its trade in China. The movie also featured the continuation of the slave trade in which Indian women are used as sexual slaves for the Company’s officer corp. This introduced one the movie’s major characters, the courtesan named Heera, who bluntly expressed her view on the Indian male population who willingly sign up to serve the East India Company’s army. When Pandey expressed his contempt toward women like her for selling their bodies, she responded with equal contempt at all of those who ”sold their souls” to the East India Company. All of the resentment over British rule and the distrust regarding the new Enfield rifles and the greased cartridges finally spilled over in an ugly encounter between Pandey and Lieutenant Hewson. Their second encounter became even uglier when Hewson and a group of fellow officers pay Pandey a visit at the regiment’s jail to brutally assault the imprisoned sepoy even further. Violence finally spilled over when Pandey convinced the other sepoys to mutiny. And after he is executed, the mutiny at the Barrackpore will inspire other sepoys throughout many parts of India to rebel against British rule.

I was not exaggerating when I say that most of the performances by the British cast members came off as over-the-top. A prime example was Ben Nealon’s portrayal of Pandey’s main nemesis, Lieutenant Hewson. One could say that Nealon was at a disadvantage from the start. His character was just as one-dimensional as many non-white characters that could be found in old Hollywood movies with a similar setting. However, Coral Beed, who portrayed Emily, the daughter of the Barrackpore commander, fared better. In a way, Emily came off as another cliché from the British Imperial literature of the 20th century – the young, open-minded English girl who is not only sympathetic to the Indians, but also interested in their culture. But Beed managed to portray this cliché without coming off as a second-rate version of the Daphne Manners character from 1984 miniseries, ”THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN”. Fortunately, most of the Indian cast did not engage in hammy acting. However, there was one exception – the actor who portrayed the “Untouchable” sweeper who mocked Pandey for demonstrating the new Enfield rifle. I do not know his name, but gave the hammiest performance in the entire movie. I felt as if I was watching an Indian version of a court jester perform. Perhaps that was director Dhondy’s intent. If it was, it did not work for me. However, I found myself very impressed by Rani Mukherjee’s performance as Pandey’s love interest, the courtesan Heera. Mind you, I found the idea of a devout Hindu like Pandey becoming romantically involved in a prostitute – especially one used to service British officers hard to believe. But I must admit that Mukherjee and actor Aamir Khan (who portrayed Pandey) had a strong screen chemistry. And the actress did give a very charismatic performance.

Finally we come to the movie’s two lead actors – Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens. And both actors gave superb performances. Aamir Khan is considered one of India’s biggest stars. He is at times compared to George Clooney. Well, he deserves the comparison. Not only is he a handsome man, but he also possesses a dynamic screen presence and is a first-rate actor. And he did an excellent job of developing Mangal Pandey’s character from the loyal sepoy who seemed to be satisfied with his life, to the embittered rebel whose actions instigated a major uprising. Khan conveyed this development with great skill and very expressive eyes. Toby Stephens was equally impressive as the British East India officer, Captain William Gordon. One might find his character a little hard to digest, considering that he is portrayed as being very sympathetic to the Indian populace and their culture (save for the sati ritual) with hardly any personal flaws. Fortunately, Stephens is skillful enough as an actor to rise above such one-dimensional characterization and portray Gordon as an emotionally well-rounded individual.

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is not perfect. It has its flaws, which include some hammy acting and questionable historic accuracy. But its virtues – an interesting and in-depth study of a man who made such an impact upon both Indian and British history; superb acting – especially by the two leads Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens; and a rich production made it a movie worth watching. It is rare for a Westerner to view or read a story relating to the Sepoy Rebellion from the Indian point-of-view. I am aware that other movies, novels and history books have focused on the topic from a non-British POV. But “MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” was my first experience with this point-of-view and I believe that director Ketan Mehta and screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy did a pretty solid job.