Sunday, March 23, 2008

KIM (MGM 1950) Warner Home Video

In the early 1950s, MGM embarked upon an aggressive resurrection of the costume drama – many based on great literary masterworks from the past. Such is the case with Victor Saville’s Kim (1950) a lavish recreation of Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated literary classic.

Kipling’s original – a children’s swashbuckler set against the political unrest between Russian/British influences in conflict in Central Asia - had first been serialized in McClure’s Magazine in 1900. Ironically, the tale had never been told cinematically until MGM acquired the rights.

The screenplay by Helen Deutsch, Leon Gordon and Richard Schayer is a loose revamp of the novel with considerable artistic license applied along the way. Shot partly on location in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, India, Kim also represents one of MGM’s last ditch efforts to delve into their creative past in order to revitalize their future. The studio once known for its elephantine costume dramas of the early thirties had been prosperous throughout the war before having their profits dip at wars end.

Only part of the blame can be ascribed to the introduction of television. The rest must fall squarely on MGM’s own inability to look beyond its past. By wars end, L.B. Mayer was spending far too much time away from the studio to indulge his new passion – horse racing – leaving the daily operations, more or less, to run themselves. But the old time mogul's edict for glamorous entertainment still endured even as it became increasingly out of touch with audience’s changing tastes.

In this context, Kim is decidedly a relic. The story concerns Kimball O’Hara (Dean Stockwell), the orphan of Sahib – an Irish soldier. Kim’s days are spent begging for food and running small errands for Mahbub Ali – the Red Beard (Errol Flynn). Mahbub - a horse trader and native operative for the British Secret Service.

On his beggary through the streets of Lahore, Kim befriends a Tibetan Lama (Paul Lukas) who is on a quest for eternal peace. Becoming a disciple of the Lama, Kim accidentally learns of military secrets. He is seconded into service for the British, running dispatches back and forth to Colonel Creighton (Robert Douglas). By a gracious whim of fate, Kim is recognized on one of these exchanges by his late father’s regimental chaplain Father Victor (Reginald Owen) who sends the boy away to be formally educated in Lucknow.

After three years, Kim is given an appointment by the British consulate to partake in the espionage and intrigues between the British and the Russians. Kim reunites with the Lama for a trip deep into the Himalayas where spying and spiritual awakening make for very strange bedfellows.

The Lama unwittingly falls prey to Russian intelligence agents and Kim is forced to obtain top secret papers from the Russians to aid the British in their conquest of the region. In the novel a character named Babu slyly befriends the Russians to provide Kim with the necessary cover of escape. In the film, Flynn’s Mahbub assumes the role – thus ensuring the actor a bigger part in the narrative.

Kim and the Lama escape persecution and Mahbub, discovering the River of the Arrow, achieves spiritual enlightenment. The ending of the film remains as ambiguous as that written by Kipling in his novel. At a crossroads between materialism and spiritual enlightenment, which will Kim ultimately choose?

By 1950, Errol Flynn had departed Warner Bros. the studio that had galvanized his on screen iconography as a swashbuckling ladies man. For many unfamiliar with Kipling’s novel the expectation for more of the same from the actor on this outing must have yielded considerable disappointment. Although Flynn delivers a solid ‘star’ performance (with added scenes specifically written to take advantage of his particular brand of machismo and heroism) – Mahbub is by no means the central driving force of the film’s narrative.

Furthermore, there is very little of the actor’s trademark carousing and devil-may-care on display herein. Yes, the story stands on its own as compelling entertainment of the exotic ilk that once proved so highly popular with audiences. However, in the final analysis, Kim is an anomaly in Flynn’s body of work – like his efforts in The Prince and The Pauper (1937) – he remains an ever present and welcome edition to a plot that gets away from him at almost every chance.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is adequate. Colors are rich and bold, though just a tad less refined than one might hope for. Film grain and a few rare instances of mis-registration are evident throughout. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are generally clean. Age related artifacts are present but do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. There are NO extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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