Sunday, February 16, 2014

NORTH WEST FRONTIER: Blu-ray (a.k.a. FLAME OVER INDIA 1959 Rank Corporation) VCI Entertainment

Following her disastrous reviews for Confidential Agent (1945) Lauren Bacall vowed to never again allow any studio to dictate the sort of movies in which she would be required to appear. In hindsight, Bacall might have taken a little of her own advice to heart and shared it with whomever told her co-starring in J. Lee Thompson’s North West Frontier (1959, rechristened ‘Flame Over India’ for its North American release) was a good idea. Under either name, the finished film is an unmitigated disaster, derived from an original story by Patrick Ford and Will Price, later rewritten from a screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Robin Estridge; the old ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’ analogy working overtime on this claptrap. All about British colonialism run amuck and veering wildly out of control after marauding Muslim rebel forces murder a Hindu maharajah (Frank Olegario), torch his palace, then go to extremes to pursue and slaughter the only heir apparent; Crown Prince Kishan (Govind Raja Ross), even as his devoted American governess, Catherine Wyatt (Bacall) and her dashing middle-aged guardian, British Army Captain Scott (Kenneth More) make their perilous trek across the wilds to Haserabad – a city already under siege.
Difficult to say what daft motivation popped into the screenwriters’ heads on this one; playing the first eleven minutes with our stars in deaf/muted silence, only the noisy roar of galloping hooves beating into the dry dust and echoing for miles, the distant reverb of the rebel charge gaining prominence. It all makes for a rather regal spectacle too; made glossy by Geoffrey Unsworth’s luminous and eye-popping color cinematography bursting across the Cinemascope screen. What remains problematic is the scenarist’s glib social commentary on British colonialism, once more made the overly apologetic scapegoat for all this civil unrest – a popular theme expressed in innumerable movies throughout the 1950’s, though likely a sentiment never actually articulated, much less contemplated by the Imperialists in 1905 – the year our story takes place.
North West Frontier would work as a daring action/adventure yarn, that is…if it were not chronically trying to make its points about honor and dignity; the British main staples impeccably manicured in their starched uniforms and floor-length gowns, quaffed like Victorian angels with their pinkies and chins up, tea time and that no bless oblige attitude toward the savages that surround them. It’s this sort of ‘condescending benevolence’ (“Yes we’re conquerors…but…I mean, after all, we are the superior race…and didn’t we make things better?”) that gets rather nauseatingly tough to swallow fairly quickly.  A movie is usually in trouble when it can’t find something meaningful for its protagonists to say to each other. North West Frontier is a prime example; the characters unable to have any conversation that does not begin or end with an espousal of platitudes; Bacall’s proto-feminist feeding the cliché of ‘the ugly American’ while her British counterpart, Lady Windham (Ursula Jeans) waxes lyrically in her stoic-ease on ‘Rule Britannia’.
And then, there are the villain and comic relief of the piece to consider; herein played by Herbert Lom and Wilfred Hyde White respectively. Lom’s half-caste newspaper hound, Van Leyden, remains the aphorism of the big bad Muslim; afraid, even to hand over Lady Windham’s travelling case because it is made of pigskin, terrorizing no one except the pint-sized prince with looming overtures to death; eyes wildly darting about, oozing contempt from the corners of his grimacing mouth.  As counterbalance to this rather absurdly drawn gargoyle we have Wilfred Hyde White’s equally obtuse Bridie – an Imperialist fop who considers India his adopted home.  There’s also a small part in this one for the exceptionally fine, but exceedingly underutilized Ian Hunter, much too young to be Lady Windham’s husband; Sir John - the governor of Haserabad. Honorable mention should also go to second string comic relief: I.S. Johar as the humorously illiterate train conductor, Gupta.
In spite of all these immeasurable hurdles (some never entirely overcome), there are elements of North West Frontier that stand up remarkably well and bear mentioning; the exquisite location work, for example, and, Alex Vetchinsky’s art direction transforming parts of the province of Granada, Spain into convincing recreations of Imperialist India; Yvonne Caffin’s complementing costume design, and Mischa Spoliansky’s rousing score bringing up the charge from the rear. So too does director J. Lee Thompson acquit himself rather nicely of a few of the film’s more grandiose set pieces. The startling discovery of brutally massacred extras lying in pools of blood aboard the ‘last’ train out of Haserabad that preceded our heroes plays almost entirely – and rather effectively – in a vacuum of nail-biting silence; Scott, and then Catherine, surveying all these decaying bodies scattered about the abandoned railway station, left to rot in the stifling noonday sun – vultures circling overhead no less.
Later, Thompson revives our waning interest in his tale by staging a perilous crossing high above on an elevated bridge left rickety by an earlier bomb blast. One by one the extras balance themselves on very shaky steel beams to navigate the precipice on foot (done with some fairly obvious rear projection); Scott making the decision to bring the locomotive across after them (impressively done full scale). These moments are expertly staged and truly heighten the immediacy and precariousness of our ensemble’s survival. Regrettably, Thompson has less success with the actual battle sequences; frankly – an embarrassment made worse in the editing process; explosions going off nowhere near the galloping hoards; only one or two actually thrown from their respective mounts as a result.
You can get some mileage - though not a whole movie - out of this single-premised excursion. Regrettably, North West Frontier is lethally transparent and callously two-dimensional in both its plot and characterizations. The audience is given the most superficial tidbits regarding the motives behind this uncivil unrest in a sort of white-washed – Hindus good/ Muslims very bad – approach to what is understandably a far more complicated history.  It is, for example, most perplexing why the maharajah – even as he is about to die - would place his trust in a British officer to get his only son out of the province alive, yet imbue the boy with anti-British sentiments to rise up and defeat these occupiers (presumably when he is all grown up), a destiny later relayed by the impressionable prince to Capt. Scott – who doesn’t take him very seriously. Worse, we are given virtually nothing at all about our heroes to go on.
Catherine and Scott are the two least clearly drawn characters in the entire movie. He’s a relatively good-humored army loyalist with sweaty brow and pits made intolerable by the heat. She’s a free-thinking woman who believes having a mind means she can speak it in public: silly girl. In her silken cloak and tear-drop earrings, looking as though she’s wearing Marlene Dietrich’s castoffs from Selznick’s The Garden of Allah (1936), Bacall is every bit as ravishing and mysterious as Dietrich, but regrettably far more wooden in her performance. It’s not entirely her fault, given precious few lines to utter that don’t begin with some sort of diatribe to ‘I am woman…hear me roar’ or ‘I’m an American. Don’t mess with me!’
And Kenneth More’s Scott isn’t one of those martinets from the old school either; just a pseudo-gallant good-time Charlie who just happens to be on one of the most perilous missions of his military career. Cate doesn’t think much of Scottie at first; just a full-sized blow-up of those tin soldiers he confesses to her was a treasured part of his childhood playtime. Still, when needed, Scott’s a take-charge sort and proves it with virtually everyone else except Catherine, whose will is a stubborn as her way – defying direct orders to remain on the train; instead going in search of any survivors aboard the wreck. She does, in fact, find a baby hidden in his dead mother’s arms, the child nicknamed ‘New India’ by Scott and kept alive by Lady Windham’s ingenuity, cutting a hole in one of her leather gloves, used as a nipple to feed it.
It’s too bad there is virtually no chemistry between Lauren Bacall and Kenneth More; a more stiff pair of insufficient lovers unseen in a very long while. It’s odd too, because both Bacall and More know their way around a scene – difficult or otherwise. They might have teamed up behind the scenes to create something genuine – arguably better than what we get in the finished film; the superficial love/hate relationship between Scott and Catherine definitely bound for the altar – or at least a comfortable bedroom once imminent danger has been narrowly averted. 
Perhaps most confounding of all is that North West Frontier was nominated for two BAFTA awards – Best Picture and Best Screenplay. It deserves neither. But one of the more impressive aspects of North West Frontier is undoubtedly Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography, filling every inch of the vast Cinemascope frame with complex, often exhilarating, and, expertly staged compositions. It’s an A-1 class act effort and it elevates the stature of the entire production above the abject dreck of its screenplay. When the plot waffles – as it almost does in its entirety – we are at least left with fascinating things to look at, photographed in interesting ways that allow for our momentary distraction.
Our story begins, appropriately enough, on the North West frontier of British India, circa 1905. The Hindu maharajah has made a fateful decision to hand over the kingdom’s heir apparent to British Army Captain Scott; the Crown Prince to be accompanied on this rather hasty journey by his doting American governess, Catherine Wyatt. Prince Kishan is the strong/silent type – even at age seven – or perhaps merely suffering from the ‘cat’s got your tongue’ syndrome that seems to have afflicted the entire cast for an interminable ten minutes of introductory screen time. Mere moments after Scott has removed the woman and child from the palace, Muslim rebels lay siege to the throne room, murdering the maharajah with their sabers. From a hilltop view that is several miles away Catherine and Scott observe the billowy black clouds of smoke rising from the palace and know what they must do – get Prince Kishan to the Governor’s residence in Haserabad; the last bastion of safety in this province overrun by conspirators against the crown.
There is, regrettably, no permanent sanctuary in Haserabad – the ‘last’ train loaded with terrified Europeans and cringing Hindus having left the walled-in city gates mere moments before their arrival. The governor, Sir John Windham explains that unless reinforcements arrive soon they will be powerless to stop the Muslim rebels from invading the city and killing them all. Scott elects to take the prince to Kalapur – a distant city many days removed from Haserabad – by smuggling him aboard the Empress Victoria – a beleaguered steam engine whose conductor, Gupta, claims is more than up to the challenge. Only the engine is a retired derelict, wheezing from its boilers and inadvertently sounding its ear-shattering whistle at the most inopportune moments.  Under the cover of night, Scott boards the train, along with the prince, Catherine, Lady Windham – the governor’s wife – munition’s manufacturer, Peters (Eugene Decker), British ex-patriot, Mr. Bridie; two Indian NCO’s and the half-caste Muslim journalist, Van Leyden who, having discovered Sir John’s plan, has threatened to expose it unless his newspaper can have the exclusive on their journey by partaking in it.
Having earlier been mounted with a wooden battering ram, the Empress Victoria smashes through the outer gates of the city and past the Muslim rebels who make chase but are inexplicably unable to catch up to its lumbering pace. Believing the worst is now behind them, Scott and his weary travelers are paralyzed with fear after discovering the previous train from Haserabad derailed at a nearby outpost; virtually all who were on board having been brutally massacred by the rebels and left to decompose in the stifling heat. Catherine ignores Scott’s edict to remain on board, exploring the carnage and discovering one baby still alive, whom Scott nicknames ‘New India’.
On board and on the move once more, Van Leyden verbally attacks Scott for the British involvement in India, blaming the army for the slaughter of innocents by the thousands. Scott remains above these insults, but Lady Wingham quietly challenges Van Leyden’s opinions with her own stoic faith in British colonialism. Peters, who also happens to be the armament manufacturer who sold his weapons to both sides is also blamed by Van Leyden for India’s civil unrest. The film takes long stretches to indulge in some fairly obtuse speeches that contemplate whether guns kill people, or people kill people with guns (a warhorse of an analogy no doubt cleverly picked up by the NRA as part of their defensive campaign slogan).   
The next morning Scott and his passengers encounter a new hurdle in their journey; a blown up piece of track that prevents them from continuing. Employing all of the men on board to dismantle a piece of solid track from behind the train to replace the damaged remnants in front of it, the workmanlike mood turns worrisome and unsettling when Kishan notices a strange light being reflected from the summit of a nearby mountain. As Scott and the others prepare to get underway, the Muslim rebels descend from the hillsides in a violent attack; Gupta tossing hot coals onto the earth to create a wall of roaring flames between them and the train, masking their narrow escape. Gunfire erupts. Gupta is hit in the arm, his wound tended to by Catherine and Lady Windham, but nevertheless becoming infected. Scott is now left to tend to the temperamental Victoria alone.
Later that afternoon, Scott and his passengers encounter yet another abandoned station and outpost seemingly burned out by the rebels. Inside the pump house, Scott tinkers with the contraption used to draw ground water up to the surface. But once left alone, Kishan is tempted by Van Leyden to stick his hands into the spokes of its whirling mechanism. The child is understandably apprehensive and certain harm is narrowly averted when Scott discovers the pair, ordering them both back on the train; the journey underway yet again. But lady Windham has been observing Van Leyden very carefully and, unable to sleep that night, she takes particular notice of the sinister way he keeps a watchful vigil over the child. Having reached a viaduct bridge damaged in yet another bomb blast, Scott instructs the passengers to cross a perilous stretch of damaged track on foot, idiotically leaving Kishan in Van Leyden’s care, only to discover too late that he means the boy harm. Narrowly saving Kishan from being pushed into the abyss, Scott places Van Leyden under house arrest, driving the locomotive across the precipice and thereafter locking Van Leyden in its backroom with one of the guards, polishing his machine gun.
When the train passes through a tunnel, Van Leyden strikes, knocking the guard unconscious (oh, like we didn’t see that one coming!) and points the machine gun at the startled travelers; threatening to murder them all unless one of them calls Scott and Kishan – who are presently playing a game of driving the steam engine – back into the car. Catherine tells Van Leyden she will scream before she allows Kishan to be murdered. Momentarily distracted by her defiance, the gun is kicked loose from Van Leyden’s grip by Peters; Van Leyden attempting a harrowing escape, but pursued by Scott to the top of the moving car. After a few spirited moments of wrestling with Van Leyden, who is clutching a hidden revolver, Scott is defeated, but ultimately saved by Catherine, who shoots Van Leyden dead with a rifle earlier given to her by Scott for her own self-defense.  See?  People really do kill people with guns…go figure!
More heliograph signals beamed across the mountains and a new pack of rebels descend upon the moving train, this time catching up to it. All appears to be lost, except that the train has reached the start of a two-mile-long tunnel. Unable to pursue them in the dark, the rebels are thwarted in their attack and the train reaches Kalapur with a resounding cheer from the crowds who have gathered to witness this spectacle. Despite the fact we were earlier told all lines of communication had been cut between Haserabad and Kalapur, word has somehow reached the city that the rebels did not attack Haserabad and Sir John is safely awaiting the return of his beloved wife. Thus, all is well and right in the world again…at least, insofar as the British are concerned. Gupta is loaded onto a stretcher and taken to hospital where his wounds will presumably be dressed to spare him the loss of his arm. But Kishan now rather ungraciously informs Scott that his late father told him he must fight the British and drive them out of his country; Scott not taking the threat very seriously, pats the boy on the head as he and Catherine depart the train with ‘New India’ in her arms. It all makes for a pretty little cameo of the perfect Victorian family – n'est-ce pas?
In these last few moments of wrapping things up, North West Frontier is inadvertently rather silly. Apart from being too perfect, the ending is marred by a ridiculous amount of hyperbole reinstating the importance – rather than defiance – of Britain’s colonialism in India. Kishan’s not terribly sobering promise to Scott of future rebellions notwithstanding, North West Frontier concludes on a fairly oblivious resolution that seems grotesquely oversimplified; the filmmakers unwilling to stick their necks out regarding the more apparent reality being tweaked from the peripheries of the screen: that British colonialism - in India, or anywhere else for that matter - was a fundamentally flawed endeavor from the beginning. There really isn’t much more to say about North West Frontier. It isn’t a great film or, at times even a competently made one, particularly from a narrative perspective. The kernels of excitement that do periodically arise are to be credited to J. Lee Thompson’s directorial prowess, and have absolutely nothing to do with the painfully mangled storyline or morose performances given by all concerned throughout this pompously pontificating claptrap.
North West Frontier could arguably be remade and probably to better effect today, with the right cast and a far better script. Not unlike the thirst for conquest that permeated the British Empire for a time during the late 19th and early 20th century, the movie now speaks on a baser level to our own cinematic hunger for exotic locales and the perceived mysticisms of an ancient land, decidedly foreign to most of the viewing audience. Remember, this isn’t India; but Spain reconstituted as India for our viewing pleasure. As such it creeps into our collective consciousness as a queerly reasonable facsimile and/or stand-in for the real thing. Real East Indians would understandably disagree. But North West Frontier looks like someplace most of us have never been to before and for those uninformed, I suspect, this is quite enough to keep interests alive in the movie as an artifact from another time in film-making history.  But better luck and better stories are to be found elsewhere. This one doesn’t cut the mustard. Not even the hummus.
I am convinced VCI Entertainment was put on this earth to incur the ire of passionate collector’s such as myself. This disc, like others in their catalogue, begins with an interminably lengthy advertisement showcasing their DVD and Blu-ray offerings; a silent montage of cover art set to a rather spooky music cue that cannot be bypassed or fast forwarded. Honestly, after inserting this disc into your player you can go for a bathroom break and make a cup of tea and still not be ready to get to the main menus. Before the movie starts we also have a rather erroneous claim made by the company that “this special edition motion picture has been digitally restored to its present condition.” Confusing marketing ploy that basically makes no sense at all, as NO ‘restoration’ work has been performed on this title. True enough, it’s been remastered in hi-def – but that’s about it.
Colors can be vibrant at times, but flesh tones exhibit a rather pasty pink hue that is very unnatural. No color balancing has been applied either, so colors vary greatly – not just from scene to scene, but cut to cut. There also seems to be an unhealthy yellowish tint to most of this presentation, suggesting the onslaught of vinegar syndrome. Age-related artifacts are present, but greatly tempered. Regrettably, the image is plagued by bouts of edge enhancement – infrequent but present nonetheless – a considerable amount of gate weave and some built-in flicker that is briefly distracting. Restored, my foot! At least the film is accurately presented in its original Cinemascope 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with a 2.0 PCM soundtrack that, while hardly impressive, is nevertheless competently represented without hiss or pop.
As mentioned before, North West Frontier was released in America by 2oth Century-Fox under the title ‘Flame Over India’. While that title is incorporated into the cover art for this Blu-ray slipcase, the actual title credits on the movie are from The Rank Corporation’s archival prints. So no Fox fanfare, and the title featured in the credits is North West Frontier.  Aside: I am, as ever, fascinated when movies are renamed something entirely different for their general release in other parts of the English-speaking world. Personally, I don’t see the point, since in North West Frontier’s case nothing would have been lost ‘in translation’ as it were, but seems to appeal strictly to matters of personal taste. Frankly, I prefer the exotic ‘Flame Over India’ to the rather tepid, though topographically correct North West Frontier. Ho-hum: six of one, half a dozen of the other, as they say. P.S. – there are NO extra features. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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