While I was writing the review of Ek Saal last week, I was reminded of this film. And that for what might seem an obscure reason to some: I S Johar was the man who suggested the story idea for Ek Saal, and he – now as actor, not writer – plays one of the important characters in this superb adventure film.
That connection got me thinking: how easy (or how difficult) would it be to do a series of posts – reviews, lists, whatever – that were in some way or the other connected to each other? If it were a case of just doing posts on Hindi cinema, probably not too hard a task. But, since I also blog about cinema from across the world: hmmm.
Anyway, so here goes. I’m putting my head in the noose. Beginning with this post (or Ek Saal, actually), the posts I do will all have some connection to the previous one. The link could be anything: story, setting, crew and cast, etc. I’ll go on until I either run out of ideas, or close the loop by connecting a post to Ek Saal.
Okay, squared shoulders now, and off we go.
North-West Frontier (aka Flame over India in the US and Empress of India in Australia) is in the time-honoured tradition of journey films like Ice Cold in Alex (which, perhaps not coincidentally, was also directed by J Lee Thompson, who directed North-West Frontier), Lifeboat, and Stagecoach. A group of strangers are thrown together by circumstances to make a journey that may well prove fatal.
Ice Cold in Alex and Lifeboat not only had a hostile backdrop of World War II, but also pitted their protagonists against the elements: against the Sahara, dry and brutal, in Ice Cold in Alex; and against the exact opposite – mile upon mile of cold, empty sea – in Lifeboat. In both films, too, the chances of the travellers ever reaching their destination are minute at any given time, not least because there’s a very real threat of getting irrevocably lost.
Seen from that point of view, North-West Frontier is perhaps more similar to Stagecoach. The travellers in both films know exactly where they’re going and how; there’s a definite route they have to follow, and little danger from the elements. The peril, in both cases, is from man rather than the elements.
The people who’re the threat in this film are introduced right at the start of North-West Frontier. The setting, of course, is the North-West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan). The period is a little vague – probably the first decade of the 1900s? – but the British are in the NWFP, and so is much tension. The fact of the matter is that the Raja (Frank Olegario) of the NWFP is a Hindu, and vast numbers of tribal rebels – ‘Moslems’ – are not at all keen to have him continue as ruler.
Matters have reached a head, and the Raja has realised that the Muslim rebels are too powerful a force for him to fight against any longer. He therefore turns to the British for help. Like the proverbial captain of a sinking ship, the Raja refuses to leave his post; but he wants the British to take his only son and heir, the 6-year old Prince Kishan (Govind Raja Ross) to safety. If they can get Kishan to the British garrison town of Haserabad, and from there to Kalapore, he will be safe.
The British officer deputed to ensure Kishan and his American governess, the widowed Mrs Wyatt (Lauren Bacall) reach Kalapore safely is Captain Scott (Kenneth More). Barely have he, Mrs Wyatt, Kishan and their escort ridden out of the fortress, than the rebels attack. The fortress is burnt, the king is killed – and Kishan, nominally at least, becomes the Raja.
Getting to Haserabad proves another problem: thousands of refugees are pouring into town, fleeing the arson and massacre let loose by the rebels. Haserabad is also the rail head, so people try to pile on to any train they can find that will get them out of Haserabad.
Things are so bad that Scott, Mrs Wyatt and their bodyguards have to get off their horses and push and shove to get into the British fortifications.
Once inside, they receive disheartening news: the last train from Haserabad has gone. The Governor of the province, Sir John Windham (Ian Hunter) tries to assure them that reinforcements will be arriving soon, and that Haserabad is a safe enough refuge for young Kishan. Scott – ever the soldier – merely looks doubtful, but Mrs Wyatt is frank enough to tell Sir Windham that if he thinks that, he’s just deluding himself.
Soon, matters get worse. The rebels, attacking on horseback and foot, get past the cannons of the British and capture the main outer gate of Haserabad. The inner gate and fortifications are still held by the British, but Scott (and Sir Windham, in his heart) knows that it’s just a matter of time before the rebels break through their fragile defences.
Scott, therefore, goes on a recce within the fort, and discovers that though the last train may have left Haserabad, there is still one battered old engine around.
This is named ‘Empress of India’, though her garrulous driver Gupta (I S Johar), affectionately calls her Victoria. He’s been in the Indian Railway Service for 30 years now, and has full faith in Victoria’s ability to do the long and arduous trip to Kalapore. With him, Scott works out a plan: how to carry sufficient coal to last the trip; which carriage to attach so that Mrs Wyatt and Kishan can travel comfortably; and so on.
The only problem is that when Victoria is up and running, she makes a huge amount of noise – noise that will certainly draw any rebels for miles around, and alert the rebels manning the outer gate, of course. So, as Scott explains to a small and sceptical audience, the plan is to have the train push-started till it begins to roll down the slope between the inner gate and the outer, gathering enough momentum to burst through the outer gate, by which time Gupta will have started up the engine.
There is much discussion on whether or not this plan will succeed. Eventually, everybody realises that they don’t have any other option; this is the only way out.
Fortunately, since there is a carriage attached to the Victoria, a few other people can also go with Mrs Wyatt and Kishan. These include two people who desperately want to get out of this besieged fortress and to more civilised areas.
One of them is the arms dealer, Peters (Eugene Deckers), who, though he insists he’s British – and has papers to prove it – does not actually appear to identify with the British. He’s also been selling guns to the rebels (a purely business venture, as he’s quick to clarify), but now he’s done with the NWFP and would like to get back to Delhi or wherever.
Another person eager to leave Haserabad is the Dutch journalist, Van Leyden (Herbert Lom). Van Leyden is bitter, outspoken, and not above the occasional bit of blackmail or subterfuge. His excuse for wanting to get out of Haserabad is that he wants to let the world know what is happening here.
Then there are two people who are bullied, by Sir John Windham, into leaving Haserabad for their own safety. One is the elderly Mr Bridie (Wilfrid Hyde-White), who has been living in Haserabad for the past 21 years and is clearly most distressed at having to leave his home – even though Windham assures him that he can return as soon as things quieten down.
The other is Lady Windham (Ursula Jeans). Lady Windham has spent the past few days helping to look after those injured in rebel attacks, but now her husband has decided he would rather have her far away and safe, than beside him and in danger of being killed in the fighting. She tries to fight back and tells him that she doesn’t want to go, but he’s adamant.
That night, Scott and his entourage, along with two Indian soldiers – Kumar (S S Chowdhary) and a havildar (S M Asgaralli) – set off aboard Victoria. With Gupta at the engine, they burst through the gates, manage to shake off the rebels who try to give chase – and head out into the countryside, off to Kalapore.
But there’s a lot in store for this motley collection of people. Their sole means of covering what seems an impossible distance is an engine that’s old and ramshackle. Their pursuers – the rebels, who know that Kishan is aboard the train – are always in the vicinity, keeping track of the little train’s progress, and attacking whenever they have the chance.
…or, when they’re not attacking, they’re doing all they can to disrupt Victoria’s passage: blowing up the tracks, for instance.
How far will Captain Scott be able to get with his charge? And what other dangers lurk, hidden perhaps closer than Scott imagines? Will Victoria make it? Will Scott and Mrs Wyatt be able to get Kishan safely to Kalapore?
This is one of the most enjoyable adventure films I’ve ever seen. It’s gritty, fast-paced, with superb characterisation and excellent acting. Absolutely and wholeheartedly recommended.
What I liked about this film:
Everything, of course, as I’ve made pretty obvious in all that gushing, above. But, in particular:
Kenneth More. One of my all-time favourite British actors, and one who I think was unfairly slotted by many as just ‘a good comedian’. Yes, he was superb at comedy – Doctor in the House is ample proof, even winning him a BAFTA award – but he was extremely versatile. Look at Sink the Bismarck!, for instance – such a wonderfully restrained performance. In North-West Frontier, too, he’s at his best, firing, driving an engine, and fighting on the roof of a running train like the best of ’em.
Another: the characterisation. I like films that have a small cast, where there’s scope for you to get to know people well. This one’s another example. Through the journey of Victoria from Haserabad onward, small incidents and brief conversations reveal a lot about this group of people. Why, for example, Scott became a soldier. Or just how very typically (stereotypically?) English Mr Bridie is. Or why Mrs Wyatt will go – against every injunction – through a trainful of massacred refugees, just to save a single baby.
Interestingly, though this is a British film and so is primarily loyal to King and Country, it does have its moments of going against the grain.
For example, there’s this dialogue between Van Leyden and Captain Scott, shortly after Victoria has chugged into a deserted railway station where they find the last train from Haserabad, now full of corpses that the rebels have left behind after massacring all the passengers.
Scott: “All right then, Van Leyden. Have a look. Have a good look! – and see what happens when the British aren’t around to keep order!”
Van Leyden: “Keep order? You?” (laughs sarcastically). “You divide. Set Moslem against Hindu. You divide in order to rule, that’s what you do.”
Scott (by now frustrated): “The Moslems were fighting the Hindus for hundreds of years before we came to India! And well you know it!”
(Van Leyden finally heads back to the carriage, but has to make his way through the platform, which is strewn with bloody corpses, flies buzzing all over them. He walks a couple of steps, looking around him; then he turns and looks at Scott): “You call this ‘keeping order’?”
(The last conversation in the film between Scott and Kishan is also delightfully wry).
Note: While Gupta speaks English (though, as Kishan tells him in one scene, “Gupta, your English is hopeless!”), the two other Indians – the soldiers on Victoria – speak only Hindustani. So Scott always speaks Hindustani to them (not a terrible accent, either, More!). These are mainly instructions, brief orders that don’t really need explaining to an audience that doesn’t speak Hindustani. But there is one dialogue that should have been subtitled, it’s so cuttingly good:
A villain flings at Gupta the accusation that he is a gaddaar – a traitor. Gupta’s response: “Agar maasoom bachchon ka khoon karna hi desh-seva hai, toh main gaddaar hi achcha hoon.” (“If murdering innocent children is patriotism, then I am better off as a traitor).”
What I didn’t like:
As someone who’s incorrigibly nit-picking, I’ll admit that the sight of what was obviously a Rajasthani fort – though it could have been in adjoining areas such as Madhya Pradesh – is a little jarring. This seemed so not the NWFP. But at least it was the Indian subcontinent, which was far better than The Charge of the Light Brigade could manage. (And, another plus for North-West Frontier: all the extras seemed to be people from the subcontinent, rather than Caucasians in brownface).
But that’s it. Other than that, I love North-West Frontier. It’s a vastly entertaining watch, and an interestingly Brit take on the traditional Western.
(Which reminds me: if Sergio Leone’s films were spaghetti Westerns, and Sholay is called a curry Western, what is North-West Frontier? A bangers-and-mash Western? Or, considering how we Indians have succeeded at colonising them: a curry Western, after all!)