Set on the North West Frontier of colonial India in 1905. A British Army Officer, Captain Scott is sent to rescue a five year old Indian Prince and his American governess, Catherine Wyatt fr... Read allSet on the North West Frontier of colonial India in 1905. A British Army Officer, Captain Scott is sent to rescue a five year old Indian Prince and his American governess, Catherine Wyatt from certain death at the hands of rebel tribesman.Set on the North West Frontier of colonial India in 1905. A British Army Officer, Captain Scott is sent to rescue a five year old Indian Prince and his American governess, Catherine Wyatt from certain death at the hands of rebel tribesman.
Also known as "Flame Over India."
For starters, you have to ignore that rather boring first few minutes, and the awful acting in it, including the routine battle scenes quickly thrown at you. It's all set up for the main themes of this movie set in an India still under British control, circa 1905. The real historical import of all this is that it's set in that part of India that was largely Muslim and is now modern Pakistan. But part of what happens here is to show the brutality of the Muslims toward the Hindu minority, all in an effort for self-determination.
There are lots of conventions at work here--Hollywood ones. Like the train being chased not by American Indians but by rebel Muslims on horseback, and they are picked off by the men on the train like, well, Indians. It's a weird deja vu moment in an otherwise very British film (not Hollywood after all).
The British are a target here, actually, to some of the writing, as are men in general, all from the sharp tongue of Lauren Bacall, who is perfectly the strong American woman. Next to her is an understated, convincing British soldier played by Kenneth More.
This is actually an ambitious movie, for all its relative obscurity now. There are harrowing scenes of a city under siege, and of a massacre of hundreds of bodies very elaborately staged (Bacall walks through the corpses in shot after shot), and a sequence high atop a railroad bridge. Of course, it's more than politics and warfare and adventure. That is, there's the slowly simmering love story, and it's not an overly sentimental one.
It might seem an odd thing to mention here but the filming--the photography--is really really good, interesting and subtle. It's widescreen color (though not Technicolor) and the camera refuses to be static, even in simple scenes with a group of people chatting on the train. It pans and rolls forward and back with fluid, tactile sensitivity. The sets and scenery are wonderful--shot in the deserts of Spain (not India, except a couple establishing shots), with a vintage train car on the old rails. The interior stuff (in the cars) are partly done in a studio in England with back projection of scenery out the window, but it's all very convincing stuff.
The cameraman is the under-appreciated British cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who became one of the industry experts at back projection (and the revolutionary "front projection" of 1968--he was key to the filming "2001," with Kubrick, and its fabulous visuals). He made a whole slew of films in the same sensitive style seen here, finally winning Oscars toward the end of his life (including "Tess" posthumously). I'd recommend this film on the photography alone.
You might say this is a perfectly realized film, and what holds it back for modern audiences is its relative ease and calm, and perhaps a history now forgotten. It's a careful film with great nuance. The acting is first rate, though some of the characters are "types" in the same way Ford's "Stagecoach" played with types caught together in a confined space. This film has its expansive moments for sure, but in a way it's a ship of fools situation. What it also lacks is perhaps complexity to the plot, which sounds weird with all the complicated sets and filming, but there is a linear process of the main group of characters trying to escape to their safety, obstacle after obstacle. There are some more archetypal moments straight from an American Western (a fight on the roof of the train, a woman with a gun to the rescue) but it's all part of the excitement. The "Stagecoach" echo appears in the form of a baby, too, halfway through.
In case you are unsure of the British sentiment embedded here, and the foreshadowing of the future that was known at the 1958 filming (a decade after the Brits were booted out of India), watch the last scene carefully. And remember the train is called "Victoria." And check out the photography even on the last gorgeous shot, turning and pulling up and back and turning again. Nice stuff!
- Sep 24, 2012