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Flame Over India (Blu-ray Review)

16 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$14.99 DVD, $19.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Lauren Bacall, Kenneth More, Herbert Lom, I.S. Johar.

Though it will never pop up on too many lists devoted to “favorite films of the Sex Pistols,” director J. Lee Thompson’s 1959 kid-centered rouser is among the screen’s better vintage renderings that cheer-lead the days when Britannia ruled and busted chops when dealing with “the usual” Hindu-Muslim mischief. It’s one of those movies that everyone who’s seen it seems to like — at least some — though as a former professional film programmer I would rate it a likely tough-sell in terms of putting fannies in the seats.

The movie is hardly modest, clocking in at about 130 minutes in its original British cut (which this is) when it was released as North West Frontier the year before Fox picked it up and trimmed it a bit (of the last, I’m pretty sure but not certain). Lauren Bacall (not your everyday action hero) is top-billed, though a by-necessity sweaty Kenneth More delivers one of his typically charming performances as a Brit captain who, happily, is never forthcoming with the kind of Kipling-bred racial slurs we sometimes get in this kind of picture.

Right off the bat here, a combination Brit town and fortress falls prey to a Muslim siege, and the targeted young son of a Maharaja has to be whisked away from the action by the white-guy soldiers — somehow. To accomplish this, our major more or less requisitions the kind of train that is to sleek locomotive travel what, say, The African Queen was to the Titanic. Of course, you’ll recall that the Queen actually managed to transport its passengers successfully from point A-to-B, and this equally unlikely train — driven by a broadly but agreeably drawn engineer (I.S. Johar) — also ends up filling the bill. Though, indeed, there is no shortage of perils along the way — enough of them to carry the long-ish running time proficiently. A scene where Bacall (very good in the movie) discovers a mass train station massacre still packs a lot of punch, even though this kind of episode has become much more common on screen over the past half-century than it was at the time. 

The passengers are the usual smorgasbord — Wilfrid Hyde-White, anyone? — with the pushiest by far a (natch) newshound whose half-caste background gives him the perspective to voice opinions on another smorgasbord of racial issues. A pre-Clouseau Herbert Lom plays him with a lot of snap and vitality, though some of the dialogue he’s given to make him sound like just another hothead sounds fairly reasonable against a contemporary perspective. The screenplay, by the way, has a strange credit: from my best reading, Robin Estridge apparently adapted it from a previously existing screenplay by Frank Nugent (John Ford’s best screenwriter), which was in turn adapted from a story by Patrick Ford (John’s son) and Will Price (Maureen O’Hara’s ex-husband).

The narrative, as it spins out, lends itself to spoilers before too long, so let’s move on to the print. Geoffrey Unsworth, later of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Cabaret, was the cinematographer, so we’re not talking about anyone’s B-team. He shot it in Eastman Color (or “Colour”), which has built-in problems, so the result is more like what you’d call a “pro job” than a rendering that knocks off not just your socks but feet — the way VCI’s last-year release of another Kenneth More starrer (Technicolor Genevieve) did. By the way, for a director who hasn’t much auteur coinage, Thompson had a potent run from about 1959-63 with Tiger Bay, this, The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear. His other movie in this time span was I Aim at the Stars, a biopic of German (and in World War II, rocket scientist) Werner von Braun that I’ve never seen. It did, however, inspire my favorite Mort Sahl crack ever: “I Aimed at the Stars — and hit London.”

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