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A ripping yarn from the great days of Empire

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YOUR average Leftie would hate every second of North West Frontier, Boy’s Own tale of a perilous train journey in India in 1905. If it were shown on the BBC now, Twitter lynch mobs would march, the racial offence industry would mobilise and the furore would result in questions being asked in Parliament. As you may therefore imagine, the film is rather enjoyable.

When contemplating a massacre of Hindus by Muslims – pronounced by the cast as Moslems – near the start, the perhaps symbolically named Captain Scott, an army officer played by Kenneth More, opines: ‘See what happens when the British aren’t around to keep order?’ There are quite a few snorts in this movie, and the only way the state broadcaster would air it would be with a prefatory warning from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown or David Lammy.

I came across North West Frontier (1959) on the Freeview channel Talking Pictures while under house arrest last weekend. It was on television regularly when I was a child, usually on Sunday afternoons. I hadn’t seen it for more than 30 years. The non-PC angle is not the only reason to enjoy it: the film is a well-made yarn.

In a garrison town in the eponymous province of northern India, Captain Scott agrees to a request from a Hindu maharajah to take his six-year-old son, Prince Kishan, to the safety of the British governor’s residence in Delhi. The prince is to be the leader of his people and must be saved. With murderous Muslim rebels closing in, Scott realises that the last train has left. In the station yard he finds an old shunting locomotive, the Empress of India, and its driver, Gupta (a great character performance by I S Johar), and commandeers it and two carriages for the journey. Joining them is the prince’s American governess Catherine Wyatt, played by Lauren Bacall oozing her star quality, the governor’s wife Lady Windham (Ursula Jeans), Wilfrid Hyde-White as Bridie, his usual role of jolly good egg, Mr Peters (Eugene Deckers), an arms dealer, and Van Leyden, a Dutch-Indonesian journalist with a grudge against everybody, brilliantly played by Herbert Lom.

As the train travels through territory bristling with rebels and setbacks a little romance is kindled between Scott and Mrs Wyatt, who earlier in the story had appeared to take a dim view of the captain and all he represented: ‘The English never do anything without having a cup of tea first,’ she observes sardonically.

Van Leyden moans all the way and enters into arguments about the British Empire, provoking Lady Windham into retorting tartly: ‘Half the world is only civilised because we have made it so.’ Jeans, incidentally, was born in Simla in 1906. The counter-argument to Lady Windham’s view is also circulated by the characters, including Prince Kishan. He asks Scott, who has saved his life, whether one day he will have to fight him. Meanwhile in the distant hills, the rebels flash heliographs to one another and later a member of the party is revealed to be a murderous fanatic . . .

It is a handsomely mounted production filmed in Cinemascope and Technicolor by Geoffrey Unsworth, who the previous year had filmed A Night to Remember, the best film about the Titanic, in which Kenneth More played second officer Charles Lightoller.

It struck me that in its plot North West Frontier bears quite a resemblance to Ice Cold in Alex, the desert war drama starring John Mills made the previous year. In that, a beleaguered English soldier has to take a group on a dangerous journey across a hostile environment, infested with enemies, with a bit of romance and a traitor among the party. Then I realised both films were made by the same director, J Lee Thompson. I was quite excited by this thought, imagining I may have uncovered a new line of scholarship, but unfortunately the same observation is made in the British Film Institute’s entry for the film.

The action and suspense sequences of North West Frontier, which was mostly filmed in Spain, acted as a calling card for Thompson in Hollywood: Gregory Peck involved him in The Guns of Navarone after seeing it. Thompson duly went west and became a prolific maker of largely mediocre films.

Part of the fun of watching old films in a culture dominated by ‘woke’ political correctness is imagining how the same film might be made now. Captain Scott would have to be an altogether darker creation, a long way from More’s breezy officer, who sings the Eton Boating Song and quotes Kipling. The modern version would be a cold fish repressed by English provincial life, and he would not be allowed to be the prime mover of the plot, and doubtless racism or racist attitudes would have to be expressed in his dialogue – later to be corrected by events or people. Instead of Scott glued to the controls, fighting to get the Empress of India across a collapsing bridge – a scene of great tension which starts at 1.12min here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYMZYMEB2jA  it would have to be Gupta or Mrs Wyatt. That would not bother me either, beyond exasperation that it would be presented in that way not to serve art but to serve ideology: which is one of the central flaws of so much contemporary scriptwriting.

North West Frontier was just about the peak of More’s career as the officer type. He still had Sink the Bismarck! (1960) in front of him but not long afterwards he fell out with the Rank studios and his career declined.

As a connoisseur of bit-part actors I enjoyed spotting Howard Marion-Crawford turning up at Delhi station, playing, as he often did, a military official. Marion-Crawford’s finest hour came in Lawrence of Arabia (one of the greatest films ever made: I hope to write about it in a further article), when he mistakes Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence for an Arab and slaps him for laughing hysterically among dying patients, only to shake his hero’s hand at the end of the film without realising they had met before.

He then gives one of the most ecstatically beaming smiles in movie history.

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Robert James
Robert James is a national newspaper journalist.

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