Saturday 16 September 2017

Movie Review: Thunder In The East (1952)

A war drama and romance set in India, Thunder In The East aims for a Casablanca vibe but settles for methodically mixing the ingredients without any of the magic spices.

It's 1947, and India has just won independence from the British. Jaded American arms trader Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd) lands his plane loaded with machine guns and ammunition in remote Ghandahar province, intending to sell the weapons to the local Maharaja. A local rebel group under the leadership of the elusive Newah Khan is threatening to seize power, but Prime Minister Singh (Charles Boyer) believes in Gandhi-like peaceful negotiations and blocks Gibbs' sale, instead impounding and storing the weapons.

The stymied Gibbs mingles with a group of foreigners caught up in the violence, and starts to fall in love with blind British woman Joan Willoughby (Deborah Kerr), the granddaughter of local priest Dr. Willoughby (Cecil Kellaway). Seductive French woman Lizette Damon (Corinne Calvet) throws herself at Gibbs to try and win a seat on his outbound plane. But with Khan's men making rapid progress and Singh refusing to authorize the use of heavy weaponry in defence of the government, options to evacuate the city start to diminish, and Gibbs reveals his true colours.

Alan Ladd tries his best to channel his inner Humphrey Bogart, the character of Steve Gibbs intermittently aligning with Bogart's emotionally independent mercenary persona. But the Thunder In The East script, based on the novel The Rage of the Vulture by Alan Moorehead, patently lacks the bright spark and sharp wit needed to ignite the drama and romance around its cynical anti-hero. The film settles into average territory and oscillates between an awkward love-hate relationship between Gibbs and Joan as the romantic anchor, while Singh's internal conflict, his abhorrence of violence confronting increasingly desperate surroundings, represents the dramatic counterweight.

In support of Ladd, Deborah Kerr flirts with abject boredom as the too-pure Joan who may have enough angelic dust to save Gibbs' soul, but certainly doesn't offer anything else of interest. Charles Boyer just about overcomes the bizarre spectacle of a French actor playing an Indian Provincial Prime Minister.

Director Charles Vidor does a decent job of creating an exotic India location out of the Paramount Studios sound stages, although some of the backdrops are painfully clear paintings and rolling footage. Vidor conjures up a modest sense of overlapping sweaty crises and subplots, with relatively minor characters like Lizette, the retired General Harrison (John Williams) and Dr. Willoughby adding welcome depth in several sequences. The action-oriented scenes of siege, shoot-outs and explosions are mostly held in reserve until late in the proceedings, and then handled proficiently.

With the situation desperate, Thunder In The East finds a surprisingly potent emotional crescendo, but then lands a bewilderingly abrupt ending. Once the bullets start to fly with steely intent, there is apparently not much more to say.

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