Tuesday 12 April 2022

Movie Review: North West Frontier (1959)

A rollicking adventure, North West Frontier (also known as Flame Over India) combines breathless chases with character depth and political discourse.

It's 1905 on the North West Frontier of British India, and a Muslim uprising is threatening peace in the region. British Army Captain Charles Willoughby Scott (Kenneth More) rescues six-year-old Prince Krashan, a great symbol to the area's Hindus, just before his Maharaja father is killed. Scott escorts the Prince and his American governess Mrs. Wyatt (Lauren Bacall) to Hasarabad, but not in time to board the last train out, and the city is soon besieged by rebels. 

Scott finds an ancient train engine operated by Gupta (I.S. Johar) to be in decent working order, and organizes an audacious rail escape. Joining Scott, Wyatt, and the Prince are journalist Peter van Leyden (Herbert Lom), arms dealer Peters (Eugene Deckers), and British aristocrats Mr. Bridie (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and Lady Windham (Ursula Jeans). With the rebels in pursuit, the equipment in bad shape, and a potential traitor among the passengers, Scott has to keep the escape train on-track towards the British stronghold of Kalapur.

Filmed on location in lavish CinemaScope with magnanimous Geoffrey Unsworth cinematography, North West Frontier is a remarkably well-balanced adventure. Writer Robin Estridge (adapting a Frank S. Nugent script) finds a pleasing rhythm between thrills and characters, and director J. Lee Thompson crafts an engrossing and agile package, just over two hours in length but with a fleeting energy.

Excellent special effects enliven some memorable highlights, none better than a damaged rail bridge high above a ravine. The characters have to walk a short section along a track suspended over the void by nothing, then Scott has to drive the train across, and Thompson's camera angles extract every drop of tension out of the scene. Other heart-stopping moments include the child Prince Kashan prodded too close to a large flywheel, and an attack on the stranded train by hundreds of rebels while Scott frantically leads the replacement of damaged tracks.

In the quiet pauses between heroics and close calls, the character interactions demonstrate surprising substance, and open gateways to several topics spiced by opposing viewpoints. The British as colonialists, the definition of home, arms dealers as enablers of violence, the thin line between journalism and agitation, religious tensions, contrasts between British and American attitudes, and even the sense of guilt for escaping a conflict zone all get a good workout from well-rounded perspectives. The small group of characters forced together on the train come to life through the conversations, creating intimacy at the heart of a sprawling adventure.

As can be expected, logic gaps make an appearance, several character actions only make sense as contrived plot devices, and the rebels' cause is shortchanged. But North West Frontier also knows how to pack a punch. The aftermath of a massacre is graphically presented, and even the moment of triumph hints ominously at more dark days to come. In this adventure, astute awareness adds zest to spectacular thrills.

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  1. Montgomery Ramone18 April 2022 at 03:09

    Thanks for the recommendation for this very exciting beautifully shot epic. Adventurous with a great villain and some powerful moments as well.

  2. Good short review. There are numerous political and social issues raised in this film but basically it is enjoyable adventure. I note your comment on the boy king's parting comment about more violence to come. Like most of the other real issues in the film it is left hanging, as it should be for a land that continues to thrash itself to bits.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, North West Frontier is a good-looking adventure packed full of thoughtful content.


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