When it’s on: Sunday, 13 May (12.45 pm)
It’s easy to picture Michael Palin and Terry Jones, struggling for inspiration over a new comedy show, then stumbling across a screening of North West Frontier and suddenly realising the genius of writing a series of ripping yarns. That’s what this film is – a boy’s own tale, set in the days of the British empire and focusing on breathless adventure.
The plot is simplicity itself. It’s 1905. The northwest border of the British empire in India is a hotbed of tension between the Hindu maharajah and Muslim rebels. As the latter besiege a fort held by British forces protecting young Prince Kishan, a daring scheme is hatched to get the boy to the safety of Kalapur. Leading the party of escapees is Captain Scott (Kenneth More), who decides the best route to safety is boarding a knackered old shunting train, the Empress of India and breaking the blockade. The engine carries a ragtag complement of passengers, along with the prince’s governess, Mrs Wyatt (Lauren Bacall). The story concerns the various plights and pitfalls faced by the party as they make their way through hostile countryside, pursued by rebels, whilst doubts are raised over the loyalties of one of the passengers…
North West Frontier (which was released in America as Flame over India, presumably to avoid confusion with some Hitchcock film that has no doubt since lapsed into obscurity) is essentially Stagecoach in the hands of a British production team. No doubt this has something to do with the script, based on a screenplay by Frank S Nugent, who was a regular collaborator with John Ford. Just like Ford’s classic western, much is made of the fabulous setting, Geoffrey Unsworth taking on cinematography duties and photographing the Indian desert lovingly (it’s Spain really, but who’s counting?). J. Lee Thompson directs. He brings the same sensibility to North West Frontier as he displayed in his hit from the previous year, Ice Cold in Alex, at heart a road movie that elicits maximum tension from the situation rather than things happening.
The passengers encounter a raft of problems on their journey, mainly involving makeshift repairs to the rail track that has been sabotaged by the rebels. As they work, replacing the damaged track before them by lifting bits from behind the engine, there’s a sense that the enemy’s never far away and is closing in. Herbert Lom is on hand as a Dutch-Indian journalist, initially providing a cynical complement to More’s plucky officer but later emerging as a traitor. His efforts to do away with the prince are slowly exposed and Lom has a lot of fun in his role as an oily villain. Wilfrid Hyde-White’s ex-pat is the archetypal fish out of water, gurning and mugging in reaction to the plot’s twists and turns.
It’s a fine couple of hours’ entertainment, the only real sign of dating appearing in the shape of I S Lohar as the comedy engine driver, Gupta. The film takes in an atrocity, probably its best moment as a trainload of passengers that has been waylaid by the rebels lies in the Empress’s path. When it left the fort, it was teeming with people, sat inside, on the roof and clinging to the sides, and now everyone’s dead, bodies strewn all over. It’s a scene designed to show the British sense of pall at such nastiness, and also to give Mrs Wyatt a moment of American independence as she ignores Captain Scott’s orders and goes on board the train of the dead to collect a living baby.
The tension between More and Bacall develops into romance, though theirs is a chaste courtship with little of the steam she delivered in her American films. All the same, the sight of go-to British character actor, More, and noir veteran Bacall getting it on has the feel of two worlds colliding.
North West Frontier: ***