Monday, August 11, 2014

King of the Khyber Rifles (1953)

King of the Khyber Rifles is a swashbuckling adventure starring Tyrone Power  and set on India’s North West Frontier. 

The movie was based on the classic adventure novel King of the Khyber Rifles by Talbot Mundy. In fact the story told in the movie has absolutely nothing in common with Mundy’s excellent novel other than the fact that both take place on the North West Frontier. 

The movie is set in India in 1857, just prior to the outbreak of the Mutiny. Captain Alan King (Tyrone Power) has been posted to a garrison on the North West Frontier. It starts promisingly, throwing us straight into an action scene when when the supply column under Captain King’s command is ambushed by Afridi tribesmen.

King’s arrival at the garrison causes some unease when it becomes known that he is a half-caste. His father was a British officer, his mother a Moslem. Brigadier Maitland (Michael Rennie) is determined to give the obviously very competent young officer a fair chance although his tolerance is strained somewhat when it becomes obvious that a romance is blossoming between Captain King and the brigadier’s daughter Susan (Terry Moore). 

The whole sub-plot involving the romance between a brigadier’s daughter and a half-caste is anachronistic and irritatingly heavy-handed in execution. The movie threatens to become that most tedious of all Hollywood genres, the Social Problem Movie.

King’s parentage also creates some worrying plot holes. We’re told that King was an orphan who was raised by a Moslem, and we’re told that his father’s family disowned him, 
but we’re also told that he’s just graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. How on earth did he manage to get into Sandhurst?

His parentage also plays a vital part in the more interesting main plot which involves simmering unrest on the Frontier that seems to be about to break out into full-scale rebellion under the leadership of Karram Khan (Guy Rolfe). Karram Khan just happens to be the son of the man who raised King. The two boys were raised as brothers. It’s all rather far-fetched but at least it promises to lead to some action.

The Mutiny also plays a part in the somewhat over-complicated plot. The garrison has just been issued with the new Enfield rifled musket. This weapon of course became the catalyst for the Mutiny when religious agitators spread rumours that the cartridges had been greased with animal fat. The agitators told Hindu soldiers the cartridges were greased with beef fat while Moslem troops were told they were greased with pig fat. Since the cartridges had to be opened with the teeth before loading this led to mutinies in many native regiments. British India was held almost entirely by native troops under British command and the spread of the Mutiny almost led to the end of British rule, and did lead to immense bloodshed. The movie offers only a very cursory explanation for these events and audiences without a reasonably working knowledge of British imperial history may well have found the plot slightly bewildering.

Captain King has been given command of the Khyber Rifles, an unruly but formidable Moslem regiment. King finds himself in command of a mutinous regiment at a very awkward moment, to say the least.

The beginnings of the Mutiny present Brigadier Maitland with a problem, since he is also facing the rebellion of Karram Khan. Of course the problem would be solved if Karram Khan were to meet with an unfortunate and fatal accident, an accident that might possibly be arranged by his adoptive brother Captain Alan King.

The various plot strands do weave themselves together after a fashion, and we do eventually get some rather good battle sequences.

Director Henry King was something of a specialist in action adventure movies and he handles proceedings with his usual skill. This was a big-budget production in Technicolor and Cinemascope by 20th Century-Fox and the money was well spent. It looks quite splendid.

Tyrone Power was one of the great screen swashbucklers and he’s in fine form. Power was particularly adept at playing complex and troubled swashbuckling heroes so this role is right up his alley. Michael Rennie does very well with the role of Brigadier Maitland, also a somewhat complex character who finds himself faced with some rather tricky dilemmas.

Guy Rolfe tries hard as Karram Khan but his rather plummy English accent is a bit off-putting. Terry Moore as Susan Maitland is adequate.

I have no problem with stories being substantially altered when novels are adapted to film but in this case the story has not been altered, it’s been replaced by an entirely new story. Personally I’m not quite convinced by this screenplay (by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts) which becomes a little preachy at times. Despite these minor reservations about the script I have to admit it’s a handsome production, it has plenty of excitement and it has fine performances by Tyrone Power and Michael Rennie. 

As adventure movies set in British India go Paramount’s 1935 Lives of a Bengal Lancer is still the best of the breed but King of the Khyber Rifles can still be recommended.

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