Wednesday, August 22, 2018
Kim, published in 1901, was KipIing’s masterpiece and it’s a tale of the Great Game, which was the game of espionage played out between Britain and Imperial Russia in the 19th century. This was the first Cold War. That sounds like a great basis for a movie but the novel Kim was a lot more than a spy story. To dismiss Kim as a spy story would be like dismissing War and Peace as a mere war story, or dismissing Crime and Punishment as just a murder mystery. Kipling was a complex and ambitious writer and Kim is a complex and ambitious novel.
Kim’s friendship with Mahbub Ali is important but he soon develops an even more important friendship, with a holy man (played by Paul Lukas). He becomes the holy man’s disciple. He is a very useful disciple since he is an accomplished beggar, and that happens to be the most important quality required in a holy man’s disciple. Holy men are a dime a dozen in India but Kim comes to believe that his holy man is something special. And the holy man regards Kim as being rather special as well. It is a matter of destiny. It is the destiny of this holy man to search for a holy river and it is destiny that has brought him Kim as a disciple.
Getting all this into a movie was obviously just about impossible but it makes a very spirited attempt.
It’s helped by some fine acting. Errol Flynn gets top billing but Flynn knows that this time he’s a supporting player. Kim is the central figure and regardless of the billing Dean Stockwell is the star. Whether the movie succeeds or fails depends entirely on Stockwell. He is equal to the task. Kim is a character who is frighteningly precocious and he could easily become irritating but that doesn’t happen. Kim knows more about the world than any child his age should know but rather than making him insufferable it brings him the first glimmerings of wisdom. Stockwell’s performance is extraordinary.
Paul Lukas was a Hungarian actor and while he makes a very good holy man he comes across as a Hungarian holy man rather than an Indian one which is very disconcerting!
Yet another difficulty this movie faces is that it assumes you have at least a vague knowledge of the period and of the Great Game, and that you’re familiar with the hysterical Russophobia of the period.
To appreciate this movie I really think you need to have read KipIing’s novel. If you have read the novel you’ll find that this is a more successful adaptation than you might have expected. Recommended, but with the caveats already alluded to.