This may be one of those that got away. By that I mean that 1959's "Flame Over India" is a crackling good adventure movie that I somehow missed out on for over fifty years. In fact, it's what the British might call a ripping good yarn, yet it's one I'm betting a lot of you haven't seen, either.
Despite the movie featuring a famous English star, Kenneth More, and a famous American actress, Lauren Bacall; and despite its being helmed by a famous director, J. Lee Thompson (who would shortly make "The Guns of Navarone," "Cape Fear," and "Mackenna's Gold"); and despite its being produced by a major British movie company, the Rank Organization, and distributed in the United States by a major Hollywood studio, Twentieth Century Fox, it slipped by me. Growing up in the late Forties and Fifties, I was a fan of anything sci-fi, horror, action, or Western. Name a flying-saucer flick, a William Castle production, a John Wayne or a Charlton Heston movie, and I'd seen it. Nevertheless, "Flame Over India" perhaps never came to my home town or stayed so briefly I didn't know it was there. Then, maybe because it was a British product, it never (or seldom) showed up on television in the Sixties or Seventies. I dunno.
Of course, its multiple titles didn't help matters much. Originally, Rank called it "North West Frontier" in the U.K., but the American distributor feared that U.S. audiences might confuse it with Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," which came out the same year, or possibly even "Northwest Passage," so they changed it to "Flame Over India" for the American market. Then, for even more obscure reasons, they decided on "Empress of India" for Australia.
Whatever, the folks at VCI Entertainment have now made it available in high-definition Blu-ray (as well as separately on DVD), doing justice to its ultra-widescreen CinemaScope and often stunning location photography (Spain filling in for India).
I noticed in researching the movie that England's "Time Out" magazine said of it that it was "...the British equivalent of a Western." I suppose that makes sense in that the filmmakers designed the picture like an American Western, with a variety of colorful characters traveling together on a dilapidated old train through hostile territory that could pass for the Wild West. Plus, the film's screenwriter was Frank Nugent, who wrote about 800 John Wayne Westerns, including "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," and "The Searchers," and Nugent adapted it from a story by Patrick Ford, the son of John Ford. The Western connections here are as expansive as all the Western, Spanish, and Indian frontiers.
Anyway, the movie opens at the turn of the twentieth century, 1905, in the North-West province of India (now Pakistan). There, the maharajah of the region asks the British to escort his six-year-old son, Prince Kishan, to a safe place while a rebel uprising threatens the area. The rebels figure if they can find and kill the boy, they will have a foothold in taking over the land. The British governor of the province assigns Captain William Scott (Kenneth More) to accompany the boy and his governess (Lauren Bacall) to safety.
The question is how to get the boy out of the area. Captain Scott decides to use a broken-down old train pulling a single coach, run by its engineer, an old friend of Scott's named Gupta. So, with a few other passengers, Scott, the boy, and the governess hightail it through three hundred miles of rugged terrain, all the while with bellicose rebel tribesmen looking to kill the boy.
Think of "Gunga Din" meets "Stagecoach" on "The African Queen."
The action occurs almost nonstop, with an attack on the maharajah's palace followed by an attack on a nearby town, guns blazing, cannons roaring, sabers flashing at every turn.
Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth makes good use of the Spanish landscape to emulate the northwestern India frontier, the ultrawide photography capturing some glorious shots. Given that probably seventy-five percent of the movie takes place outdoors, believe me, this helps a lot. Moreover, director Thompson creates the action by building it and concentrating on it rather than relying on the quick edits and extreme close-ups that pass for action directing today. The result is that we come to care about the action on screen and the results of that action rather than just get a quick visceral thrill from it.
Kenneth More, whom British audiences of the Fifties and Sixties may know as well for his light-comedy roles, here plays a commendably stalwart, dashing hero with a twinkle in his eye. He is as much fun to watch as the scenery. As his leading lady, Lauren Bacall plays a tough, outspoken, commanding American governess, not the most romantic character in the world but a good match for the independence of the hero.
As important as the leads, we get a fine supporting cast. Along with the captain, the governess, and the prince on the harrowing train ride are several requisite colorful characters. Chief among these is Herbert Lom as Peter Van Leyden, a creepy, cynical, ill-natured journalist who goes along with the others he says to get a good story. Wilfrid Hyde White plays Mr. Bridie, a very proper, older English gentleman, an aide to the governor who is also seeing after the child. Eugene Deckers plays Peters, a suspicious arms dealer intent on selling the British government his wares. Ursula Jeans plays Lady Windham, the governor's wife, whom the governor insists try to escape to safety in the event the North-West province comes under attack from the rebels. I.S. Johar plays Gupta, the ever-cheerful, always optimistic train engineer. And Govind Raja Ross plays the young prince, Kishan, not a big role but a pivotal one. The ancient train they're traveling on is "The Empress of India" (thus, the film's Australian title), and Gupta calls her "Victoria," after the Queen. I suppose you could count the train as a major character.
Even though the movie expounds upon the politics of the government and religion in India, it's probably best just to enjoy the adventure. This is particularly the case after the cast has taken their place on the train and heading out into the countryside. Danger and suspense mount, yet, as I say, Thompson develops it the old-fashioned way by taking his time while maintaining a constant pressure. In fact, there's one extraordinarily alarming scene on a high bridge that may make some viewers, squeamish at heights, turn away.
"Flame Over India" grows on you as you come to recognize and understand the various characters, something many recent action-adventure directors have forgotten. But filmmakers like John Ford and Howard Hawks knew how to do it, and so did J. Lee Thompson.
The Rank Organization made the film in a 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio, using Eastman Color, which the folks at VCI have transferred to Blu-ray utilizing a single-layer BD25 and a VC-1 codec. I would have opted for a higher bit rate, but what we get is likely sufficient for the source material. VCI digitally restored the print, cleaning up most signs of age and deterioration, so you'll not find many lines, scratches, flecks, ticks, or spots on the picture. There is, though, a very evident amount of noise and grain in outdoor location shots, which is most of the time. Otherwise, the video engineers have done a fairly good job with the transfer. Definition is good, if a tad soft at times; colors are generally bright and natural, though facial hues are a bit dark and overly reddish.
VCI provide two English soundtracks, one reproduced via PCM 2.0 and the other in 4.0 enhanced. I found the 4.0 track a bit smoother and, as we would expect, wider. Although it doesn't add much activity to the rear or side channels, it does provide a touch of ambient musical bloom and a few environmental noises in the surrounds. Oddly, there is an occasional hollowness to voices, perhaps intentional as it occurs within the same confined space on screen; still, it happens so seldom, it's not much of a distraction.
There's not much here. We get a surprisingly sparse six scene selections, English as the only spoken language, and English subtitles. However, there's a good-looking menu at start-up.
For such a top-notch action adventure, it still surprises me I'd never heard of it. Well, thank goodness for VCI for offering it in high definition, where it makes a good impression. "Flame Over India" may not be another "Lawrence of Arabia," yet it has an excellent cast of characters and plenty of rousing excitement and stirring melodrama. I enjoyed it.