THE TIGER AND THE FLAME (1953) is a sweeping historical epic made in India by Indian filmmakers with some help from the west including noted Hollywood cinematographer Ernest Haller (GONE WITH THE WIND). It bills itself in the opening credits as "India's First Picture in Color by Technicolor" and tells the saga of a historical figure, Jhansi Ki Rani (a name by which the film is also known), a warrior queen who fought against the British during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. It dramatizes select incidents and events from the years 1838-1858 in the life of Manu, as Jhansi is known as a child when we first meet her. The film keeps us at a distance from the characters, treating the story as a pageant, a collection of exquisitely staged scenes on a public stage bedecked with lavish sets, picturesque historic structures, beautiful costumes, rich colors and hundreds of extras in the big setpieces. We never get as emotionally engaged as we should, partly because the film bends over backward to be fair to the British, so we're never asked to develop outrage at abuses occurring during the British occupation of India (which is blamed here primarily on the British East India Co.).
Still, it's never dull, thanks to a steady steam of spectacular scenes offering backdrops of age-old palaces, forts and towns in locations not often captured on film available in the west. There are two great battle scenes late in the film, involving clashing armies on horseback, exchanges of cannon fire, and breaching fortress walls, that are as intricate and large in scale as anything being attempted in Hollywood at the time. This DVD edition was made from an original English-dubbed film print marred by the customary hazards of worn prints, including scratches on the film and occasional choppiness caused by film splices. Yet the color values of old Technicolor are quite dazzling here and I prefer a print like this to one altered by the compromises of digital restoration. Like it or not, this print shows us how the film would have looked in a theater some 50 years ago.
The DVD contains the 96-minute U.S. release version from 1956, a loss of 52 minutes from the original 148-minute cut. There are gaps in the narrative and very few scenes of human drama or intimacy. Perhaps they're in the lost footage. Still, given the low price of this DVD, it's quite a rare find and rich in novelty value for film buffs interested in Indian cinema, the history of color cinematography, and a cinematic treatment of India's history as seen through the eyes of Indian filmmakers, not Hollywood's.