on 25 March 2013
FLAME OVER INDIA [aka: ‘North West Frontier’]  [The Rank Collection] [Blu-ray] [US Import] Best British Film! Best British Screenplay!
It is the North West Frontier of India at the turn of the century. Captain Scott [Kenneth More CBE] is sent by the British Governor to rescue a five-year-old Prince and his American Governess, Catherine Wyatt [Lauren Bacall], when a rebellion breaks out amongst the tribesmen. Captain Scott is instructed to take the child to safety in Kalapur, which is 300 miles away, on the pretext that while he is alive, no rebellion can succeed. They are forced to travel on an old and fragile train, but it soon becomes clear that the danger from the train is the least of their worries. Someone on the train is trying to kill the Prince.
FILM FACT: 1960 BAFTA Awards: Nominated: Best Film. Nominated: J. Lee Thompson for Best Film from Any Source. Nominated: Robin Estridge for Best British Screenplay. Location scenes filming in India took place at the Amber Fort, in Rajasthan. A large part of this film was shot on location in Spain, on the 1668 mm gauge Zafra-Huelva Railway, of the RENFE. For filming sequences on the sound stage at Pinewood Studios, London, full size replicas of the locomotive, rolling stock and part of the bridge were constructed, with Pinewood's usual remarkable accuracy. The film was a major hit in the United Kingdom, being among the six most popular films in Great Britain for the year ended 31st October, 1959. The United States copyright on the ‘Flame Over India’ had lapsed into the public domain. Originally USA Release by 20th Century Fox.
Cast: Kenneth More CBE, Lauren Bacall, Herbert Lom, Wilfrid Hyde-White, I.S. Johar, Ursula Jeans, Eugene Deckers, Ian Hunter, Jack Gwillim, Govind Raja Ross, Basil Hoskins, S.S. Chowdhary, Moultrie Kelsall, Lionel Murton, Moultrie Kelsall, Lionel Murton, Peter Lloyd, Jaron Yaltan, Homi Bode, Frank Olegario, Ronald Cardew, Allan Cuthbertson (uncredited), Howard Marion-Crawford (uncredited) and Irmgard Spoliansky (uncredited)
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Producer: Marcel Hellman
Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent, Patrick Ford, Robin Estridge and Will Price
Composer: Mischa Spoliansky
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Video Resolution: 1080p [Color by Deluxe]
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 [CinemaScope]
Audio: English: 2.0 LPCM Mono Audio and English: 4.0 LPCM Audio [Enhanced 4 Channel]
Running Time: 129 minutes
Region: Region A/1
Number of discs: 1
Studio: VCI Entertainment
Andrew’s Blu-ray Review: If you are a great fan and enjoy adventure and mysterious intrigue, well you might find VCI Entertainment's new Blu-ray of ‘Flame Over India’ [aka: ‘North West Frontier’] is a brilliant and amazing pleasant surprise. It's a large-scale colonial epic filmed on location that features warring rebel cavalry, an imperial English outpost and a desperate race to escape on a rickety, unreliable train. Although the English star Kenneth More has first billing, the always-interesting Lauren Bacall draws our attention in an atypical action-adventure film.
Although the quality of his output soon went downhill, English director J. Lee Thompson made consistently good dramas and small-scale thrillers in the 1950s. He turned heads with his sweat-soaked desert war tale with the film ‘Ice Cold In Alex’ and struck pay dirt with the excellent ‘Tiger Bay,’ a suspense film starring tiny tot Hayley Mills in her first role. That led to this large-scale epic in awesome CinemaScope and Color by Deluxe.
‘Flame Over India’ (original title ‘North West Frontier’) has a lot in common with John Ford's ‘Stagecoach’ in that it's essentially about a motley mix of Anglos confined in a train car, racing across an Indian plain trying to evade "bloodthirsty savages." It may be a blatant reworking of ‘Stagecoach’ as the original story was co-written by Patrick Ford and Maureen O'Hara's husband Will Price. The final screenplay was adapted from a script by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, the writer of eleven John Ford films.
The action takes place in 1905, when Indian independence was a dream of the future. While the Muslim rebels are gathering in the hills, preparing to storm the Maharaja's palace and kill his son, a six-year-old Hindu prince who will be the future leader of the country. The Maharaja appeals to the British to take his son to safety in Delhi. Intrepid Capt. William Charles Willoughby Scott [Kenneth More] rescues a child prince just before a horde of rebels overruns his father's palace, killing everyone. Scott takes the child to the besieged fort city of Hasarabad, but misses the last train out. The young prince must be saved to defeat the rebellion and the locals are loyal to his bloodline. English administrator Sir John Wyndham [Ian Hunter] the Governor and doesn't know what to do, as armed relief cannot reach the fort anytime soon.
Seeing this disaster as an opportunity to make good and Capt. William Charles Willoughby Scott enlists the aid of railroad employee Gupta [I.S. Johar] the driver, who is able to repair a tiny switchyard engine capable of pulling a single coach out of rebel territory. In a daring escape, the train rams its way through the fortress gates and gets away before the siege cavalry can stop it. Booked to ride are Gupta, Capt. William Charles Willoughby Scott, the little prince, Sir John's wife Lady Windham [Ursula Jeans] the Governor's Wife, bureaucrat Mr. Bridie [Wilfrid Hyde-White] and shifty arms dealer Mr. Peters [Eugene Deckers]. Dutch-Indian journalist Peter van Leyden [Herbert Lom] forces Lady Wyndham to allow him aboard at the last minute. Accompanying the prince is his governess Catherine Wyatt [Lauren Bacall], a feisty American with experience in India.
More trouble comes almost immediately. At the very first rail stop, Capt. William Charles Willoughby Scott's travellers discover that rebels have ambushed the previous train and slaughtered every man, woman and child. Catherine Wyatt finds a living baby in the carnage, and brings it along. Tensions stay high as the tiny group learns that the rebels have sabotaged the rails in more than one place, especially the crisis occurs at a bridge crossing where part of the rail has been damaged. The passengers have to disembark and make their way by foot across part of the track which stretches perilously over a ravine. Scott and the prince almost fall when Van Leyden seems hesitant in passing the boy over to Scott. To the dismay of some of the other passengers, who believe he is over-reacting, and Capt. William Charles Willoughby Scott accuses Peter van Leyden of deliberately trying to cause the death of the prince, and places him under armed guard in a separate carriage and one of the passengers is acting very suspicious as well, and may be trying to subvert the desperate flight to freedom!
Although filmed in 1958, the exciting and suspenseful ‘Flame Over India’ could have been written in 1929, or even 1860 for that matter. It takes the attitude that India's childlike primitives would slaughter one another indiscriminately were it not for the benign guardianship of their selfless, noble English administrators. We all love or at least enjoy wonderful colonial stories like ‘The Four Feathers’ and ‘Gunga Din.’ ‘Flame Over India’ comes along too late to get away with its reactionary tone and the filmmakers clearly think that India and Pakistan should be begging their English masters to return. Of all the English films in denial over the End of the British Empire, this may be the most stubborn.
The passengers may be strict stereotypes, but they are acted with spirit and style. The stately Lady Wyndham expresses contempt for the ungrateful savages, who do not appreciate the many years of hard work put into India by dedicated men like her husband. Gupta talks to his engine in Pidgin English, like a latter-day ‘Gunga Din.’ Catherine Wyatt puts forward an assertive personality (and how could Ms. Lauren Bacall not do so?) but spends a lot of time serving tea. The cheerful Mr. Bridie chirps happy thoughts, but still betrays the opinion that Peter van Layden, a "half-breed Muslim" is by definition socially unacceptable. Capt. William Charles Willoughby Scott thinks that Peter van Layden's parentage is reason enough to distrust him. And everybody has harsh words for Peter van Layden's self-important arms merchant. The film simplifies the local rebellion as simple terrorism.
Peter van Leyden [Herbert Lom] is a real nasty piece of work, a sneaky, resentful zealot who takes advantage of the accommodating English for his own malign purposes. He reveals his religion by balking at picking up a pigskin box, and gives away his villainy with a constant stream of menacing anti-British remarks. And sure enough Van Leyden turns out to be not only lazy and selfish, but a kill-crazy demon as well. The insensitive screenplay believes every bit of this racism is fine and dandy. It's as if the writers read Rudyard Kipling but ignored his sympathies for the Hindu and Muslim underdogs.
The film portrays the rebels as faceless delinquents with no cause except anarchy. The Muslim horsemen trying to stop the train behave like "stupid" Indians in American westerns, breaking only one rail and weakening just one bridge. They harass the train with rifle fire, but press a real attack only once. They're easily deterred as soon as noble Brits put up the slightest resistance.
J. Lee Thompson's direction does a brilliant job, and finds many dramatic angles as the train moves through hostile territory or stands exposed to enemy fire while Captain Scott and company try to repair a rail. The crowd and action scenes are acceptable and certainly expensive-looking. We can't tell if the giant palaces we see are miniatures or not, as they look real. The pacing is frequently uneven, as people often stand around talking when quick action is needed. The train pauses at the massacre site much longer than it ought to. Kenneth More and Lauran Bacall play a long scene amid a welter of corpses, surely knowing that the unseen killers could return at any moment.
Kenneth More was one of England's most popular actors at the time. I find him essentially charmless in this particular outing. Lauren Bacall plays her role straight, as if doing an Indian version of her previous Blood Alley. Among this cast, she may have had the most experience with distant locations, having braved equatorial jungles while on location for ‘The African Queen.’ A specialist in surly, menacing ethnics, Herbert Lom walks away with the show. He received few starring roles like in ‘Phantom of the Opera’  but was always in demand, and especially in the hilarious riotous Pink Panther films.
In terms of a simple story effectively told, ‘Flame Over India’ makes the grade. Turn off your political brain and it will be a surprise treat, a large-scale vintage adventure thriller that slipped under the radar. But don't show it to any minorities, foreigners or people sensitive to outdated colonial attitudes!
Blu-ray Video Quality – ‘Flame Over India’ [aka: ‘North West Frontier’] is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of VCI Entertainment with an encoded image 1080p transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. To my recollection it is the first CinemasCope feature released by VCI Entertainment on Blu-ray, and the results, if not as spectacular as might have been hoped, are at least it is very solid. VCI Entertainment has had a tendency with some of their Blu-ray releases to smear on the digital noise reduction with a fairly aggressive hand, though for the most part their The Rank Collection releases have been spared that approach, something which continues here. Not only is grain visible, in a couple of shots it gets perilously close to noise levels, especially in some shots of the sky. The image is decently crisp and clear and fine object detail is quite pleasing in close-ups. In terms of the colour timing, things are a bit yellow throughout several swaths of this presentation, giving flesh tones a jaundiced look and bathing a lot of the image in a sort of saffron hue. Because of this tendency, reds drift toward orange and blues have a slightly green tinge. This anomaly is worst in the film's opening 30 minutes or so, and while it improves markedly after that point, it's prevalent off and on throughout to one degree or another. A good telecine colourist could have at least ameliorated this had they colour timed this release against a reference print, but perhaps there wasn't one available to them. The elements are in quite good condition, with only occasional scratches and a stray line or two (usually in the middle of the frame) remaining after what is advertised as a "restoration."
Blu-ray Audio Quality – ‘Flame Over India’ features two uncompressed LPCM audio tracks (despite VCI's continued insistence on their Blu-ray releases that they have "Dolby" tracks), one the film's original mono track delivered via 2.0 LPCM Mono track and a so-called "enhanced" track delivered via the 4.0 LPCM track [aka Enhanced 4 Channel]. Stick with the 2.0 track for a number of reasons. It offers excellent fidelity with really nice dynamic range, and well prioritized dialogue, effects and score. While the 4.0 track does significantly open up the sound field, especially in some of the action sequences, it also has a number of truly bizarre anomalies, including really bad phasing and chorusing, and at circa 1:55:00 or so, a completely weird looping echo of a baby crying that makes the poor tot sound like the spawn of Satan.
Finally, whatever you call it, ‘Flame Over India’ [aka ‘North West Frontier’] is a very thrilling adventure yarn, full of some fantastic scenery and local colour. Lauran Bacall and Kenneth More make for a very appealing lead duo, and the supporting cast is full of familiar faces, all of whom do fine work. This was a sumptuous CinemaScope production and helped elevate J. Lee Thompson to the A-list rank (no pun intended, considering this film's studio) of directors. The Blu-ray video is decently sharp and well detailed; the colour timing is really peculiarly yellow in the opening half hour especially. The "enhanced" LPMC 4.0 audio also has some significant problems, though at least the 2.0 LPCM mix sounds fine. For those who can overlook these niggling issues, ‘Flame Over India’ offers a great story and some very exciting set pieces, and with caveats noted, but sadly there was no Extras, which is a shame, as I am sure somewhere in the Rank Organisation vaults there is some brilliant outtakes and interviews with the main actors. Despite this, I have always loved this film ever since I first viewed it on British Television, usually shown on a Sunday afternoon and when VCI Entertainment announced its final release, I of course had to Order it instantly and of course it is a great honour to now have this classic British Rank Collection film included in my ever increasing VCI Entertainment Blu-ray Collection. Highly Recommended!
Andrew C. Miller – Your Ultimate No.1 Film Fan
Le Cinema Paradiso
WARE, United Kingdom