“KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” (1953) Review
Twentieth-Century Fox was never a studio that I would associate with movies about the British Empire. Mind you, the studio had released several during the period between its formation in 1935 and the 1953 release of “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES”. Yet . . . it never seemed to produce many productions on European imperialism in compare to studios like Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Just recently, I watched “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” and discovered that it was a remake of John Ford’s 1929 adventure film, “THE BLACK WATCH”. And both movies were film adaptations of Talbot Mundy’s 1916 novel, “King of the Khyber Rifles”. However, the 1929 film seemed to be a closer adaptation of Mundy’s novel, than this 1953 film that starred Tyrone Power. Was I disappointed by my discovery? Honestly, no. I have read the synopsis of the original novel. It did not quite pique my interest the way Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts’ screenplay did.
“KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” told the story of a Sandhurst-trained British Army officer named Captain Alan King, who has been assigned to a North-West Frontier Province garrison near the Khyber Pass in 1857. His fellow officers, including his commander Brigadier-General J.R. Maitland, discover that King’s mother was a Muslim and native Indian before subjecting him to many subtle forms of bigotry. His roommate, Lieutenant Geoffrey Heath, even moves out of their quarters in protest to sharing a bungalow with someone who is not completely white. Only the general’s daughter, Susan Maitland, harbors no prejudice against King and slowly begins falling in love with him.
The garrison under Maitland finds itself facing a political storm in the form of an Afridi deserter named Karram Khan, who has created his own following among nearby local tribesmen. Unbeknownst to the British garrison, many native sepoys (soldiers) across British India are in an uproar over British acquisition of more Indian kingdoms and the new Enfield rifles. When Maitland discovers that King knew Karram Khan as a boy, he orders the latter to train and command a company of native calvary troopers to deal with Karram Khan. But when he becomes fully aware of the romantic feelings between the younger officer and Susan, Maitland considers an earlier suggestion of King’s . . . one that could endanger the latter’s life.
When I began to watch “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES”, I had no idea of how I would regard it in the end. Superficially, it seemed like the typical pro-Imperial adventure film that Hollywood had been churning out since the silent era. The movie featured the usual Imperialist adventure traits – dashing, yet handsome British officer/hero, the charming heroine that happened to be daughter/sister/niece of the hero’s commanding officer, Muslim fanatic leader and villain, Northern Indian tribesmen under the villain’s leadership, and personal connection between the hero and the villain (well . . . sometimes). I also wish that “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” had been ten to fifteen minutes longer. If it had, then the narrative would not have seemed so rushed.
One could also see that the 20th Century Fox Studios gave little thought to the movie’s production values. Despite the presence of A-list actors in the cast – Tyrone Power, Terry Moore and Michael Rennie – I could not decide whether Fox Studios considered “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” an “A” or “B” movie. Everything about the movie’s production design and visual style seemed to reek of a “B” movie. The only exception seemed to be Travilla’s costume designs, especially for Moore. I have one last major problem with “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” – namely British actor Guy Rolfe, who portrayed Karram Khan. I realize that the Hollywood industry was (and continues to be) reluctant to give non-Western or non-white roles to non-Western actors. I suspect this is something that will last for a very long time. But . . . poor Rolfe was forced to don blackface for his role as the Northern Indian rebel. I found this unnecessary, especially since a dark-haired and dark-eyed white actor with a slight tan could have portrayed this role. Many natives of the region are among the most light-skinned in the India subcontinent. But blackface . . . for a character who was supposed to be a native of Northern India? Rolfe looked like a performer of a minstrel show – being held in Calcutta.
But despite the subpar production values, the rushed ending and Guy Rolfe’s makeup, I must admit that “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” proved to be a decent, yet almost mediocre film. I certainly had no problems with the performances. Tyrone Power gave an intelligent, yet charming performance as the movie’s leading character – the very competent Alan King who is torn between his parents’ two worlds and his feelings for the leading lady. I noticed that he did not bother to attempt a British accent. I did not mind. He still managed to project the style of a man born and raised in Europe . . . or by Europeans. More importantly, he skillfully portrayed a man torn between his loyalties toward his father’s people and resentment toward their treatment of him. Terry Moore did not bother to hide her American accent as well, despite portraying the young and English-born Susan Maitland. And she also gave an intelligent and spirited performance that I found personally appealing. I was especially impressed with her acting in one scene in which she conveyed Susan’s disgust toward the bigotry that surrounded Alan King. Michael Rennie’s portrayal of Susan’s father, Brigadier-General J.R. Maitland, struck me as very interesting. On one level, he seemed like the typical intelligent and well-bred British officer that seems to be idealized in many other film productions. Yet, behind the idealized portrait, Rennie subtlety revealed General Maitland’s insidious bigotry and wiliness to send Captain King to his death in order to nip any potential romance between the mixed blood officer and his daughter. One last performance I have to comment upon was Guy Rolfe’s portrayal of the Afridi leader, Karram Khan. Yes, I found his blackface makeup offensive. But I also cannot deny that he gave a surprisingly subtle and intelligent portrayal of the tribal leader determined to rid his country of the invading British. I found it odd that his character was described as “fanatic”, but I never got that vibe, thanks to Rolfe’s subtle performance. He simply portrayed Karram as an intelligent and charismatic leader who is not above utilizing violence to achieve his goal.
Earlier, I had commented that “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” possessed the basic ingredients of a typical imperialist adventure film made in Hollywood. Trust me . . . it does. And yet, the movie’s screenwriters undermined the Imperialist genre by transforming the main character into an officer of mixed Anglo-Indian blood. The screenwriters also did not hesitate to convey the ugly bigotry that existed in British India. I was also impressed by how they touched on the issues that led Indian sepoys to rebel against the British military and government leaders in 1857 – especially the distribution of the new Enfield rifles. Many sepoys feared that the cartridges of the new rifles were coated with beef and/or pork grease and would compromise their religious beliefs. This fear played out in an interesting and intense scene in which King’s men were hesitant to follow him into battle as long as he insisted upon them using the rifles. I could not help but wonder if the more realistic politics of British Imperialism have been found in other imperial adventures released by Hollywood during the post-World War II era.
In the end, “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” proved to be an . . . interesting movie to a certain extent. Yes, the movie ended on an abrupt note. And it possessed all the attributes of your typical Hollywood imperial adventure. Yet, thanks to the screenwriters and director Henry King, the story undermined its more conservative element with a somewhat realistic portrayal of the Alan King character and his impact upon the other characters in the story. “KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” also benefited from excellent performances from a cast led by Tyrone Power.
Filed under: History, Movies | Tagged: british empire, company rule, frank de kova, guy rolfe, henry king, literary, michael rennie, movies, murray matheson, old hollywood, politics, sepoy rebellion, terry moore, tyrone power, victorian age |