“KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES” (1953) Review

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“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.

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Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

 

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

 

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

 

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

 

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

 

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

 

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

 

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

 

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

 

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

 

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1850s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1850s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1850s

1-Django Unchained

1. “Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this Oscar winning tale about a newly freed slave who searches for his still enslaved wife with the help of a German-born bounty hunter in Mississippi. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

 

2-The Charge of the Light Brigade

2. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1938) – Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland starred in this exciting adventure story set in both British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

 

3-Race to Freedom The Underground Railroad

3. “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad” (1994) – Courtney B. Vance and Janet Bailey starred in this television drama about the adventures of four slaves who escape from a North Carolina plantation, while being tracked by a pair of slave catchers. Don McBrearty directed.

 

4-Skin Game

4. “Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. starred in this dark comedy about a pair of con artists who clean up in a slave selling scheme in Missouri and Kansas, before their scam finally catches up with them. Paul Bogart directed.

 

5-Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

5. “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) – Stanley Donen directed this famous 1954 musical about six backwoodsmen brothers When a backwoodsman in the Oregon Territory, who decides to marry after their oldest brother brings home a wife. Jane Powell, Howard Keel and Russ Tambyln starred.

 

6-The First Great Train Robbery

6. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crighton wrote and directed this adaptation of his novel about three Victorian criminals who plot to rob a shipment of gold for British troops serving during the Crimean War, from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

 

7-Wuthering Heights

7. “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven starred.

 

8-Westward the Women

8. “Westward the Women” (1951) – William Wellman directed this excellent Western-adventure about a trail guide hired by a Californian rancher to escort a wagon train of women heading west to marry men who have settled in the rancher’s valley. Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel and John McIntire starred.

 

9-Mountains of the Moon

9. “Mountains of the Moon” (1990) Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen starred in this historical account of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke’s expedition to find the source of the Nile River on behalf of the British Empire. Bob Rafelson directed.

 

10-Jezebel

10. “Jezebel” (1938) – William Wyler directed Oscar winners Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in this adaptation of Owen Davis Sr.’s 1933 play about a headstrong Southern woman, whose actions cost her the man she loves. Henry Fonda and George Brent co-starred.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“THE DECEIVERS” (1988) Review

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“THE DECEIVERS” (1988) Review

I have heard of British writer John Masters ever since I saw “BHOWANI JUNCTION”, the 1956 adaptation of one his novels, on television years ago. Mind you, I did not love the film. But it did ignite an interest in a few of Masters’ stories – including his 1952 novel, “The Deceivers”

Not long after I saw “BHOWANI JUNCTION” on television, film producers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory made their own adaptation of Masters’ 1952 novel. Released in 1988 and directed by Nicholas Meyer, “THE DECEIVERS” told the story of Englishman William Savage, an officer with the British East Indian Company in 1825, who stumbles across the murderous activities of an organized gang of assassins and robbers called Thuggees, who worship the goddess Kali. Frustrated by his commanding officer/father-in-law’s refusal to investigate further, Captain Savage “recruits” a captured Thug named Hussein to help him infiltrate one of the gangs in order to expose the organization. Despite the risk of exposure and vengeance, Captain Savage finds himself undergoing a psychological transformation when he not only becomes close to his new companions, but also begins to succumb to the cult’s bloodlust and murderous behavior.

If one is expecting “THE DECEIVERS” to be one of those costume dramas or adventures on the epic scale, one is bound to be face with disappointment. In fact, I suspect that most critics back in 1988 were very disappointed with the movie’s small scale. Despite some large-scale action, a little horror and historical drama; “THE DECEIVERS” struck me as small-scale period drama and character study of an early 19th century man whose worldview would change in ways he had not imagined. At the beginning of the film, William Savage is not a highly regarded officer with the East Indian Company. Although he speaks several Indian dialects fluently, is dedicated to his duties as magistrate of his district and is friendly with the local aristocrat; his new father-in-law, Colonel Wilson, does not seem particularly impressed by him, especially since he refuses to succumb to the Company’s corruption by taxing the local inhabitants of nearly every rupee they possess. In the company of his father-in-law and other officers within the East Indian Company – including his friend George Anglesmith – Captain Savage seemed like the odd man out or the black sheep. But in the company of those Indian citizens inside his district and the sepoys (Indian soliders) under his command, he is very much the Imperial Englishman. This attitude is especially apparent following his discovery of the Thugs’ activities and their victims. He even go so far as to regard himself redeeming a Thug he and his men had earlier captured – a man named Hussein.

But when his father-in-law, Colonel Wilson, refuses to initiate any further investigations into the Thuggees; Captain Savage decides to take matters into his own hands and infiltrate one of their bands. He disguises himself as a native of Northern India and asks Hussein to help him infiltrate the latter’s own band of robbers. Although Savage eventually succeeds in his mission, his journey with the Thug band nearly tears apart his self-esteem as an Englishman and a civilized man. One of the movie’s more interesting scenes featured Savage, Hussein and the other Thugs engaged in a religious ceremony in which they pay homage to the goddess Kali. During this ceremony, Savage notices that the group’s priest uses an instrument similar to the thurible used during his wedding ceremony. He also discovers that underneath his so-called “civilized” English demeanor, he was capable of a great deal of blood lust and violence . . . including deliberate and cold-blooded murder. As I had earlier stated, the film ended on a triumphant note for Savage’s professional career. The East Indian Company appoints Savage as their main commissioner on the suppression of the Thuggee cult throughout the subcontinent. But despite this career high note, Savage’s psyche and self-esteem as an Englishman in India has been greatly shaken by his experiences with the Thug band.

For me, Savage’s emotional journey into darkness is probably the highlight of “THE DECEIVERS”. And this is due not only to the willingness of Michael Hirst’s screenplay and Pierce Brosnan’s superb performance to explore the darker aspects of Savage’s psyche. It is a pity that the movie ended up as a critical and box office failure. Personally, I feel that“THE DECEIVERS” was a lot better than most it is generally regarded. In many ways, it went against the grain of the typical British Empire action film. Perhaps it is not really an action film . . . and many critics and moviegoers could not accept this. Like I said, it is a pity that many were not willing to accept this aspect of “THE DECEIVERS”. Not only did I find it to be the movie’s most interesting aspect, but I also found it unusual for a movie set in pre-20th century British India.

Mind you, “THE DECEIVERS” is not perfect. I found the movie’s finale, which featured a pitched battle between Company soldiers led by Colonel Wilson and many Thugs to be a rushed affair. Before Nicholas Meyer could further delve into it, he switches his focus solely upon the wounded Savage’s attempt to evade a vengeful Feringea, leader of the Thuggee band with whom he had been following. I was also somewhat disappointed by the story’s handling of the George Anglesmith character. David Robb did an excellent job in his portrayal of the morally corrupt Anglesmith, who is also jealous of Savage’s recent marriage to Sarah Wilson. But the script did very little justice to his character, aside from a surprising revelation regarding his knowledge of the Thugs. There has also been a good deal of criticism directed toward the film’s handling of a Sati (Suttee) situation regarding the wife of a local weaver, who had disappeared, whose identity Savage had used to infiltrate Hussein’s Thug band. Savage’s use of Gopal the Weaver’s identity ended up having far reaching circumstances for the latter’s wife . . . circumstances that repelled a good deal of critics and moviegoers.

I have already commented on the excellent performances of both Pierce Brosnan and David Robb. I might as well touch upon the film’s other performances. Saeed Jaffrey was superb as the redeemed Hussein, who becomes disturbed by Savage’s increasing embrace of his darker psyche. Shashi Kapoor gave a warm, yet complex performance as Chandra Singh, the aristocrat who befriends Savage. Helena Michell gave solid support as Savage’s loyal and passionate new wife. Her father, Keith Michell, gave an intense performance as Colonel Wilson . . . even if there were times I found it a bit hammy. Another intense performance came Tariq Yunus, who portrayed the leader of Savage’s Thug band, Feringea. Fortunately, he managed to restrain the ham.

Visually, “THE DECEIVERS” is a gorgeous movie to behold. Most of the movie was filmed around Jaipur, India. Walter Lassally’s photography did a beautiful job in capturing the natural beauty of Jaipur’s local terrain. What made this particular appealing to me was the fact that a good deal of the movie was set in parts of India not occupied or inhabited by the British. I cannot say that “THE DECEIVERS” revealed the “true” Indian of the mid-1820s. But I found it interesting to view an India not populated by British cantonments or inhabitants. But the movie’s visual of the Indian countryside was not the only thing I found appealing. I also enjoyed the costumes designed by Academy Award winner Jenny Beavan and John Bright. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing the period fashions for both the British and Indian characters of the period.

I suppose there is nothing I can say to convince anyone that “THE DECEIVERS” is an interesting movie. It went against the grain of what many considered an enjoyable movie about 19th century British India. The movie seemed too focused on Savage’s internal psyche and less on any real action. But I enjoyed it, despite its dark topic (or because of it) and the lack of epic scope, I managed to enjoy “THE DECEIVERS”, thanks to Nicholas Meyer’s direction and a first-rate cast led by Pierce Brosnan.

“FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975) Book Review

Below is my attempt at a review of the late George MacDonald Fraser’s fifth installment in his highly acclaimed series, The Flashman Papers – FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975)

 

“FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975) Book Review

That great fictional bully and poltroon, Harry Flashman, once said. ”Humanity is beastly and stupid, aye and helpless, and there’s no end to it,” in one of George MacDonald Fraser’s installments of The Flashman Papers – a series of novels written in memoir form about a British Army officer in Victorian Britain. Well Fraser certainly proved that momentous statement in the series’ fifth installment, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. First published in 1975, the novel featured Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion aka the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858). 

In order to understand Flashman’s encounters with certain characters in the story, one must remember one thing – ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” is a direct sequel to the series’ fourth novel, ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973). At least two characters featured in the novel about the Crimean War also appeared in ”GREAT GAME” – Count Nicholas Ignatieff, a ruthless Russian intelligence office; and a former schoolmate of Flashman’s named Harry “Scud” East, who had also been a fellow prisoner-of-war of Flashman during the Crimean War.

The Sepoy Rebellion had been a bloody and emotional conflict for both Britons and Indians alike. It began as an uprising of sepoys of the British East India Company’s army on May 10, 1857, in the town of Meerut, and soon erupted into other mutinies and civilian rebellions largely in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and the Delhi region. The rebellion posed a considerable threat to Company power in that region, and it was contained only with the fall of Gwalior on June 20, 1858. The sepoys were a combination of Muslim and Hindu soldiers. Just before the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, there were over 200,000 Indians in the army compared to about 40,000 British. The forces were divided into three presidency armies: the Bombay; the Madras; and the Bengal. The Bengal army recruited higher castes, such as “Rajputs and Brahmans”, mostly from the “Avadh(or oudh) and Bihar” region and even restricted the enlistment of lower castes in 1855; in contrast, the Madras and Bombay armies were “more localized, caste-neutral armies”that “did not prefer high-caste men.” The domination of the Bengal high-caste in the army has been blamed in part for the Sepoy mutiny of 1857. It has been suggested that after the annexation of Oudh by the East India Company in 1856, many sepoys were disquieted both from losing their perquisites, as landed gentry, in the Oudh courts and from the anticipation of any increased land-revenue payments that the annexation might augur. Others have stressed that by 1857, some Indian soldiers, misreading the presence of missionaries as a sign of official intent, were persuaded that the East India Company was masterminding mass conversions of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. The final spark was provided by the controversy over the new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. To load the new rifle, the sepoys had to bite the cartridge open. It was believed that the paper cartridges that were standard issue with the rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or tallow (beef fat), regarded as anathema to Hindus.

One could say that Fraser had attempted to present the conflict from both views. One could say that he gave it his best shot. But it would have been impossible in the end. Especially since the novel was written from Flashman’s point of view. But I must give Fraser some credit for allowing Flashman to witness the emotions expressed by those Indians that had fought against the British . . . especially the beautiful and very memorable Lakshambai, the Rani of Jhansi.

The story began with Flashman receiving a summons from Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to join him at the Royal Family’s Scottish estate, Balmoral, in the early fall of 1856. Much to Flashman’s horror, he discovered that Palmerston wants him to journey to India and investigate a secret message that is being transmitted to many native villagers, sepoys (Indian soldiers under British command) and rulers alike, via a small stack of chapattis (Indian bread). Even worse, Flashman endured an unpleasant reunion with his former Crimean War foe, Count Ignatieff. The reunion resulted in a terrifying episode in the Highlands during a deer stalking party. And Ignatieff learned about Flashman’s India mission, thanks to the latter’s beautiful, but scatterbrained wife, Elspeth. Once Flashman arrived in India, he commenced upon his mission to investigate the mysterious chapattis exchange and guarantee the loyalty of Lakshambai, the Rani of Jhansi. But fate ended up dealing Flash Harry a cruel blow when a group of Thugee assassins attempted to kill him, following a clandestine tryst with the beautiful Rani. Suspecting mischief from Ignatieff (who has also arrived in India), Flashman’s Afghan friend, Ilderim Khan, urged him to hide from Ignatieff’s plots by impersonating a sepoy at the British cantonment (fort) in Meerut. Unfortunately, Flashman’s choice of location proved to be disasterous, for the cowardly officer found himself at the very place where the sepoy uprising began.

If I had to choose my favorite Flashman novel of all time, it would not be ”GREAT GAME”. Quality has nothing to do with my choice. I just happen to be a fanatic about the American Old West, which is why ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” remains my favorite. However, if I had to choose the six Flashman novels I consider supreme over the others, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”would be one of them. It is, without a doubt, one of Fraser’s finest works and one of the best historical novels I have ever read. There were times I found myself wondering about Fraser’s talent as a journalist. I believe that he certainly put it to good use in re-capturing not only London and the Scottish Highlands in the mid-19th century, but also British India.

The novel’s gem or centerpiece started with Flashman’s arrival in Jhansi and ended with his escape from the siege at Cawnpore. Mind you, I was impressed by other passages in the novel:

*Flashman’s frightening encounter with Ignatieff and a Russian assassin at Balmoral

*Flashman’s lustful last moments with his wife Elspeth and her feather fan

* Flashman and an Irish wannabe hero named Thomas Henry Kavanaugh’s hilarious journey through the streets of war torn Lucknow in an attempt to contact British military forces

*Flashman’s terrifying moments with the British artillery at Gwalior

Earlier, I had mentioned how Fraser gave readers glimpses of the 1857-58 uprising not only from the viewpoints of Flashman, other Britons and loyal Indians, but also from those who had fought against the British. This was very apparent in the passages that featured Flashman’s impersonation as a sepoy in Meerut. Fraser gave readers a solid peek into the sepoys’ discontent and suspicions toward British regard for their beliefs – feelings that eventually to their uprising. In the following passage, Fraser described the Meerut sepoys’ refusal to drill with the new Enfield rifles with its infamous greased cartridges:

It wasn’t the most tactful thing to say, to that particular sepoy; I thought Sardul would go into a frenzy, the way he wept – but he wouldn’t touch the cartridges. So it went, along the line; when the end had been reached only four other men out of ninety had accepted the loads – four and that stalwart pillar of loyalty, Flashy Makarram Khan (he knew his duty, and which side his bread was buttered).

So there it was. Carmichael-Smith could hardly talk for sheer fury, but he cussed us something primitive, promising dire retribution, and then dismissed the parade. They went in silence – some stony-faced, others troubled, a number (like old Sardul) weeping openly, but mostly just sullen. For those of us who had taken the cartridges, by the way, there were no reproaches from the others – proper lot of long-suffering holy little Tom Browns they were.”

After surviving the outbreak of the uprising in Meerut, Flashman return to Jhansi for safety and discovered that another sepoy rebellion had occurred at its British cantonment. Flashman, Ilderim and a few other Ghazi (Afghan) soldiers decided to head for the British cantonment at Cawnpore. Once more, Flashy’s bad luck reared its ugly head when he and his companions discovered that the sepoys had revolted there, as well. However, the British commander at Cawnpore – General Hugh Wheeler – had foreseen a possible revolt by the sepoys and made plans to create a makeshift garrison for the British community (military and civilian), Eurasians and loyal Indians. Fraser painted a detailed description of Wheeler’s command at Cawnpore. But his description of the sepoys’ attack on June 23, 1857 really blew my mind:

”They were re-forming, a bare hundred yards off; the ground between was littered with dead and dying beasts and men. I had barely time to gulp a mouthful of warm, muddy water and seize my musket before they were howling in at us once more, and this time there were pandy infantrymen racing behind them.

‘One more volley!’ bawls Wheeler. ‘Hold your fire, there! Aim for the horses! No surrender! Ready, present – fire!’

The whole wall blasted fire, and the charge shook and wavered before it came rushing on again; half a dozen of them were rearing and plunging up to the entrenchment, the sabres were swinging about our heads, and I was rolling away to avoid the smashing hooves of a rider coming in almost on top of me. I scrambled to my feet, and there was a red-coated black devil leaping at me from the parapet; I smashed at him with my musket butt and sent him flying, and then another one was at me with his sabre, lunging. I shrieked as it flew past my head, and then we had closed, and I was clawing at his face, bearing him down by sheer weight. His sabre fell, and I plunged for it; another pandy was rushing past me, musket and bayonet extended, but I got my hand on the fallen hilt, slashing blindly; I felt a sickening shock on my head, and fell, a dead weight landed on top of me, and the next thing I knew I was on my hands and knees, with the earth swimming round me, and Wheeler was bawling.”

Ironically, one of my favorite passages featured some of the rebelling sepoys’ reaction to encountering their former commanders, following General Wheeler’s decision to surrender to their new leader, the Nana Sahib. I personally feel that it featured some of Fraser’s best writing:

”Four mutineers were hurrying up and down the untidy convoy, calling out and searching, until they spotted Vibart and his family – and then they ran hallooing and calling ‘Colonel sahib! Mem-sahib!’, and seized on the family’s baggage, and one of them, beaming and chuckling, lifted Vibart’s little lad on to his shoulders, piggyback, while the others shouted and shoved and made room for Mrs. Vibart in a wagon. Vibart was dumbfounded, and two of the mutineers were weeping as they took his hand and carried his gear – I saw another one at it, too, an old grizzled havildar of the 56th, standing on the entrenchment gazing down into the ruin of the barracks with tears running down his white beard; he was shaking his head in grief, and then he would look no more, but turned about and stared across the maidan, still crying.” 

Despite the grim tone of the novel’s subject, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” featured some hilarious moments. I had already pointed out a hilarious scene that involved Flashman traveling through the streets of Lucknow with an Irish hero wannabe named Kavanaugh. Two of them included quotes made by Flashman’s Afghan friend, Ilderim. While they were still in Jhansi, the Ghazi not only commented upon Flashy’s successful womanizing, but also mocked the British officer’s stubborn belief in Lakshambai’s alleged affection for him:

”Ilderim glanced at me witheringly, and bit his nail in scorn.

‘Bloody Lance,’ says he, ‘ye may be the bravest rider in the British Army, and God knows thou art no fool – but with women thou art a witless infant. Thou hast coupled this Hindoo slut, hast thou not?’

‘Damn your impudence –‘

‘I thought as much. Tell me, blood-brother, how many women hast thou covered, in thy time?’ And he winked at his mates.

‘What the devil d’you mean?’ I demanded.

‘How many? Come, as a favour to thy old friend.’

‘Eh? What’s it to you dammit? Oh, well, let’s see . . . there’s the wife, and . . . er . . . and, ah-‘

‘Aye – ye have fornicated more times than I have passed water,’ says this elegant fellow. ‘And just because they let thee have thy way, didst thou trust them therefore? Because they were beautiful or lecherous – wert thou fool enough to think it made them honest? Like enough. This Rani has beglamoured the – well then, go thou up and knock on her palace gate tonight, and cry “Beloved, let me in.” I shall stand under the wall to catch the pieces.’”

But one of the funniest moments focused upon Flashman acting as a native escort for a red-haired British widow named Mrs. Leslie at Meerut, out for an afternoon ride. Apparently, the attractive lady had developed a lust for our hero, not realizing that he was a British officer impersonating an Afghan-born sepoy:

”’You Pathans are not truly . . . Indian, are you? I mean . . . in some ways you look . . . well, almost . . . white.’

‘We are not Indian at all, mem-sahib,’ says I. ‘We are descended from the people of Ibrahim, Ishak and Yakub, who were led from the Khedive’s country by one Moses.’

‘You mean – you’re Jewish?’ says she. ‘Oh.’ She rode in silence for a while. ‘I see. How strange.’ She thought some more. ‘I . . . I have Jewish acquaintances . . . in England. Most respectable people. And quite white, of course.’

Well, the Pathans believe it, and it made her (Mrs. Leslie) happy, so I hurried the matter along by suggesting next day that I show her the ruins at Aligaut, about six miles from the city; it’s a deserted temple, very overgrown, but what I hadn’t told her was that the inside walls were covered with most artistically-carved friezes depiciting all the Hindoo methods of fornicating – you known the kind of thing: effeminate-looking lads performing incredible couplings with fat-titted females. She took one look and gasped; I stood behind with the horses and waited. I saw her eyes travel round from one impossible carving to the next, while she gulped and went crimson and pale by turns, not knowing whether to scream or giggle, so I stepped up behind her and said quietly that the forty-fifth position was much admired by the discriminating. She was shivering, with her back to me, and then she turned, and I saw that her eyes were wild and her lips trembling, so I gave my swarthy ravisher’s growl, swept her up in my arms, and then down on to the mossy floor. She gave a little frightened moan, opened her eyes wide, and whispered:

‘You’re sure you’re Jewish . . . not . . . not Indian?’

Han,mem-sahib,’ says I, thrusting away respectfully, and she gave a contented little squeal and grappled me like a wrestler.”

The novel also featured more memorable incidents and moments – including Flashman’s reunion with his old classmate and fellow prisoner-of-war, Harry “Scud” East that proved to be at first, caustic, and later, bittersweet; and his terrifying experience at being mistaken for a rebellious sepoy, following General Hugh Rose’s victory at Gwalior. But . . . there were a few flies in the ointment, so to speak. One, the last third of the novel seemed like an aftermath following Flashman’s experiences at Jhansi, Meerut and Cawnpore. He spent most of that period as an intelligence staff officer or as a prisoner of the Rani of Jhansi.

Speaking of the Rani, she and Flashy had a curious conversation about the British Empire, and also the differences between British and Indian customs that left me baffled. I found myself wondering why Harry Flashman, of all people, would go to such lengths to defend the Empire and the British way of life to an Indian queen. Mind you, I am certain that he had nothing against it, being both patriotic and racist. But why did it mattered so much to him that Lakshambai agree with his opinion on the joys of the British rule? One could say that he was simply doing his job. Yet, there was something about Flashman’s responses that made him look like an over earnest schoolboy. Especially when one considers that despite his patriotism, the Empire has kept Flashy from England and safety more times that he care to remember. The entire conversation . . . or should I say Flashman’s responses to the Rani’s objections against the Empire rang false and out of character for me.

Another problem I had with ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” turned out to be the presence of Count Nicholas Ignatieff in the story. Granted, he seemed just as ruthless as he had been in ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”. But aside from his attempt to get Flashman killed at Balmoral, his presence in the story seemed rather weak. Almost unnecessary. Ignatieff did have an opportunity to torture Flashman in the dungeon beneath the Jhansi palace. But Lakshambai cut short the torture session, made Flashman her prisoner and Ignatieff permanently disappeared from the story.

Despite these minor flaws, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” is still a magnificent historical novel. Fraser filled his story with enough different elements – drama, action, comedy, terror, tragedy and suspense – that allowed it to become one of the most well written novels I have ever read. Through Flashman’s eyes, the author left me laughing, breathless and surprisingly enough, in tears. In fact, I find it surprising that the novel never won any literary awards. A shame, really. For I believe that it certainly deserved a great deal of them.

“FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) Book Review

“FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) Book Review

Serving as the fourth entry in George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers, this 1973 novel continued the story of Harry Flashman, a character previously from the 1857 novel, “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” and now a British Army officer in Fraser’s novels. This particular novel, “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, recalled Flashman’s experiences during the Crimean War (1854-1856) and Imperial Russia’s expansion into Central Asia. 

One could say that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” could almost serve as a prequel to Fraser’s 1975 novel about the Sepoy Rebellion, “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Almost. But it seemed quite obvious to me that the latter is a sequel to the 1973 novel. At least two supporting characters from this novel reappeared in “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And the theme of Imperial Russia’s attempts to wrestle control of India from Great Britain in the 1975 novel, began in this novel.

The 1973 novel began with Harry Flashman enjoying the London social scene with his beautiful wife, Elspeth. With Great Britain on the brink of war against Russia on Turkey’s behalf, the cowardly Flashman believed that the only way to avoid combat was to have his Uncle Bindley secure him a post with the Board of Ordinance – the British Army’s armory. However, Flashman’s luck failed to hold (not surprisingly) and his meeting with the young German prince, William of Celle (a relation of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) led him to become a staff galloper for Lord Raglan, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief. The new position drew Harry against his will into the chaos of the Crimean War and in becoming a participant of one of history’s most infamous cavalry engagements – the Charge of the Light Brigade. This famous military action also led him to becoming a prisoner-of-war at the estate of a Cossack nobleman named Count Pencherjevsky

At Count Pencherjevsky’s estate, Starkosk, Flashman has a reunion with a former Rugby schoolmate, Harry “Scud” East. After the two English prisoners learned of Russia’s plans to invade India and kick the British out, they decided to make their escape following a serf uprising at Starkosk. Unfortunately for Flashman, a sleigh accident led to his recapture by the Russians and a political officer named Count Nicholas Ignitieff. Flashy’s incarceration at Fort Raim led him to an acquaintance with two famous Muslim freedom fighters from the state of Kokodad, Yakub Beg and Issat Kutebar. Luck finally caught up with Flashman, when he and his two new acquaintances are rescued by Yakub Beg’s mistress, Ko Dali’s daughter, and a band of Kokodans. Following the rescue, Harry participated in one last action against the Russians against his will . . . so to speak.

I must admit that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” turned out to be a well-structured and well-written novel. Unless I am mistaken, the novel was written into three parts – the London prelude, Flashman’s Crimean War experiences that included his time as a prisoner-of-war at the Starkosk estate, and finally his incarceration at Fort Raim and experiences with the Kokadans. Fraser began the novel on a strong note and finished it in a similar manner. My only sole complaint centered on Flashman’s journey to Starkosk and his time at the estate. In short, it seemed to me that the sequence threatened to bog down the pace. I suspect that Fraser’s in-depth look into Imperial Russian serfdom during this sequence is responsible. As much as I found it interesting, I also wondered if Fraser got caught up in his subject, which would seem ironic considering his failure to explore American slavery in the 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. As much as I had enjoyed Flashman’s time spent with Count Pencherjevsky and his family on the Starkosk estate, no one felt more relieved than me when he and “Scud” East finally escaped, thanks to a serf uprising. I had become rather weary of Flashman’s period as a prisoner-of-war.

Despite some of my problems with the novel, I cannot deny that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” is a well-written novel. Fraser did an excellent job in recapturing London during the early and mid 1850s and Great Britain’s pro-war mood on the cusp of the Crimean War. He also expertly drew readers into the world of the British Army during the first months of the war. His description of the Army caps and hospitals at Alma just before the Battle of Balaclava literally had me cringing in my seat a bit:

“So the siege was laid, the French and ourselves sitting down on the muddy, rain-sodden gullied plateau before Sevastopol, the dismalest place on earth, with no proper quarters but a few poor huts and tents, and everything to be carted up from Balaclava on the coast eight miles away. Soon the camp, and the road to it, was a stinking quagmire; everyone looked and felt filthy, the rations were poor, the work of preparing the siege was cruel hard (for the men, anyway), and all the bounce there had been in the army after Alma evaporated in the dank, feverish rain by day and the biting cold by night. Soon half of us were lousy, as some wags said, who’d holiday at Brighton if he could come to sunny Sevastopol instead?”

Another memorable passage featured Flashman’s participation in the Light Brigade Charge. Fraser did a superb job in describing not only the Battle of Balaclava, but particularly the Light Brigade Charge. I found his description of the famous military charge filled with heady action, chaos and terror – especially from Flashman’s point-of-view:

“I had only a moment to look back – my mare was galloping like a thing demented, as I steadied, there was Cardigan, waving his sabre and standing in his stirrups; the guns were only a hundred yards away, almost hiddenin a great billowing bank of smoke, a bank which kept glaring red as though some Lucifer were opening furnace doors deep inside it. There was no turning, no holding back, and even in that deafening thunder I could hear the sudden chorus of yells behind me as the torn remnant of the Light Brigade gathered itself for the final mad charge into the battery. I dug my heels, yelling nonsense and brandishing my sabre, shot into the smoke with one final rip from my bowels and a prayer that my gallant little mare wouldn’t career headlong into a gun-muzzle, staggered at the fearful concussion of a gun exploding within a yard of me – and then we were through, into the open space behind the guns, leaping the limbers and ammunition boxes with the Russians scattering to let us through, and Cardigan a bare two yards away, reining his beast back almost on its haunches.”

However, one of my favorite chapters in the novel featured Flashman and the Kokordans’ attempts to destroy the Russian gunboats filled with weapons to be used against the Kokordans and the invasion of India. Before this battle took place, Ko Dali’s daughter drugged the cowardly officer with hashish (bhang) in order to force him to overcome his fear for the operation. The scene of the cowardly Flashy acting like George Armstrong Custer on crack struck me as one of the funniest passages in the entire series:

“God, what a chaos it was! I was galloping like a dervish at Kutebar’s heels, roaring ‘Hark forrard! Ha-ha, you bloody foreigners, Flashy’s here!’, careering through the narrow spaces between the sheds, with the muskets banging off to our left, startled sleepers crying out, and everyone yelling like be-damned. As we burst headlong onto the last stretch of open beach, and swerved past the landward end of the pier, some stout Russian was bawling and letting fly with a pistol; I left off singing ‘Rule, Britannia’ to take a shot at him, but missed, and there ahead someone was waving a torch and calling, and suddenly there were dark figures all around us, clutching at our bridles, almost pulling us from the saddles towards a big go-down on the north side of the pier.”

George MacDonald Fraser did take historical liberties with one particular character – the novel’s main villain, Count Nicholas Ignatieff. The author described the Russian character in the following manner:

“And as our eyes met through the cigarette smoke I thought, hollo, this is another of those momentous encounters. You didn’t have to look at this chap twice to remember him forever. It was the eyes, as it so often is – I thought in that moment of Bismarck, and Charity Spring, and Akbar Khan; it had been the eyes with them, too. But this fellow’s were different from anything yet: one was blue, but the other had a divided iris, half-blue, half-brown, and the oddly fascinating effect of this was that you didn’t know where to look, but kept shifting from one to the other.

For the rest, he had a gingerish, curling hair and square, masterful face that was no way impaired by a badly-broken nose. He looked tough, and immensely self-assured; it was in his glance, in the abrupt way he moved, in the slant of the long cigarette between his fingers, in the rakish tilt of his peaked cap, in the immaculate white tunic of the Imperial Guards. He was the kind who knew exactly what was what, where everything was, and precisely who was who – especially himself. He was probably a devil with women, admired by his superiors, hated by his rivals, and abjectly feared by his subordinates. One word summed him up: bastard.”

The above passage described Flashman’s opinion of Ignatieff during their first meeting on the road to Starkosk. They met for the second time, when Flashman and “Scud” East overheard Ignatieff, Czar Nicholas I and other Russian officials discuss plans to invade India during a secret meeting at Starkosk. And their third and final encounter happened after Flashman was recaptured, following his escape from Starkosk and attempt to reach the British lines on the Crimean peninsula. It was Ignatieff who tossed Flashman into the prison at Fort Raim. From what I have read, the real Ignatieff had never been quite the villain as portrayed in “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”. Fraser even admitted that he taken liberties with the character in order to provide the novel with a main villain. Mind you, I believe he could have done that a lot easier with a fictional character. Why he had decided to take a historical figure and change his character in order to make him an effective villain is beyond me.

After reading “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, it is easy to see why it remains very popular with many fans of Fraser’s novels. It is a well written comic-adventure tale filled with interesting characters – fictional and historical. The novel also featured two very unique passages, namely the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade and the usually cowardly Flashman behaving in a brave and aggressive man during a major battle. “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” also happened to be one of those rare Flashman novels that began and ended on a strong note. Not only does it remain popular with many Flashman fans, I personally consider it to be one of Fraser’s better works.

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

I have read several novels about the historic event known as the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-1858 (aka The Indian Mutiny, or aka the First War of Indian Independence). And the main characters in each novel have been British. I have not seen one movie about the event. And after seeing 2005’s ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”, I still have not seen one movie about the Sepoy Rebellion. But this is the first movie I have seen that touches upon the subject. 

Actually, ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is really a prelude to the Sepoy Rebellion itself. Directed by Farrukh Dhondy, it is based upon the life of Mandey Pandey, an Indian sepoy (soldier) of the British East India Company, who served as the catalyst for the 1857-58 rebellion. The movie began with Pandey facing execution for violently protesting against the use of new rifles issued by the East India Company. Pandey, along with his fellow soldiers believe that the rifles’ cartridges have been greased by animal fat – beef, pork or both. Since many Hindus and Muslims view this as an abhorrent, they consider the cartridges an insult to their religious beliefs. Pandey’s conflict with the Company (East India Company) rule also manifests in a few violent clashes with an aggressive and bigoted British officer named Hewson. In the end, not even Pandey’s friendship with his company’s sympathetic commander, Captain William Gordon, can save him from being convicted and executed by the regimental commander. His execution eventually inspired other sepoys to view him as a martyr and continue the major revolt against British rule he has instigated.

I have been aware of ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” for nearly two years – ever since I read about it on theWikipedia site. But I never thought I would get a chance to view it, until I discovered that Netflix offered the movie for rent. And if I have to be perfectly honest, it is a pretty damn good film. However, it is not perfect. I suspect that it is not historically accurate. This does not bother me, considering that most historical dramas are not completely accurate. However, I have one minor and one major complaint about the movie. My minor complaint centered on the occasionally melodramatic dialogue of the British characters. Aside from Toby Stephens, who portrayed William Gordon and Coral Beed, who portrayed the daughter of the regimental commander, Emily Kent; I was not that impressed by the British cast. I found them rather hammy at times. However, I had a real problem with the occasional musical numbers that interrupted the story’s flow. The last thing I wanted to see in a costumed epic about a historical figure are three to five minute musical numbers. They seemed out of place in such a film.

But if I have to be honest, there was one musical number that did not interrupt the story’s flow. It featured a dance number in which a group of courtesans – led by a woman named Heera. Heera’s performance attracted the drunken attention of Pandey’s main foe, Lieutenant Hewson. And Pandey found himself in a fight against the British officer to prevent the latter from pawing and sexually assaulting Heera. But that was simply one of many interesting dramatic scenes featured in ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”. Another featured a tense moment in which Pandey attempts to help Gordon convincing the other sepoys that the cartridges used in the new rifles are not greased with animal fat, by loading the rifle. However, this action backfires when Pandey eventually becomes convinced that he had been wrong. But the cartridges and Pandey’s reaction to them turn out to be the tip of the iceberg in the conflict between the growing resentment of the sepoy and the British rulers.

Although most of the movie centered on the dark aspects of the British Empire, it did touch upon one aspect of Indian culture with a negative note – namely the funeral practice of sati. Pandey and Gordon had saved a young Indian widow from the sati funeral pyre and Gordon spent the rest of the film saving her from being killed by her in-laws. However, the movie is about Mangal Pandey and the negative aspects of British imperial rule by 1850s India. The movie featured the corruption generated by the East India Company’s production of opium in India and its trade in China. The movie also featured the continuation of the slave trade in which Indian women are used as sexual slaves for the Company’s officer corp. This introduced one the movie’s major characters, the courtesan named Heera, who bluntly expressed her view on the Indian male population who willingly sign up to serve the East India Company’s army. When Pandey expressed his contempt toward women like her for selling their bodies, she responded with equal contempt at all of those who ”sold their souls” to the East India Company. All of the resentment over British rule and the distrust regarding the new Enfield rifles and the greased cartridges finally spilled over in an ugly encounter between Pandey and Lieutenant Hewson. Their second encounter became even uglier when Hewson and a group of fellow officers pay Pandey a visit at the regiment’s jail to brutally assault the imprisoned sepoy even further. Violence finally spilled over when Pandey convinced the other sepoys to mutiny. And after he is executed, the mutiny at the Barrackpore will inspire other sepoys throughout many parts of India to rebel against British rule.

I was not exaggerating when I say that most of the performances by the British cast members came off as over-the-top. A prime example was Ben Nealon’s portrayal of Pandey’s main nemesis, Lieutenant Hewson. One could say that Nealon was at a disadvantage from the start. His character was just as one-dimensional as many non-white characters that could be found in old Hollywood movies with a similar setting. However, Coral Beed, who portrayed Emily, the daughter of the Barrackpore commander, fared better. In a way, Emily came off as another cliché from the British Imperial literature of the 20th century – the young, open-minded English girl who is not only sympathetic to the Indians, but also interested in their culture. But Beed managed to portray this cliché without coming off as a second-rate version of the Daphne Manners character from 1984 miniseries, ”THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN”. Fortunately, most of the Indian cast did not engage in hammy acting. However, there was one exception – the actor who portrayed the “Untouchable” sweeper who mocked Pandey for demonstrating the new Enfield rifle. I do not know his name, but gave the hammiest performance in the entire movie. I felt as if I was watching an Indian version of a court jester perform. Perhaps that was director Dhondy’s intent. If it was, it did not work for me. However, I found myself very impressed by Rani Mukherjee’s performance as Pandey’s love interest, the courtesan Heera. Mind you, I found the idea of a devout Hindu like Pandey becoming romantically involved in a prostitute – especially one used to service British officers hard to believe. But I must admit that Mukherjee and actor Aamir Khan (who portrayed Pandey) had a strong screen chemistry. And the actress did give a very charismatic performance.

Finally we come to the movie’s two lead actors – Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens. And both actors gave superb performances. Aamir Khan is considered one of India’s biggest stars. He is at times compared to George Clooney. Well, he deserves the comparison. Not only is he a handsome man, but he also possesses a dynamic screen presence and is a first-rate actor. And he did an excellent job of developing Mangal Pandey’s character from the loyal sepoy who seemed to be satisfied with his life, to the embittered rebel whose actions instigated a major uprising. Khan conveyed this development with great skill and very expressive eyes. Toby Stephens was equally impressive as the British East India officer, Captain William Gordon. One might find his character a little hard to digest, considering that he is portrayed as being very sympathetic to the Indian populace and their culture (save for the sati ritual) with hardly any personal flaws. Fortunately, Stephens is skillful enough as an actor to rise above such one-dimensional characterization and portray Gordon as an emotionally well-rounded individual.

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is not perfect. It has its flaws, which include some hammy acting and questionable historic accuracy. But its virtues – an interesting and in-depth study of a man who made such an impact upon both Indian and British history; superb acting – especially by the two leads Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens; and a rich production made it a movie worth watching. It is rare for a Westerner to view or read a story relating to the Sepoy Rebellion from the Indian point-of-view. I am aware that other movies, novels and history books have focused on the topic from a non-British POV. But “MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” was my first experience with this point-of-view and I believe that director Ketan Mehta and screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy did a pretty solid job.