Empire Film: fleeing the North West Frontier on a steam-powered metaphor
Empire Film is an occasional series in which I write about the imperial meanings (whether intended or accidental) of films from across the decades, during the age of empires and into the present day.
North West Frontier was a box-office smash, becoming one of the most popular films in Britain in 1959. This was despite a distinctly mixed critical reception: while some reviewers enjoyed it well enough as an unsophisticated adventure story, many vehemently criticised its depiction of the British Empire and found it thoroughly out of date. Derek Hill wrote in the Tribune (October 16th, 1959) that it was “an appalling film”, while Nina Hibbin of the Daily Worker (October 10th, 1959) attacked it as “an absolutely flabbergasting burst of bare-faced jingoism”. As these divergent responses suggest, this film – an old-fashioned Empire yarn released into a decolonising world – offers much to unpack in the way of imperial symbolism and geopolitical anxieties.
‘Rebel fanatics’ and a dilapidated train to safety
The basic narrative is simple, even – in its liberal use of movie conventions – rather lazy; its similarity to the plot of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) cannot be coincidental since Patrick Ford, his son, was on the writing team… Reminiscent of the famous western, North West Frontier sees an unlikely assortment of individuals thrown together by the necessity of fleeing danger on the sole available means of transport – in this case a dilapidated old train – and enduring many tribulations before their eventual (and inevitable) triumphant arrival at their destination.
Set in 1905 during a tribal rising on the famed border region of India, North West Frontier begins with Captain Scott (Kenneth More) being charged with the task of escorting six-year-old Prince Kishan (Govind Raja Ross) to safety deep inside British territory. A rather self-important opening voiceover tells us that “rebel fanatics are gathering in the hills” with the aim of killing the young Hindu prince, placing events very firmly in the (otherwise unexplained) context of Hindu/Muslim divisions.
The fictional town of Haserabad comes under siege by the entirely generic rebels, but Captain Scott – having immediately been established as our almost omnipotent English hero – naturally devises a way to escape with the prince. He finds a rather neglected old steam train that can be rigged up to break out of the city gates and reach safety in the distant city of Kalapur. Besides Prince Kishan and his American governess (Lauren Bacall), Scott will be accompanied by the Governor’s wife Lady Windham (Ursula Jeans), a senior British civil servant named Bridie (Wilfrid Hyde White), Gupta the engine driver (I. S. Johar), and two Indian soldiers who the filmmakers have apparently decided not to burden with either names or characters.
In addition, two other passengers manage to bully and bluster their way on board: an arms dealer named Peters, and a journalist called Van Leyden; with the casual xenophobia typical of the era, the audience is left in no doubt that these two are not to be trusted, being continental Europeans… Peters is shown to be a coward, and Van Leyden is both very annoying and disrespectful of the British Empire and its earnest servants.
Recycled Alex and a hoarse metaphor
Besides the basic narrative similarity to Stagecoach, eager cineastes will note that the director, J. Lee Thompson, used precisely this dynamic as the set-up for Ice Cold in Alex, his film of only the year before: plucky Brits (plus others of lesser importance) depending on an unpredictable means of transport to get them through enemy territory to safety. However, whereas I suggested previously that in Ice Cold in Alex one is tempted to view the rickety old ambulance as symbolic of the British Empire in the years after the Suez Crisis, the steam train in North West Frontier practically screams itself hoarse as a metaphor.
Named ‘Empress of India’ (we are shown the lovingly polished brass nameplate on its rusty boiler by way of introduction – see film clip), the engine is familiarly addressed as ‘Victoria’ by Gupta the engine driver, presumably to drive the connection home to the audience. Significantly, Queen Victoria had of course died in 1901, making the train symbolically obsolete even when the action takes place, never mind 1959 when the film was released.
Captain Scott and Gupta must carefully coax this knackered machine along, constantly fretting about steam levels and mechanical crises, as well as facing blown up tracks and hazardous bridges. All of this seems distinctly representative of the condition of the Empire at the end of the 1950s… To be clear, I am not arguing that the producers of the film were making a case against the British Empire; they were recognising – wittingly or unwittingly – that in 1959 the Empire was on its last legs but was somehow still going, or perhaps, less positively, that it was just about still going but was undeniably falling apart…
Revealing admissions of decline
One crucial difference between this film and Ice Cold in Alex is that in North West Frontier, the characters are actually fleeing ‘British’ territory – they are escaping part of the British Empire over which control has been lost. This may not be intentionally symbolic on the part of the filmmakers since it goes completely unremarked and unexamined. This simple fact, however, seems very revealing at a time when decolonisation was beginning in earnest.
Although the film abounds with simplistic tropes and imperial certainties, these are also challenged. Lady Windham at one point voices the clumsy kind of arrogance that scriptwriters typically give colonial ladies: “half the world mocks us, and half the world is only civilised because we have made it so”. This statement is, however, countered by Van Leyden, who also later tells Lady Windham that he is not anti-British, “I merely sympathise with small minorities fighting the aggression of big nations…”
Moreover, Van Leyden has a revealing contretemps with Captain Scott, after they come across an ambushed train to find that ‘the rebels’ have slaughtered hundreds:
Captain Scott: “Go on, have a look… and see what happens when the British aren’t around to keep order!”
Van Leyden: “Keep order? You? You divide. You set Muslim against Hindu… You divide in order to rule, that’s what you do… You call this keeping order?!”
In what amounts to an important admission of defeat, Captain Scott – professionally obliged to have all the answers as the officer in charge – has literally no response. He merely looks glum as the ruling capacity of the Empire is savaged (and by a continental European, no less!).
These moments, in which anti-imperial arguments are at least aired, make me think that J. Lee Thompson was straining to impart a liberal message into what was nonetheless unavoidably a mainstream film. As Steve Chibnall points out in his biography of the director, Thompson identified as very left wing at the time, so we can safely conclude that his own views worked their way in.
However, this remains firmly a studio picture, a product of the system, and the Empire strikes back. Van Leyden is the only character who voices some sensible anti-colonial views, so he is killed off… In a thoroughly unconvincing plot twist, he is revealed as a Muslim agent who is out to kill the young prince. Captain Scott and Van Leyden consequently fight, and the latter is shot dead during a remarkably clichéd high-stakes combat on the roof of the train. This marks a brutal end to the director’s liberal views, and the triumph of the prevailing system.
A geopolitical consummation devoutly to be wished
In the context of 1959 and the new status of the United States as Top Nation, it is highly significant that it is Lauren Bacall (as the American governess, the widowed Catherine Wyatt) who shoots Van Leyden, thus saving Captain Scott. This must surely have been very meaningful to a 1959 cinema audience, most of whom had recently lived through the Second World War, in which the USA came to Britain’s aid.
Of all the relationships in the film, this is the most important, and is invested with a symbolic weight that becomes embarrassing. Interestingly (and with a certain obsequiousness to the new global leader), Mrs Wyatt is shown from the beginning to be highly knowledgeable about Indian politics. In discussion before the train journey, she even demonstrates greater understanding of tribal alliances than an old duffer of a British general. She is frankly spoken and enjoys ribbing Captain Scott and the other Brits about their imperial anxieties, as well as their fondness for tea. Early in the film, she says that “the British never seem to do anything until they’ve had a cup of tea, by which time it’s too late…”. Later, when Scott asks her to make him some tea, she offers him the coffee already prepared, “or would that bring the Empire crashing down around us?”.
Given Mrs Wyatt’s estimable qualities (not to mention Lauren Bacall’s great beauty), it feels very much like geopolitical wish-fulfilment when the film contrives a romance between her and the stalwart Captain Scott. It does not strike the viewer as an alliance of equals; though Kenneth More is a fine actor, in reviewing the film the Observer felt moved to point out (October 11th, 1959) that “he isn’t particularly handsome, brilliant or romantic…”. Despite these limitations, and her teasing about his earnest colonial endeavours, we see them grow closer as the film progresses; at the end, when the young prince has been safely delivered to Kalapur, Scott and Mrs Wyatt walk off together, arm in arm (rather oddly, to the strains of an instrumental version of the Eton Boating Song). In thus uniting Briton and American in an unequal but apparently genuine romance, this feels awkwardly like a plea to the United States not to forget its distant cousin.
North West Frontier is full of lazy imperial tropes that strive to perpetuate old ideals of Empire even at a time when they were rapidly diminishing in force. The most pertinent interpretation, however, lies in this plaintive appeal to the new global paramount power. In this, it says a great deal about British perceptions of the world as the age of empires was drawing to a close.
North West Frontier, 1959, directed by J. Lee Thompson and produced by Marcel Hellman for the Rank Organisation. Colour, 124 mins.
Steve Chibnall, J. Lee Thompson: British Film-Makers, 2013