This is, to my mind, something of an underrated classic. Not just of railway cinema, although it is that, but of cinema in general. Outwardly, it appears to be a standard stiff-upper-lip Boy’s Own adventure film. However, it quickly reveals itself to have a conscience, balancing action and philosophy beautifully.
The story is set, as you may have gathered, on the North West Frontier of colonial India in 1905. When the film opens, Hyderabad is under siege as the Frontier erupts in bloody civil war. The only hope is for Captain Scott (Kenneth More) to get the six-year-old Prince Kishan (Govind Raja Ross) and his governess (Lauren Bacall) to Kalapur. Unfortunately, the last train has gone.
Fortunately, there is one engine left – a wheezing, ancient Beyer-Peacock tank engine affectionately known as Victoria. Our heroes are joined by a crew of refugees and soldiers, including Herbert Lom as the troublemaking journalist Van Lyden.
Note that the tagline here makes the film sound far more rubbish than it actually is, and also makes no sense.
And so it is that they cross three hundred miles of wilderness coming up against sabotage, ambush and treachery along the way.
What lifts this above many films of the genre is the fact that it’s highly critical of the British rule in India. It’s never as simple as soldiers versus badmashes, as is the standard for the British in India film in the west. We are given several points of view on the British rule in India, as well as the wider subjects of war, race, imperialism and politics, none of which are presented as “right”. Unsympathetic characters may make sympathetic points and vice versa – some of the likeable characters make points that these days feel somewhat cringeworthy, particularly a comment that the natives are “children” – a point swiftly refuted. Even the locomotive seems to switch sides occasionally.
The selection of characters underlines this imperial deconstruction. We are presented with a cross-section of colonial “types” – the career soldier, the critical journalist, the mercenary arms dealer, the mild-mannered administrator, the Imperial wife and the ordinary colonial subject. All are vividly drawn with a balanced amount of screen time.
The only criticism I’d make is that we don’t get much by way of the Indian perspective. Aside from the Prince, the only Indian character with a decent part is the engine driver, Gupta (played by I. S. Johar), who occasionally threatens to descend into “goodness gracious me” territory with his mangled English and eternal respect for the British. Nonetheless, Johar elevates the character beyond the caricature it could have been to give a performance that quite often steals the show. I would have liked a bit more screen time for the sepoys, two Indian characters permanently present on the train who never even get the luxury of names – I think that, as native soldiers working for the British Empire, they could have some interesting views.
J. Lee Thompson’s direction is superb, and despite being over two hours long, the film never flags. The camerawork is beautifully naturalistic, making full use of the landscape and sunlight. The sound, too, relies on naturalism for much of its running time – the silent scenes when the train comes to a stop are almost unbearably tense. It’s the sort of film that I’d love to see on the big screen.
I was somewhat surprised to discover that it was filmed in Spain, as the attention to detail in the recreation of Edwardian India is excellent. Any railway enthusiast will know how rare it is to come across accurate portrayals of railways on screen, so it’s refreshing to see the colonial Indian railway done so beautifully. The railway is well-used, too – the train is a place of safety, yet simultaneously vulnerable, a microcosm of society and even a character in its own right.
Overall, North West Frontier is a film worth watching on several levels. It’s an intelligent adventure movie that never forces its moral agendas down the viewer’s throat. Its relative obscurity is entirely unjustified, and regardless of your view on the subjects it covers, you will find something to maintain your interest.
Notes: The film was retitled Flame Over India for its US release. The film features the second-ever use of the Eton Boating Song for a train journey, the first being, of course, in The Titfield Thunderbolt.