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North West Frontier (1959)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of North West Frontier (1959)
Cinemascope, 129 min, colour
Directed byJ. Lee Thompson
Production CompanyRank Organisation Film Productions
ProducerMarcel Hellman
ScreenplayRobin Estridge
CinematographyGeoffrey Unsworth

Cast: Kenneth More (Captain Scott); Lauren Bacall (Catherine Wyatt); Herbert Lom (Van Leyden); Wilfrid Hyde White (Bridie); I.S. Johar (Gupta); Ursula Jeans (Lady Windham); Ian Hunter (Sir John Windham); Eugene Deckers (Peters)

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India, 1905. A British soldier is assigned to protect a 6-year-old Maharaja's son and his American governess from Muslim rebels.

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Based on a story by one of John Ford's regular screenwriters, Frank Nugent, North West Frontier was seen by some contemporary critics as a sort of British Western about a group of disparate individuals heading for civilisation across a wilderness full of rampaging savages out to destroy them. In fact, it is closer in outline to J. Lee Thompson's war film of the previous year, Ice Cold in Alex (1958), which also involves a perilous journey across a hostile landscape and in which the danger might stem either from the enemy without or a traitor within the ranks. Like Alex, the film blends exciting action with a vitality of characterisation that allows for an exchange of ideas as well as hostilities.

Robin Estridge, brought in to stiffen the screenplay, skilfully allows all the main characters to have their say. The achievement of Empire is extolled by Ursula Jeans' Lady Windham, while Kenneth More's Captain Scott is the epitome of English fair play, a Kipling-quoting soldier apt to burst into a chorus of the 'Eton Boating Song' and dedicated to the maintenance of peace and orderly British rule. A lively counterbalance is provided by Lauren Bacall's feisty governess, who challenges British obeisance to political and patriarchal authority; she even has the effrontery to dislike tea. Eugene Deckers' Peters puts the pragmatic rather than patriotic case for the selling of arms ("Men make war, not guns"), but is eloquently opposed by Herbert Lom's half-breed journalist, whose fanaticism springs from personal conviction about the justice of his cause. Without endorsing his actions, writer and director give due seriousness to Van Leyden's point of view, and Lom's moving as well as menacing performance provides much of the film's dramatic weight.

Still, for all the thoughtfulness of its political argument, shrewdly balancing nostalgia for Empire with recognition of the necessity and inevitability of change, the film's resounding success was surely due to its expertly constructed suspense and the bravura of its action scenes. North West Frontier has a sense of spectacle and swagger that had scarcely been seen in British cinema since Alexander Korda's Imperialist epics of the 1930s. When Gregory Peck saw the movie, he recommended Thompson as a suitable replacement for Alexander Mackendrick when the production of The Guns of Navarone (1961) had stalled. What followed were international success and the lure - and loss - of a distinctive native talent to Hollywood.

Neil Sinyard

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Video Clips
1. The train massacre (6:51)
2. Eton boating song (1:51)
3. Crossing the broken bridge (2:36)
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Lom, Herbert (1917-2012)
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