North West Frontier (1959) dir. J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Kenneth More, Lauren Bacall, Herbert Lom
By Alan Bacchus
If you haven't brushed up on your history or geography, the title of this film might suggest a western, perhaps set in the snowcapped Rockies. In fact, North West Frontier refers to the contentious Muslim province of India, now Pakistan, once ruled by the British during their colonization of the country. It's a fresh environment for what turns out to be an underappreciated rediscovery, a near masterpiece of classic action cinema.
It's the turn of the century and the palace of a six-year-old Hindu Maharaja has just been overrun by a group of Moslem rebels. With his coterie of caretakers, British officer Captain Scott (Kenneth More) leads the survivors on a journey to a secure military base on a ramshackle locomotive engine. For fans of action and epic cinema, how can you not be intrigued by a story that takes place entirely on a train armed with a rotating automatic machine gun and people on the run from an army of horseback riding, gun-toting rebels set in India?
Before he hacked out all those atrocious Charles Bronson pictures in the '80s, J. Lee Thompson, a prolific director of action/thrillers such as Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, shows the inspiration of youth in 1959. He shoots the majority of the film on an actual train through the real landscape of India. Perhaps influenced by the on-location realism of David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai, Thompson's cinemascope action is unencumbered by stagy process shots or studio fakery — an integrity and authenticity that is not lost on today's eyes.
Tagging along with Scott and the young prince are a number of warm and conflicting characters that make the non-action scenes more than tolerable. Lauren Bacall is a commanding presence, not to mention stunning, as the free-spirited American widow who, when not protecting the boy, quarrels with Scott about the differences between Americans and the British. The smarmy Dutch journalist, Van Laydan, played with wonderful Peter Lorre-esque creepiness by Herbert Lom, is the unknown traitor within the group. It's not all imperialist heroism though, as the affable train engineer, Gupta, emerges as a courageous hero.
But it's the razor-sharp action and focused plotting that keeps this film on the rails. Politics are kept to a minimum (Thompson never leaves his heroes), and the train never (or rarely) stops moving. In fact, when the train does stop, the quiet stillness makes for a handful of scenes of remarkable Hitchcock-worthy tension. Like other recent MGM releases, it's a no frills, menu-less release. No matter, we don't need Peter Bogdanovich analyzing this one; we should just be happy to have this minor cinematic revelation on DVD.
This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca