Archive for May 24, 2021

Think of India

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2021 by dcairns
It’s actually quite hard to find shots favouring Dean Stockwell’s face in this film where he has the title role…

It’s definitely a mistake to watch MGM’s KIM (1950) right after reading Kipling’s novel, but it would also be a mistake to watch it before reading the novel. So probably the best thing is not to watch it at all.

The three screenwriters have actually done a passable job of compressing and adapting a book that has several aspects that render it tricky. Kim ages from aged ten to at least fourteen, and the change in him is remarked upon by others. Still, Dean Stockwell was around fourteen and manages to suggest a fairly ambiguous age. Also in the book, Kim both speaks and thinks in more than one language. The writers manage to quasi-suggest this without ever showing it.

The most overt distortions have come in the service of Errol Flynn, preposterous casting as a Sunni Muslim Pathan, but given the lack of Indians in speaking roles, not really that preposterous compared with everything else. But now they have to give his character more leading man action stuff to do — they kill off Hurree Chunder (Cecil Kellaway, the only one who dares attempt any kind of Indian accent — his role was clearly intended by Kipling for Sydney Greenstreet, or would have been if the actor had been a bit older than 21 when the novel appeared, and if Kipling had been thinking of casting white folks as Indians in a movie version back in 1900) to give Flynn’s Mahbub Ali more to do. He obliges by chucking somebody off a cliff and then starting a rockslide.

All that I can kind of overlook, and I think you could just about make a passable Hollywood KIM even with all those changes. The numerous location shots are a help, even when they’re just used as rear projection fodder…

What I can’t forgive is the terrible flatness. Andre Previn seems to be asleep (maybe it’s the heat) — he provides a bit of martial splendor (absent in the book) but remains unstirred by scenes of nominal suspense. Director Victor Saville is one of very few Brit directors to go to Hollywood and totally give up any attempt at achieving cinema. His standard mode is the flat two-shot, and I do mean FLAT.

Dean Stockwell shows signs of being quite capable of playing his role, but I don’t think he’s been guided, and the camera doesn’t encourage us to consider Kim’s emotions as particularly important. You need Hitchcockian POV/reaction shot stuff to bring the character alive. It’s a bit like Bobby Driscoll in Disney’s TREASURE ISLAND — he’s a little powerhouse, not subtle but capable, but he’s under orders to emasculate every scene by playing it as a cheerful romp (Stevenson’s novel is a horror story).

Who the hell is this meant to be? He narrates the film, but the even credits don’t explain.

The biggest casualty of Saville’s disinterest is the Lama, played by a miscast Paul Lukas in his dullest manner. We get a voiceover — provided by some unexplained Indian — TELLING us that Kim grows to love the Lama, but the scant, desultory interactions depicted in flat and distant style give us nothing of this. I suppose it’s a typical Hollywood mistake to privilege the violent action stuff at the expense of character and spirituality, but there are plenty of movies of the time that do get this right. If Frank Borzage had been in charge, both the relationship and the religion would have come through strongly: Borzage believed, as does Kipling (speaking as Mahbub Ali), that all spirituality is a way to truth (Borzage would have insisted on kindness as a necessary tool). And he was at MGM!

Although Kim isn’t an easy book to film, it does have a number of very strong cinematic scenes. These are all either absent or ruined by Saville’s clumsy handling, except for the hypnosis bit, played by one of my favourite underused actors, Arnold Moss — the book is 100 times more powerful, and provides visuals that any competent director ought to have seized upon, but the material is so strong and Moss plays it so well that Saville actually wakes up very slightly and it becomes fascinating.

One weird thing: I’d seen bits of the movie as a kid, and now I understand why I was bored. No child focus. But I do recall the cliffhanging bit, and when I got to this passage in the book, describing the plunge — “No need to listen for the fall — this is the world’s end,” it rang a strong bell and I assumed the line appeared in the film. It SHOULD, but it doesn’t. I have this FALSE MEMORY of hearing the line as a kind and thinking “Is that TRUE?” Maybe I heard a similar line elsewhere. The child’s brain is strange — as Kipling knew.