Think of India

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.

11 Responses to “Think of India”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    After his many underage performances (“Gentleman’s Agreement” is my favorite) Dean Stockwell went on to enjoyed great adult career (his performances in “Compulsion” and “Paris Texas” are marvelous). He is still with us. Once when asked what his reaction would be if his children wanted to act he said he’s build them a theater in the backyard.

    Bobby Driscoll was Disney road-kill. He died a drug addict buried in Potter’s Field.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Saw KIM on ITV decades ago and also found it leaden. What about some more cinematic tales from the Raj, David? Sabu movies come to mind. You could also suggest a mini-series for the BBC with Priti Patel introducing each film! This gem comes to mind, although it is set in England.

  3. Sabu would have made a great Kim, even though the boy is genetically Irish. If Paul Lukas can play a Tibetan Buddhist, badly, Sabu ought to have been allowed to play Irish.

    I like Gunga Dun a lot, acknowledging its problematic aspects, and Huston’s film of The Man Who Would Be King is even more astounding now that I’ve read the story. I’ll write something about that one.

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    If Iron Eyes Cody can play a native American, why not? Also,

  5. I should point out that Stockwell is still with us at age 85, and is thus “Live Stockwell” rather than “Dead Stockwell.”

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    Another blending. Well if Jean Simmons can play a voluptuous Indian in BLACK NARCISSUS…

  7. My friend Lawrie Knight claims it was part of his job to wash the brown makeup off Jean in the bath after filming. Not sure why she couldn’t manage herself… Sabu wanted that job for himself but had to settle for impregnating the stand-in.

    Jack, thanks, will correct!

    Kim also features Rodd Redwing playing the wrong kind of Indian… but he’s considerably less wrong than Cecil Kellaway et al.

  8. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King is the only great movie to come from Kipling. It’s weird because in his autobiography, Huston comes across as more imperialistic than the actual movie he made suggests (maybe the screenwriters contested him on that or the producer, or that autobiography was ghost-written and cobbled by some assistant who ventriloquized stuff to his boss he didn’t say).

    Kipling’s entire output is predicated on an aesthetic attempt to justify British imperialism and the British in India. There’s really no getting around that. His stories work best when his love for genre and desire to entertain overwhelms his ideology (which happens in The Man Who Would Be King). KIM for instance is part adventure coming-of-age, and part training manual and warning that Kim shouldn’t fully “go native” and forget that he’s supposed to govern Indians as a British spy. I mean there’s an ambiguity and tragedy hidden in that something which David Lean and Robert Bolt more fully dramatized and realized in Lawrence of Arabia which was about the British fetishization and exoticization for other cultures, grounded in compassion and intellectual curiosity (and personal desire) corrupted by imperialism. The real life Lawrence I believe was a huge fan of Kim, and Kim Philby the eventual traitor was also named after Kim. And the novel was a favorite of Post-War CIA planners, so it’s got a weird paradoxical legacy, inspiring neurosis, treachery, and new empires.

    The best film ever made about the British Raj overall is THE CHESS PLAYERS (Shatranj ki Khilari) by Satyajit Ray. It has Richard Attenborough as General Outram in a brilliant turn as a Machiavellian British general, and it’s a very critical look at the Indian aristocracy’s total collusion and failure to protect India from colonialism. So politically and artistically, it’s about the only decent film made from either perspective. (“Black Narcissus” isn’t really about the Raj. But it’s a great film. “The River” is great but it’s not really a political film either way). Everything else (Gunga Din, Bhowani Junction, Jewel of the Nile) is various kinds of imperial or post-imperial kitsch.

  9. The Chess Player has Attenborough trying out the Scottish accent he’d use again in Jurassic Park — but the accent deteriorated a bit in the intervening years.

    Huston was a writer but he hated writing. He thanks William Reed at the start of his book, a professional hack writer on many subjects. So I suspect An Open Book is an “as told to” deal — it certainly sounds like Huston.

    Huston calls his characters heroes, but I don’t think he’s endorsing their imperialist aspirations, just the courage and earnestness with which they pursue them, even though they’re a pair of scoundrels. Kipling is similar, or at least can be read similarly. It’s not necessary to support the Raj to enjoy Kim’s adventures, any more than you have to support MI5 to like James Bond. And I think Kipling is remarkably even-handed about Kim’s identity crisis…

  10. David Ehrenstein Says:

    And leave us not forget India Song

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