In the isolated British outpost of Fort Kandahar on the North-West Frontier of British India during the mid-1850s, a British officer of mixed race parentage (Ronald Lewis) is discovered to have been conducting an affair with the wife of one of his white colleagues. The husband is subsequently murdered by Pathan bandits while the two men are out on a reconnaissance mission in the Afghan mountains, in search of a local mullah warrior who has been organising armed resistance to British rule. Already greatly mistrusted and despised by his racist superiors, and now rejected by his former lover (Katherine Woodville), officer Case is court marshalled on a trumped up charge of cowardice in the face of the enemy, for not staying to rescue his fellow officer from the bloodlust of the Gilzhai tribesmen, despite Case’s insistence that he was greatly outnumbered during the attack. He is found guilty and ignominiously discharged and given a sentence of ten years confinement, which is unsparingly handed out by Colonel Drewe (Duncan Lamont), his superior. After escaping into the surrounding mountains, Case himself falls into the hands of the anti-British bandit leader Ali Khan (Oliver Reed) and his conniving but beautiful sister Ratina (Yvonne Romain) and is greatly tempted by the wily leader’s offer of revenge against Drewe and his prejudiced cohorts in return for his help in Khan’s war plans against the British occupation, as the warlord plots to organise the disparate tribes of the region into a fighting force that aims to storm and destroy the fort …
This second of two rare Hammer Productions from the mid-1960s, both directed by John Gilling and each making their welcome debut on DVD courtesy of Studio Canal UK, continues in the historical ‘rip-roaring’ adventure mode set by “The Scarlet Blade” -- and like that film, it also stars Oliver Reed, though this time in more dubiously exotic circumstances and with surprisingly less screen time (despite second billing). “The Brigand of Kandahar” is a particularly low budget, studio-bound offering relying on the always economical but effective production design and art direction of Bernard Robertson and Don Mingaye, and some dramatic but obvious painted backcloths, shot with the colourful cinemascope photography of Reg Wyer (“The Night of the Eagle”) at Ealing Studios, with intent to bring the Boy’s Own romance of the North-West Frontier campaigns of the mid-19th Century to the screens of contemporary moviegoers.
Despite being better known today for his association with Hammer’s much-loved horror output, as well as that of the producers Robert Baker and Monty Berman, Gilling was always proficient in the adventure film genre and had already been closely involved in the making of several epics during the 1950s, that revolved around traditional tales of soldering exploits and adventure heroism, set at the height of British Imperialism in India during the reign of Queen Victoria. There may well be an element of expediency in the fact that Gilling was drawn back to this period at least twice more over the course of his involvement in adventure films: in 1956, he had been one of two second unit or associate directors on a fairly lavish production called “Zarak”, helmed by future Bond director Terrence Young, co-produced by Albert R. Broccoli and starring Victor Mature and Anita Ekberg (and introducing a dashing young actor called Patrick McGoohan to the screen). The film included extensive, large-scale and lavishly mounted battle footage involving plentiful extras and dynamic cavalry charges, which Gilling may well have been involved in organising in his capacity as associate director. In any case, a few years later, in 1959, he was promoted to the director’s chair for another feature by the same production company, Warwick Film Productions; it also starred Victor Mature, and this time was co-scripted by Gilling with the writer of “Zarak”, Richard Maibaum -- the screenwriter who was later to adapt the lion’s share of Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories for the big screen. “The Bandit of Zhobe” was a similarly-themed work, once again set in the bandit-infested mountains of the North-West Frontier in the 1800s, but it was able to save on money by reusing sets and battle footage from the much more lavish “Zarak”
This was evidently a lesson well-learned and remembered by Gilling when, ten years later, he came to make “The Brigand of Kandahar” for Hammer. The film appears to have been a project which the writer-director developed and pitched to Hammer producer Anthony Nelson-Keys (whose first film as producer for the company had been Gilling’s “The Pirates of Blood River”) mainly on the strength of its inherent cheapness. Gilling adapted the screenplay from his own story idea, so was able to tweak it to allow for the incorporation of large amounts of the same panoramic battle footage he’d previously overseen for Young on “Zarak” (shot in luxurious Cinemascope by Bond cinematographer Ted Moore) into an ultra-cheap Elstree production that was otherwise confined to a handful of studio sets. The result does open the film out considerably, but also makes it look even more like one of Lew Grade’s ITC filmed adventure series of the 1960s, which often relied extensively on library footage to augment the illusion that sets built on the lot at Ealing Studios belonged to a variety of exotic locales.
The opening title card of “The Brigand of Kandahar” apparently sets the events of the film in the year 1850, seven years before the Indian Rebellion which led to the establishment of direct rule from Britain of half of the Indian subcontinent, overseen by the British Raj in place of the then independent East India Company, which had previously been solely responsible for policing and all governance of the region. However, the tone and setting of Gilling’s story, and the ostensive subject matter, makes it seem more of a piece with the sorts of tales of daring-do and romanticised imperialist nobility that began to fill popular magazines aimed at young people at home in the late 1890s, when British fears over Russian expansionism on the Indian borders made the country and its North-West Frontier of strategic importance in British defensive plans, much to the chagrin of the highly independent and disparate Islamic clans and tribes-people that lived in these mountainous regions around the border of Afghanistan.
The subsequent campaigns and wars in the region were well documented by war reporters and artists who accompanied red coated British lancers and sepoys on many of their sorties at just around the time when a multitude of boys’ magazines appeared on the scene, filled with inspiring tales of daring-do, and with patriotic inculcation and instruction in the responsibilities of imperial rule. One of the principle periodicals of this type was the self-explanatory “Boy’s Own Paper” -- but one glance at the titles of some of the others, tells you all you need to know about what sort of values these papers aimed to instil in their youthful readership: penny periodicals such as “Chums”, “Pluck” and “Union Jack” were packed with the dashing exploits of plucky soldering heroes of the British empire bringing civilisation to exotic, noble, but half-crazed and cruel bandit thieves and ‘mad mullah’ fanatics. Exciting adventure stories by the likes of G.A. Henty and contemporary poems such as Kipling’s 1889 ‘The Ballad of East and West’ and Sir Henry Newbolt’s ‘He Fell Among Thieves’ extolled the virtues of the brave, courageous, Indomitable British lancer and emphasised the faithful service of loyal sepoys, while also imbuing the region and its inhabitants with a romanticised orientalist’s view of frontier exoticism, bringing the cult of the noble warrior to the forefront of the popular imagination and instilling fear and suspicion at the intransigence of these mad mullahs in the mountains and their ruthless, war-like ways.
This patriotic adventure story format seems perfectly suited to the Hammer aesthetic, with its bright vivid colours and formulaic plotting; all those painted studio backdrops can’t but help add to the comic book feel of the material, even if that wasn’t exactly their intention. On the surface “The Brigand of Kandahar” adheres to the conventions of its ‘Boy’s Own’ origins, although Gilling seems to have been attempting to address rather more ambitious concerns once you get past the chronic racial stereotyping and browned-up bit player natives that inevitably turn up in any film made during this period. The mid-‘60s saw a vogue in Britain for all things Victoriana, and a fascination in the vanished Imperial past and empire of the country. The film “Zulu”, with Stanley Baker and Michael Caine had been released the year before this, and although mounted on a much bigger scale (Hammer’s humble effort looks hopelessly stagy in comparison) nevertheless gave a fairly straight, patriotic account of British pluck under fire in its account of “The Battle of Rorke’s Drift. So it’s interesting that Gilling’s film aims to be a lot more ambivalent in regard to its depiction of the attitudes and methods of the British officer class, in what is essentially a story that’s still trying its best to look like a classic tale of the genre, filled with romance, native exoticism and wild, untamed passions.
For a start, the western occupants of fort Kandahar are not exactly the most sympathetic bunch: Duncan Lamont’s Colonel Drewe exemplifies the bigotry and ruthlessness which is often whitewashed from accounts of heroic deeds done in the name of British colonial exploits. Gilling’s story has him condemning Ronald Lewis’ character on little more than a vague suspicion that his mixed race birth makes him untrustworthy, setting up the antipathy between the two characters that is set to drive the narrative for the rest of the film. Upon hearing that the outlawed British soldier is loose in the mountains, training Ali Khan’s men in British battle formations, his response -- ‘a savage will always return to his own kind’ – brings that inherent racism out into the open. Drewe sets about destroying villages, rounding up locals and even threatening to execute completely innocent peasants in front of their families in order to get them to talk and reveal the location of Khan’s hideout. The film is unflinching here in its portrayal of the British forces as brutish monsters. Drewe’s relentless racist authoritarianism (‘on the open plain, one lancer is worth twenty Gilzhai’) implicates everyone around him. Similarly, even Katherine Woodville’s supposed heroine, Elsa, is not left blameless. She seems eager to accept the prejudiced account of Case’s actions with regard to his alleged desertion of her husband under native fire, even though her long standing affair with the soldier would have presumably made her a much better judge of his character than his accusers. It’s hard not to see her rejection of him once he’s threatened with court martial as little more than a reputation-saving exercise, since beforehand, one of Drewe’s officers, Captain Boyd (Inigo Jackson), had threatened to expose the affair if she did not immediately break it off, as well as force Case to resign his commission.
The trouble is, the film is caught between attempting to fulfil its remit as rousing patriotic action adventure, tinged with eastern romance, and trying to question the racism that lurks behind the imperialism that gave birth to this form of narrative in the first place. Gilling is never quite able to resolve the conflict, leading to an unsatisfactory structure and unconvincing character development. Oliver Reed finds himself cast in the traditional role of exotic, blacked-up turbaned villain. Ali Khan (the name evokes the historical figure of Ayub Khan, an Afghan emir who defeated Anglo-Indian forces in the battle of Maiwand of 1880, but was defeated the same year during the battle of Kandahar) is exactly the kind of alluring, exotic, bejewelled wild man who could be found amongst the pages of traditional 19th century adventure literature: he’s a ruthless and untrustworthy warlord who enjoys forcing his own commanders to fight each other to the death simply for sport; but he’s also extremely charismatic and flamboyant -- commanding the loyalty of hundreds of otherwise disparate tribes-people.
Reed plays the character with the usual buccaneering swagger to be expected from such eastern caricatures. His role in the narrative is to tempt the previously loyal mixed-race officer, Robert Case, over to the side of the rebels who are plotting to storm the British fort outpost. Most of the film’s problems seem to stem from the unsatisfactory characterisation of this person who is meant to be the main focus of audience sympathy, for Ronald Lewis’s Case is a curiously passive central figure. The main problem is that we never got to see what really happened while he was out on that scouting mission with Elsa’s husband. He seems oddly untouched by the event of his lover’s husband’s death when he returns, and that seems to give some sort of initial credence to his superior’s suspicions, although we’re never given any real reason to doubt his story. A later plot development only serves to keep reminding us of this unresolved ambivalence, though.
When Case agrees to help Ali Khan’s men train in preparation for war against British forces, so long as Khan promises him that no civilian prisoners while be harmed once the fort has been occupied, it is hard to take seriously his immediate trust of a man who seems inherently duplicitous and who has obtained his leadership by murdering his own brother. Khan plays on Case’s ‘betrayal’ by Drewe and the British, encouraging him to believe (accurately) that he was never really accepted by them because of his mixed race. ‘You have no one left to fight for and no friends to return to,’ badgers Khan. Unfortunately, case is such a conflicted, divided figure, who seems to spend his entire time being manipulated and undermined by every side in the conflict, that the film’s more laudable intentions appear to get side-tracked by the plot’s insistence on emphasising the connection between Case’s mixed race and his divided loyalties – unwittingly playing to exactly the same prejudices that informed the attitudes of his accusers in the first place. When he comes to the attentions of Khan’s beautiful sister Ratina (Yvonne Romain), alongside the temptations of exotic romance between Case and she, the hero also gets embroiled in Ratina’s power play while brother Khan is conveniently away in Gaza rounding up more support. With his loyalties now divided three ways, it is, by this stage, hard to find much sympathy for a character who would allow himself yet again to be manipulated by someone who is clearly not to be trusted, and the subtext of the gravitational pull this exotic temptress appears to have on Case’s affections comes dangerously close to being a suggestion that his is a divided mind, drawn to Ratina’s eastern exoticism (which seems to go hand-in-hand with her sadism), as the end result of his own racial ‘dilution’. Hardly a progressive message.
Perhaps this passivity in the central character is the reason another male lead is suddenly introduced some way into the narrative, announced via a telegram sent from Pashawar. Jed Marriott (Glyn Houston) is a political correspondent from the London Times, who is assigned to cover British attempts to root out Ali Khan’s resistance in the mountains of Kandahar. He becomes a sort of mouthpiece for the film’s attempts to bridge the tricky gap that opens up between its portrayal of the British as often less than exemplary in their conduct, and the need to fulfil its function as a slice of dashing adventure romanticism, in which untrustworthy native fighters get up to dirty tricks against an honourable imperial adversary. The problem here is the transparent flimsiness of the resultant character. The plot contrives to have Marriott interact with both sides, at one point acting as an envoy for Case when the solder-turned-rebel offers safe conduct for women and children leaving the fort. Marriott remains devoid of personality though, and is a detached outside observer, occasionally delivering finely calibrated speeches designed to apportion the blame for Case’s conversion to rebel politics, placing it at Drewe’s door for his heavy-handed methods while exonerating the ordinary plucky lancers under his command. It can’t be overlooked that the film is full of white actors in black makeup playing racial stereotypes against a curiously un-ironic triumphalist, bugle-blaring adventure score of a backdrop by Hammer regular Don Banks. The film’s attempt to mix battle footage with small-scale studio-based skirmishes doesn’t come off too well, either. At one point Gilling even attempts to use some of the “Zarak” footage in a process shot, superimposing actors in-studio against Terrence Young’s action. The results are not pretty.
A compromised and unsuccessful attempt at a more thoughtful take on the romantic adventure genre though it is, one can’t deny the attractiveness of Reginald Wyer’s splendid photography and the usual exemplary job done by Bernard Robertson on the sumptuous production design, both of which, between them both, imbue the film with that special luminous quality found in almost all early- to mid-sixties Hammer product. The film exemplifies that particular style still associated with the Bray Studio days (although, as has been said, this one was shot at Elstree under the auspices of the associated British Picture Corporation) before the company finally moved out for good in 1966. “The Brigand of Kandahar” doesn’t really work or engage the viewer fully as a piece of adventure moviemaking, but it still has the allure of Hammer in its heyday, and for that reason will be looked upon with interest by all Hammer fans. This disc marks the film’s debut on DVD and it provides a particularly luscious 2.35:1 transfer with gorgeous colours and excellent definition. The mono audio is clear and robust also. You don’t get any extras unfortunately, but any chance to see a rare Hammer film is, of course, to be embraced without hesitation.
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