As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
Henry King was a reliable workhorse for Fox for most of his career: thirty years of it. He was there before the Fox Film Corporation merged with Twentieth Century. He brought skill and sensitivity to his work, and certain of his films, particularly those centered around a sentimental but sincere love of Americana, are real works of Hollywood art.
He became the third director to tackle CinemaScope with King of the Khyber Rifles (1953), a very loose remake of John Ford's The Black Watch (1929). By now, though little in the way of a working theory existed on effective use of widescreen, certain problems were becoming apparent: composing for the (extremely) wide frame, finding reasons to cut without jarring the audience, interpolating close-ups. Some of these, in reality, were only perceived problems: we now know that you can cut rapidly in the 'Scope format.
King was never a great one for experimenting with form in any avant-garde kind of way, not that that was any guarantee of success with anamorphic filming: Jean Negulesco, a talented cartoonist as well as a filmmaker who sometimes tried extraordinary techniques, did not come up with anything revolutionary for the same year's How to Marry a Millionaire, other than having the actors play as many of their scenes as possible lying down to fit the frame. But King, given plenty of action sequences and spectacular settings—India, played by itself and by the Alabama Hills and the Sierra Nevada mountains—triumphs with a movie that feels fluid and comparatively modern, unconstrained by its new format.
True, there are dialogue scenes plagued by the "laundry line" composition that bedeviled early 'Scope films: actors standing shoulder-to-shoulder like overstarched drying shirts. One actually has a rope running frame to make the comparison explicit.
But what helps him keep the thing moving is that it's all-too-obviously a relocated western, with the Khyber Rifles playing the Seventh Cavalry and the Indians played by actual Indians. Well, semi-actual: the only real Indians in the cast play servants and one dancing girl. Hollywood movies about this time and place tend to be colonial fantasies in the Gunga Din tradition, but this one has some interesting ambiguity and critique. Frequent King leading man Tyrone Power plays an officer, half-English and half-Indian Muslim. Disregarding the racial inappropriateness, Power's "black Irish" roots make him physically quite convincing, though how his character acquired an American accent, even when speaking "the lingo," is never explained.
King strikes me as a conservative, but a kind-natured and gentlemanly one, and he embraces the script's most interesting material, with Power playing a man fighting for a side that doesn't respect him. Power, usually cast in swashbuckling adventures, could rise to the occasion if offered more interesting material, and this film delivers both the statutory rousing action and more thoughtful moments. Power always excelled when called upon to suggest inner turmoil: a shame King can't bring himself to move closer to those dark, tortured eyes as exchanges like this occur:
Power: "What about the natives in British uniform?"
Smug officer: "They're just better dressed. Between ourselves, a native doesn't change color when he joins up."
Surrounded by petty prejudice, Power's King is stoic but troubled, which means that Bernard Herrmann's score, suitably epic and stirring in the big scenes, can turn tragic and ominous or haunting in more intimate moments. There's also a very light mystical side—the author of the source novel, Talbot Mundy, had made a real study of Indian religious thought, and though most of his book was flung out in the standard Hollywood way, moments of curious magic remain, as when Power recalls a man "so wise he could imagine a stick with only one end." Completely baffling, with no context in the movie, but all the more intriguing for its suggestion of a line of inquiry not pursued.
Leading lady Terry Moore, the film's other American, is terribly miscast as an English miss, and her director seems to have either ignored her or led her astray: when a Rabble-Rousing Prophet announces that Allah can call down death to the British just as he, the R.-R.P. , calls down birds, Moore reacts delightedly to the birds and ignores the death threat, which makes her character an astonishing nitwit. You can practically see the dialogue coach mouthing, "Remember, round vowels!" whenever she speaks. When Power says, "It's been torture being close to you," yeah, we kinda know what he means. There's a hint that she may becomes a pawn to be fought over at the climax, but the film finds a more dignified resolution, exiling her altogether until seconds before fade-out, but leaving the love story/miscegenation threat unresolved: the coward's way out.
We also have that supreme wooden Indian, Michael Rennie, so good as a space alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still, hopeless at suggesting anyone more local. He's a stick with only one end. He's playing a British commander so his inherent stiffness has an alibi, but the film would benefit from more humanity. "It's a bit stuffy in here," protests Moore, and for once we empathize.
When the film details Brits overcoming cultural prejudice to show compassion to the King/Power character, it's genuinely touching: he's barred from the officers' club for racial reasons, so Moore seeks him out on the occasion of a ball, and they enjoy an alfresco waltz in the twilight, beautifully photographed by Leon Shamroy (Leave Her to Heaven, The Girl Can't Help It).
A historical farrago of the old school, the film makes use of a genuine incident, a triumph of propaganda, in which the British Raj's Indian soldiers were driven to mutiny by a rumor that the new Enfield rifle's bullet casings were greased with pig fat. Since loading a rifle required the casing to be licked, and the pig is regarded as an unclean animal, the soldiers no longer felt able to obey orders. The movie triumphs over fact by having Power lead his riflemen in a daring commando raid armed only with kukri daggers.
The bad guys are led by the grinning, lanky Guy Rolfe (Mr. Sardonicus himself) in brownface, a thigh-slapping melodrama villain, and their nastiness is suggested with some lurid descriptions of the tortures they perform. I see this as a Kingian technique: the horrors of war in Twelve O'Clock High are suggested less with shadows and offscreen mayhem or screams or gore, but with the careful use of specific, frightening language.
Though the backstory of Rolfe and Power being close friends, almost brothers, does not attain the suggestiveness of Ben-Hur, the climactic tent scuffle does feature both men wrestling in their undershirts over and around Rolfe's bed, so there's that.
A fun matinee, a historical snapshot, a moment when cinematic craft is attempting to encompass a technical change: and you can see the film changing from fluid, cinematic action to stiff, flat dialogue, even within the same shot.
A terrible beauty is not quite born.