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Candidates for the National Film Registry: King of the Khyber Rifles
Introduction by Brian Taves
Some films in the historical adventure genre dealt with areas relevant to the contemporary world, especially those depicting the impact of imperialism and the creation of empires. These movies began to proliferate in the the 1930s, and over time have included such classics as THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER, THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936), GUNGA DIN, BEAU GESTE, STANLEY AND LIVINGSTONE, THE WIND AND THE LION, KING SOLOMON'S MINES, and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING; many were made in England, such as SANDERS OF THE RIVER, THE FOUR FEATHERS, and KIM; and there were even depictions of the American role in colonial endeavors, such as THE REAL GLORY.
Like most classical film genres, in adventure a fictional world is constructed with little relation to the actual facts of imperialism. "The white man's burden" in the empire adventure was presented as a form of service, portraying the colonial system as a way to protect imperiled natives from domestic and foreign enemies, bringing peace and justice to a land where both are endangered. Rebellions are invariably more evil than the status quo, led by those whose goal is not to promote liberation or the best interests of their people but to substitute themselves as the replacement for the colonial master.
While offering many racist undercurrents in portraying imperialism and eastern characters, adventure movies have long satisfied a desire for escape, becoming one of the principal avenues for presenting views of foreign cultures (however warped) and distant lands to curious and receptive audiences. The western heroes do not look on the east and its culture or races as inferior--and if they do, their attitudes are corrected. In empire adventure, there is no sense of "never the twain shall meet"; east and west have already met and intermingled through the colonial activity, and many Europeans and natives live side by side. There is frequent intermarriage with local citizens, and interracial love receives favorable treatment, in contrast to its treatment in melodrama. The heroes of colonial adventure films are inevitably those individuals who best understand and adapt to the land in which they live, adjusting to the unique circumstances of the culture and bringing together people of all races. On the other hand, exotic locales are most often used as backgrounds to familiar stories; actual entry into foreign cultures is limited, and the audience perceives the story through the viewpoint of its surrogate, the Western representative of empire in the movie.
The genre is sufficiently flexible to allow for only a lukewarm endorsement of colonialism or questioning of its political effects, a tradition going back at least to 1928 and the notable production of WHITE SHADOWS OVER THE SOUTH SEAS. However, this theme only became established after World War II, as films began to reflect the crumbling of western empires in Africa and Asia and recognition grew of the pernicious effects of imperialism and its attendant racism. The first major film signpost of these changes was KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES (1953), set in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, a conflict that had rarely been treated in films up to that time. The story centers on a character of Eurasian ancestry, Captain Alan King (Tyrone Power), who falls in love with an English girl, Susan (Terry Moore), the daughter of the outpost's commander, General Maitland (Michael Rennie)--providing an opportunity for exploring racial attitudes in a colonial setting. Focusing on a relationship between a half-caste and a white girl was, in the early 1950s, an original cinematic theme, and KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES was unique for presenting it in adventure.
KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES explores King's personal difficulties as he tries to find his own social position, living in uneasy suspension between the world of the native and the foreign sahibs, torn between them; only the adventurous experience can resolve his status. Prejudice against King emerges because of his parentage; fellow officers refuse to be billeted in the same quarters, and he is conspicuously not invited to the queen's birthday ball. The stress is not simply on his courage but more on the numerous challenges he must face in daily living. A social outcast at the fort, King is most secure in the home of his adopted father, Hamid Bahra, a Moslem holy man; the picture was originally to end with King returning to Bahra before joining Susan.
KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES has a lone hero and none of the emphasis on military camaraderie, or the careless, Boys' Own tone to be found in such films as GUNGA DIN. Authentic details of Indian atmosphere convey a sense of accuracy, such as the rumors that the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles are greased with pig's fat, simultaneously offending Moslem and Hindu alike. King must use his unique appeal as a fellow native to lead the Khyber Rifles in an attack on Khan's encampment. At the last moment, King's men resolve not to use the rifles but offer to follow him using their knives. The imperial conflict is between men who are sons of India, whether Kurram Khan and his followers or King and the Khyber Rifles. Yet KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES ultimately evades the question of the desire for Indian independence, through depicting Kurram Khan's leadership as far more ruthless and dictatorial than British rule.
King is in a unique position; his half-caste status, negotiating between British and Indian with a knowledge of both, enables a British victory, establishing not just his equality within the fort but also his eligibility to marry Susan. The British outpost offers the hero the only world where his merits can win recognition, partaking of both sides of his ancestry by following in his father's military footsteps. King's birthplace and home are India, not England, and though he may serve the British, he does so for the distinction such duty may bring through association with a respected unit like the Khyber Rifles. King secures greater respect than is accorded to white officers like Maitland.
While utilizing many of the incidents and motifs of THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER, THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, GUNGA DIN, and other such movies, KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES also sums them up, providing both a commentary and a decisive new turn. KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES brings Indians to the forefront, honoring the native traditions while still treating heroes and villains according to standardized genre patterns. While clearly an adventure of colonial India in the classical mode, KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES represents a fundamental shift to an awareness of its own conventions, allowing the film to be watched today more easily than many other adventures of a similar vintage.
KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES was the fourth picture shot in Twentieth Century-Fox's new widescreen process, CinemaScope, and it was widely acclaimed as the the first picture whose action fully justified use of the anamorphic lens. Fox's directing "King" was assigned to it: Henry King, a sixty-seven year old veteran whose career stretched back to the teens, and was a personal favorite of Zanuck as well as a close friend of leading star Tyrone Power. Power, tired of playing action roles, disliked KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES, and by then was more interested in unusual, challenging character roles. Unfortunately, Zanuck wanted to use Terry Moore, who was already under contract, as the leading lady, a role she sought assiduously despite being completely miscast in the part. Zanuck was enthusiastic about shooting KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES in Lone Pine, and Henry King agreed that a location trip to India was unnecessary, and the California locale substituted so well that many reviewers believed that at least portions of the picture had been shot in India. Producer Frank Rosenberg selected Bernard Herrmann to write the score, hoping for and receiving something more exotic and less intrusive than the type of martial music Alfred Newman had written for previous Henry King-Tyrone Power adventure films at Fox. KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES was widely touted as Fox's Christmas release, becoming a box-office hit, and it is still popular on television.
M/B/RS staff member Brian Taves earned his Ph.D. in cinema-television from the University of Southern California and is the author of The Romance of Adventure: The Genre of Historical Adventure Films (University Press of Mississippi, 1993) and other books.
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