Saturday, February 7, 2015

King of the Khyber Rifles

Today at lunchtime I had the opportunity to watch King of the Khyber Rifles on FXM Retro. It's on again tomorrow morning at 8:45 PM, and is worth a watch if you haven't seen it before.

The setting is British India in 1857, which for those of you who didn't study India in any of your high school history classes was the year of the Sepoy Mutiny (among other names). Indeed, just after the opening credits we get a scene of one of the hill tribes in the northwest of India (now the northwestern part of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan) ambushing a group of British soldiers, led by Captain King (Tyrone Power). The ambush is repulsed, and King makes his way to the garrison where he's been stationed as part of his new orders.

Controversial wouldn't be the right word to describe Capt. King, but he's certainly not the most popular person in the military. That's because of his parentage. His father was British and stationed in India, where he met and fell in love with one of the natives, a Muslim woman in Peshawar. This led hi mother's family to disown her, and led his father's family not to like him, either. The two of them were both killed in an uprising in 1833 (watch for the anachronism of photographs of the two), and the only person who would take them in was a wealthy Muslim businessman, who when his biological son and foster son grew up, abandoned everything to become an imam. Hassan, the biological son, fled for the mountains and became Karram Khan (Guy Rolfe), the man leading the rebel forces in this area of India.

Meanhwile, back at the garrison, King meets his new commander, General Maitland (Michael Rennie). Maitland has an adult daughter Susan (Terry Moore), who has followed her father out to the middle of nowhere because otherwise we wouldn't have a major plot point. Susan falls in love with the good Capt. King, and in many ways the feeling is mutual even if King doesn't exactly express his feelings for her. Of course, there's no way Susan can ever have Capt. King because of the ethnic differences: King is "half-caste" (cue that Cher song), and Dad simply won't let her marry him.

I mentioned at the beginning that there's a rebellion coming, and that's what drives the last third of the movie. The British are set to get a shipment of a new, more technologically advanced rifle. However, to operate the rifle, solders have to bit the end off the cartridges. Rumor spread that the cartridges used grease that was based on beef or pork fat, which would be anathema for the non-cow-eating Hindus, and especially out of bounds for the Muslims who couldn't use any pig products. At least, that's the rumor that spread among those who were working under the British; Karram Khan's rebels had no such rumors and wanted the rifles for their own use. (There really was such a rumor; Karram Khan is wholly fictional.) King tries to kill Khan himself basically by deserting, and when that doesn't work is eventually allowed to lead a group of natives who take on Khan and his forces in a climactic final battle.

King of the Khyber Rifles breaks no new ground, having a fairly predictable plot of material that we would have seen in a whole bunch of westerns, only with the action transplanted to 19th century India. Indeed, a lot of the exteriors look like they could have been the locations for a traditional western. Still, the movie is entertaining enough. I only wish FXM could get a better print. The opening and closing credits are in the correct Cinemascope aspect ratio, but the rest of the movie has been panned and scanned to about a 5:3 ratio. Not 4:3 for old TVs or 16:9 for modern TVs, but something in between (I actually measured). The sound also sounds all wrong, echoic in many scenes as thouh it was obviously added in post productoin, even for some exterior scenes that could have been done on a sound stage. And some of the scenes suddenly change to having a slightly greenish hue.

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