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August 01, 2009

North West Frontier

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J. Lee Thompson - 1959
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

On the occasion of J. Lee Thompson's 95th birthday.

Can anyone confirm if North West Frontier began as a project for John Ford? The story is credited to Ford's son, Patrick, and there is a screenplay credit to frequent Ford collaborator Frank Nugent. The final screenplay is credited to Robin Estridge, yet the influence of John Ford can not be denied. At the very least, the film can easily be described as Stagecoach in 1905 India, with a railroad car. Instead of cowboys and indians, we have the British and Hindus fighting Muslims who are trying to murder a six year boy, a Hindu prince, primarily because of his symbolic importance. The basic comparison to Stagecoach is announced when someone mentions how each of the passengers is representative of differing philosophies. Of course the title would make most immediately think of a western.

Granada, Spain substitutes for the part of India that is now Pakistan. The mountains and plains are don't have the same majesty as Monument Valley but are as much a part of the story just as the environment played a role in The Searchers. Had the boy prince had a more significant part in North West Frontier, Thompson's film might have made an interesting companion piece to Ford's Indian adventure Wee Willie Winkie. The Muslims are like the Native Americans, even in some of Ford's films, colorful, but anonymous warriors. At the same time, there is not the total endorsement or sense of nostalgia regarding British rule. Neither the film's sympathies, nor the film's villain, are difficult to identify.

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The film that really had me reconsidering J. Lee Thompson was also about a wartime journey, Ice Cold in Alex. Alex is Alexandria, Egypt, and the movie can almost be summarized as being about John Mills driving across the desert to get a frosty glass of beer. There's more to the film than that, with Mills, Sylvia Syms, Harry Andrews and Anthony Quayle fighting an uncompromising environment and Nazis, with a traitor among them. That film, made a year previously, is almost a warmup for the bigger budget, Cinemascope and color North West Frontier. Not considered worthy of a paragraph by Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, J. Lee Thompson was at his critical peak fifty years ago, competing against himself at the BAFTA awards with both North West Frontier and the arguably better Tiger Bay, the film that launched the career of Hayley Mills.

J. Lee Thompson would probably get a better critical evaluation were his British films more easily available on DVD. Even on British DVDs, Thompson gets short shrift. Most of the films currently on DVD have some kind of entertainment value. At a time when directors with far bigger budgets and more sophisticated equipment seem incapable of putting together decent action sequences, J. Lee Thompson's craftsmanship looks better in comparison. Taras Bulba may not be what Gogol imagined, and Mackenna's Gold did not recapture the magic of the team that made The Guns of Navarone, but are still fun to view. And if we can be honest for a moment, critical stature and Robert De Niro's muscled arms aside, there's no way one can say Martin Scorsese really improved upon Cape Fear.

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Posted by peter at August 1, 2009 12:14 AM