North West Frontier (1959) starring Kenneth More, Lauren Bacall, Herbert Lom, Wilfrid Hyde-White, I.S. Johar, Ursula Jeans, Eugene Deckers directed by J. Lee Thompson Movie Review

North West Frontier (1959)   3/53/53/53/53/5

Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall in North West Frontier

A Different Ford, a Different "Stagecoach"

"North West Frontier" or "Flame Over India" or even "Empress of India" as it is also known, yes this movie has 3 different titles, was co-written by Patrick Ford, the son of legendary director John Ford. Why do I mention this, well because the storyline to "North West Frontier" has a similarity to one of John Ford's greatest movies "Stagecoach". We may be in India in the year 1905 rather than the Wild West but what the story is about is a group of people on a train, journeying through dangerous country. Along the way they have encounters with local rebels, an incident with the train and more importantly we get to know this small group of passengers. "North West Frontier" is by no means a great movie but interesting for basically transferring "Stagecoach" to another time and place.

With Muslim rebels rising up the North West region of India, Captain Scott (Kenneth More - The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw) of the British army is ordered to help a young Prince and his Governess Catherine Wyatt (Lauren Bacall - Written on the Wind) escape. Having managed to sneak the Prince out of the Royal palace just in the nick of time Scott, Wyatt and a few other passengers including gun salesman Peters (Eugene Deckers) and reporter Van Leyden (Herbert Lom - The Ladykillers) board an old train in the hope that they can get to safety. Along the way there is danger as they travel through rebel territory but maybe the danger is already aboard the train as the passengers discover things about each other whilst travelling together.

Herbert Lom as Van Leyden in North West Frontier

"North West Frontier" opens in semi dramatic style as we watch Captain Scott and Governess Catherine Wyatt risk their lives to help a young Indian Prince escape from the Royal palace just in the nick of time as rebels attack. It quickly sets the scene of political unrest as we learn all about an uprising by Muslim rebels making India not only unsafe for the young Prince but also for the British residing there. And after a quick series of scenes as Scott, Wyatt and the Prince escape we get to the main part of the movie which is them along with a small group of other passengers aboard an old train trying to make it to safety.

The drama which follows comes in two forms with the most obvious being the hazardous journey. On their travels there is difficulties with the train, drama surrounding replacing a blown up train line, a hazardous bridge crossing and of course the constant threat of the Muslim rebels coming over the hills to attack. It does feel like a western just transferred to another country but also different for that one simple fact. And to be honest the drama of the passengers trying to swap out damaged train tracks or cross a bridge which is crumbling is surprisingly exciting.

The other side of the drama comes from actually getting to know the different people aboard the train from the slightly eccentric Bridie to the villainous Van Leyden, a Dutch Muslim who as a reporter is known to stir up trouble. There is also Captain Scott and the Prince's governess Catherine Wyatt which less than surprisingly adds a romantic subplot and many more. Now the drama of these passengers is quite obvious as we come to suspect that one of them is no good and would like to kill the Prince and so it is just a matter of waiting for this drama to explode. But it does in quite spectacular fashion with a great moment of tension which makes the wait worthwhile.

And whilst "North West Frontier" does feel like a western shipped to another country it also comes across as comically British. By that I mean we have that sense of stiff upper lip as Captain Scott leads the passengers on their dangerous journey whilst Bridie is typically eccentric and naive. At times this humour feels very wrong, almost cheesy especially watching this movie now but it also lightens the mood when needed such as when this small band of plucky passengers encounter a train which has been massacred, a slight joke quite rightly breaks the mood and stops it from becoming morbid.

As for the performances well to be frank no one puts in a good performance, in fact every actor is saddled with a text book character be it Wilfrid Hyde-White as Bridie or I.S. Johar as Gupta the chatty train driver. But watching Kenneth More as Captain Scott, Lauren Bacall as Catherine Wyatt or Herbert Lom as Van Leyden is entertaining even if they are also forgettable.

What this all boils down to is that "North West Frontier" is an entertaining movie and Patrick Ford whether intentionally or not has done a good job along with writing partner Will Price to transfer "Stagecoach" to a different time and place. It isn't overly memorable but the moments of drama work and it certainly keeps your attention from start to finish.