Around the Khyber Pass

David Bordwell, John Ford, silent man

One headliner is the early Ford series: all his surviving silents, plus a selection of rarely-seen talkies. The first one screened, The Black Watch (1929), concentrates on the Khyber Pass incident of 1914. Captain King is assigned to India while the rest of his Scots regiment is sent to Europe. In India, King masterminds the defeat of the forces of Yasmani, a woman who has been taken as sort of a goddess by her followers. The central section, involving Yasmani’s passion for King and his betrayal of her, seems to me sketchy and rushed; Ford’s real interest, not surprisingly, is in the rites of comradeship among the Black Watch. Twenty-two of the film’s 91 minutes is taken up with the opening dinner celebrating the regiment, conducted while King gets his secret mission; for reasons he can’t disclose, he abandons his comrades and suffers their opprobrium. A bookended sequence at the close shows him returning to the Watch as, in the trenches of war, they hold another dinner, complete with ruffles and flourishes.

Some of the central portion was directed by Lumsden Hare, but it too has some striking moments, perhaps most memorably the display of Yasmani’s powers when she conjures up an eerie vision of the European battlefield in a glowing crystal ball. The war sequences have the dank Expressionist look that Murnau brought to Fox and that Ford exploited in Four Sons (1928). There are as well touching train-station farewells between brothers and between father and daughter that seem very Fordian. Overall, Ford finds ways to avoid the multiple-camera shooting common to early talkies, often using offscreen dialogue during reaction shots.

Needless to say, I have never seen/heard of this movie but now I cannot wait to find it.

Long before John Ford, Khyber Pass entered into American imagination courtesy not only of the Anglo-Afghan wars, but also Rudyard Kipling and Josiah Harlan – Harlan’s memoir1 was released in 1842 in Philadelphia and Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King came out in 1888. The Anglo-Afghan Wars were front page news in New York Times since the late 1860s (the Sepoy Rebellion had stuck a nerve).

As I noted in an earlier post, the “Indian Question” lay heavy on the brows in New York and Washington. “The Khyber Pass is no longer a hindrance to movement” was the declaration in Feb, 1894 [pdf]. Here, for example, is the NYT in 1897, giving the geo-political consequences of a war going heavily wrong for the British. Change is nothing to believe in. England Facing, a Grave Situation: [pdf]

All eyes here are on the Khyber Pass and beyond. Whether the torrent of Afridis be stemmed as quickly as the Swat Valley troubles were stilled is a question of minor importance compared to the larger issues, which, one after an other, these at present isolated religious revolts are suggesting. There is as yet no proved coalition or combination among the insurgent tribes, but the lesson in each case is the same. Sooner or later, England, that greatest of Mohammedan powers, must suffer for this her latest crusade, into which she was driven by a wave of sentiment of which no English speaking men are ashamed, though many question the prudence of the aggressively quixotic policy when backed by such feebleness in execution. England could not stand by while the helpless Armenians and the too hopeful Greeks were in more or less real danger of life and liberty. So she sided with these people against the threatening Turk – that one Mohammedan soldier power with whom an English Machiavelli would have found wise to make friends, tempering friendship, as in the old days, with just sufficient bullying to keep up the illusion that the feeble sick man, Turkey, was being bolstered up by the unassailable power of Christian England.

In 1898, Kipling got to San Francisco from India and quickly came to embody the spirit of joint British-US expansionist project (He had sent his poem The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands straight to Teddy Roosevelt in 1898 who promptly forwarded it to Henry Cabot Lodge. Further aside, if you have not read Christopher Hitchens’ “Burdens and Songs: The Anglo-American Rudyard Kipling”, Grand Street {1990}, I urge you to run, not walk to JSTOR. )

Where was I? Oh, back to Khyber Pass/John Ford in 1929. Another tid-bit: I am shamefully ignorant of the history of early cinema and its engagement with India/Orient but I did pick up a reference once to a ethno-documentary In the Heart of India; As Seen by Dr. Dorsey (1916) which I have never seen nor been able to trace elsewhere but was reported to me that contains footage of Khyber Pass/Peshawer. It seems that the genealogy of Ford’s Khyber Pass is just as much Kipling and Dorsey as the German Murnau.

Resume normal transmission.

  1. A Memoir of India and Avghanistaun; with observations on the Present Exciting and Critical State and Future Prospects of those Countries. Comprising Remarks on the massacre of the British Army in Cabul, British policy in India, A detailed descriptive character of Dost Mohamed and his court, etc. With an Appendix on the fulfilment of a text of Daniel, in reference to the Present Prophetic condition of Mahomedan nations throughout the World, and the speedy dissolution of the Ottoman Empire []

Obligatory Avatar Post

But the problem with my analysis is, you will say, that Cameron is not the Department of State or Labor nor is he the official mouthpiece of some quasi-empire. You would be right. Yet Avatar is consensus. It is the consensus of nearly $300 million dollars – pored over every lovingly rendered pixel flesh and woodenly crafted “I got this!”. It is more importantly, a global consensus of consumption – fast approaching the $1 billion dollar mark. As such, I think it provides a credible archive against which to read the past decade.

Sitting through Avatar reminded me of the edifices of empire – not the halls of power (palace and parliament) but those edifices constructed for both the citizen and the colonial subject – simultaneously convincing one of the righteousness of the imperium and the other of the sheer inevitability of imperial power.

Avatar mirrors the techno-capital apogee of this American empire as well the grave ambivalence at the heart of it. Avatar is our Crystal Palace and our Delhi Durbar of 1911 as well our Hastings/Burke moment.

There are more than enough readings out there on the inherent biases and contradictions in Avatar. Read Aaron’s take, for one. Or Bustillos, as well. There is both merit and substance to these readings but I am much more interested in parsing the broader milieu which has produced Avatar. Where previous Empires (without going into whether America is or isn’t one) created magnificent physical edifices of their power and glory, we build monuments of light and shadows (3D) that provoke much of the same reactions: awe, glory, camaraderie. We are united in our appreciation of the technological wonder that created this spectacle and united in our consumption of it. Note that the end-credits stretch across the North (digital houses from New Zealand to California to London). Note as well that from Cairo to Dubai to Bombay, Avatar is playing to packed houses.

Where the Mughals borrowed curlicues from Damascus to Vijaynagar or the British incorporated “Eastern” motifs into the Lahore train station, Avatar borrows the Iraq War. It serves a decorative purpose. Mind you, that doesn’t make it a “throwaway” or “inessential”. On the contrary, it constitutes the very ethos the project itself – which is, after all, a simulacra itself. “Shock and Awe”. It will forever be the curlicue glued to the outside of any edifice – either with a wink, or a nudge, or with a scowl. When Avatar employs it, the audience (in Berlin) smirks loudly. They got this. The parallels are now as explicit as a minaret. No one notes the irony that the company has too few troops for the job. It is only a matter of time before the “surge” happens. But, let that be. Let’s just go back to the Iraq War. Some have suggested that there is a “critique” of the Iraq War buried inside the movie. The war in Avatar is not between the haves and the have-nots (one with tech, the other without; one with mineral resources, the other without) but between different ideas of having and not-having. At some level, however appropriated, Avatar grants some equivalence to the notion that these two civilizations can indeed differ in their reading of what constitutes as essential for survival. But the debate over the Iraq War is not, and will not be for a while, about granting equivalence – either hypothetical or literal – to our civilizational mission (democracy and freedom) and their claim to self-rule and self-governance. In that frame, there may be a mild nod towards Iraq, but there is no critique of war in Avatar. It is pro-war all the way. Eco-tech vs. mech-tech.

I greatly enjoyed Avatar. I will probably see it again on DVD and I will certainly try and teach it in class. Here are some thoughts – out of order – but in the order that they occurred to me.

related: Aaron expands his comments

The Silver Screen War

(sepoy sez: you can find an introduction to purdah on the about CM page)

Greetings CM readers, Sepoy has generously offered me a spot on his soapbox, a turn at the helm, a cameo in his story? Um a chance to reach out to some gentle minds…I would like to begin by discussing the current South Asia project I am working on, somewhat related to TALIBOTHRA, in that it is about the co-mingling of religion, politics and mass media. More precisely I am trying to follow the shifting figure of the terrorist in the Hindi language film industry and am curious about how Islam comes into the picture, and in fact about the precise definition of a terrorist, an “aatankvaadi”[ātaṅkavādī]. At the moment I am not sure what forms this sniffing around will take, perhaps a paper, perhaps a class, perhaps neither? Let me know what you think…
Continue reading “The Silver Screen War”