Around the Khyber Pass

in talkies

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.

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  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 []

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