The Brigand of Kandahar, 1965.
Directed by John Gilling.
Starring Ronald Lewis, Oliver Reed, Duncan Lamont, Yvonne Romain and Katherine Woodville.
A mixed race lieutenant joins the rebel Bengali tribesmen in an offensive against the British forces in India.
Afghanistan’s a tough one. Hard to know what to make of it all, whichever way you look at it. Whether by design or by happy accident, The Brigand of Kandahar has a lot in common with its wild, war-torn setting. The blurbs and the captions call it the North West frontier of India, but for anyone with a map or even a smudge of an inkling of what the British Raj got up to in the 1850s, that translates directly to the borders of that same country the British Army are still trying to tame a century and a half later.
A blast of heroic trumpet fanfare and we’re already in Ripping Yarns territory. Not a terrific start for something that wants us to take it seriously. British officers strut about with the usual scrambled egg dangling off their uniforms. A hot naked affair is the talk of the fort, between a half-caste and a married woman, no less. Enter Lieutenant Robert Case (Ronald Lewis): he’s risen through the ranks, blacked up for the part, displays a convincing stiff upper lip and a semi-permanent Stick It Up Your Arse Sir facial expression. After a nice soapy bath and some blackmail, Elsa (Katherine Woodville) is persuaded that this sort of hot naked affair won’t do in a British regiment, what what, and that Case should be swiftly dumped.
Case has no sooner returned from helplessly watching his best friend be captured by rebels than he’s up in front of a court martial for running away instead of heading up a one-man Charge of the Light Brigade. Colonel Drewe (Duncan Lamont) strips him of his rank and freedom, and Case has lost everything worthwhile in his life in the same amount of time it takes to boil an egg. He’s soon fallen in with the notorious Eli Khan (Oliver Reed), leader of the rebels, scourge of the British, owner of this film’s fanciest turban.
Oliver Reed never fails to fascinate; he takes palpable delight in goading Lewis’ character, daring him to defy his word at every turn, teasing him with the idea of a position of power that he never truly has. Khan fights to free his people from the British invaders. Noble enough, perhaps, but he also takes a perverse pleasure in the suffering of his scarred, crippled prisoners, and he makes certain Case knows there’s not a thing he can do to stop him. That intimidating and unpredictable nature gives Reed plenty to play around with in this story, as the tension between Case and Khan finally snaps, and one man walks away with more than he bargained for.
On a practical level, The Brigand of Kandahar does what it sets out to do, telling a tale of adventure with a fair few layers of drama lurking beneath to surprise and fascinate. The period costumes work effortlessly, rich with blood reds, burnished golds and deep ocean blues. It really is a very fancy turban Reed’s had picked out for him here.
Story-wise, director/writer Gilling has come on leaps and bounds since The Scarlet Blade; with his characters freed up from traditional, one-dimensional hero/villain roles, they becomes hard to define. Khan and Drewe are as good and bad as each other, faithful to their cause however many human lives it costs. Glyn Houston’s fiery journalist tries a righteous sort of summing up of the tragedy of Robert Case, but it seems so much more than he can throw at Colonel Drewe’s feet.
Gilling’s women aren’t so wishy washy, either. Elsa is so sure she’s right about Case’s villainous nature, it almost breaks her to see the man is actually struggling to keep a moral centre in a den of thieves and habitual killers. Khan’s sister Ratina, so icy and aloof to begin with, is surprised with herself to find she’s taken with this strange ally. She can’t admit the kind of passion she has for him until it’s too late.
Whilst there’s no denying The Brigand of Kandahar is a step forward in the right direction, those big pitched battle scenes are still looking very stock-footage-y, and there’s no mistaking a polystyrene mountain pass when it’s that brightly lit. You have to adopt the mindset of a classic Doctor Who fan, looking past the shortcomings of a piecemeal budget and wobbly set dressing to the genuinely intriguing story hidden within.
Some shortcomings are harder to ignore than others. That dippy fanfare for the British springs to mind. Then of course there’s the blacking-up. It’s no reflection on an excellent cast, but you do find yourself staring at Reed and Lewis in full make-up, wondering exactly what they were thinking. Mercifully, it’s not quite like watching One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing and cringing at every nuance of Peter Ustinov’s performance; they don’t attempt daft accents, after all. They’re British-educated characters, so we mostly buy it. Still, blacking up? Could’ve sworn that stopped being acceptable about fifteen minutes into The Jazz Singer.
Gilling is trying, though. He’s asking tough questions and giving away no easy answers. Is Case trapped by circumstances, or just afraid to make decisions outside of the heat of battle? Whose side should he be on, the hypocritical army that raised him, or the bloodthirsty rebels who accept him without question as one of their own? Little by little, these questions start to chip away at his conscience, as he’s backed further and further into a corner, surrounded by enemies on all sides. Maybe he has more friends than he realises, but you’d have to give this a watch to find out who they are.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.