King of the Khyber Rifles (1953)
Director: Henry King.
Starring: Tyrone Power (Capt. Alan King), Terry Moore (Susan Maitland), Michael Rennie (Brig. Gen. J. R. Maitland), John Justin (Lt. Geoffrey Heath), Guy Rolfe (Karram Khan), Richard Wyler (Lt. Ben Baird), Murray Matheson (Maj. Ian MacAllister), Frank DeKova (Ali Nur), Argentina Brunetti (Lali), Sujata (Native Dancer).
Muslim fanatic Karram Khan battles his boyhood friend Capt. King in the Northwest Frontier; later King gets the assignment to get Khan
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
India. 1857. The hundredth year of British rule.
A wagon convoy comes up the path in the mountains. An ambush is being set up for the convoy. A fuse is lit and the firing is about to begin when a British sympathizer rides down from the mountains and onto the trail to warn Captain Alan King of an ambush. The bugler sounds the alarm. The explosion goes off and there is an avalanche of stones and rocks onto the trail and beyond. The firing starts now from both sides. Reinforcements arrive for the British. The Indians now pull back.
Lt. Heath and his men of the Peshawar garrison have come to the rescue of Capt. King. The lieutenant also says that Gen. Maitland is waiting for the supplies King is bringing in.
King now wants to talk to the fellow that warned them about the ambush. The Indian fellow says his name is Ahmed and he deserted from a force led the the fanatic Karram Khan. Heath says the fanatic has been a thorn in their side. He's difficult to get at because his base is up there at Jaitry at the top of the Khyber Pass.
Susan Maitland, daughter of Gen. Maitland, rides back to her home at the fort. She is there to see the arrival of Captain King.
King reports to Gen. Maitland that the mullahs are stirring up the natives in Peshawar. They plan to attack on the Night of the Long Knives. Maitland wants to know why did this Ahmed tell them about the ambush? Ahmed says that his brother spoke out against Karram Khan. He was punished by having his tongue cut out and his skin ripped off his body. So, now, Ahmed wants to join his cousins in the Khyber Rifles.
Maitland's aide tells him there is some good news. They have developed a new rifle they call the Enfield with twice the range of the older models of rifles. They are due in next month.
Maitland asks his aide if he noticed anything odd about this Captain King? The aid says no, except that King really knows the Pashtun language.
King tells his roommates that he was actually born right here in India. One of the guys tells King that he and his men have to be home before sundown. King shows the guys a picture of his father who died at this very garrison in the rebellion of 1833. Then the men see a picture of his mother, who was a Muslim woman. In the language of the day, that makes him a half-breed or half-caste.
King rides into the center of town. He goes into a place where Indian women dance for the men. King tells the owner that he wants to ask about a silk merchant named Hamid Bahri who lived here at one time. He lived here with his son Hassan. The owner says he will find the man at the mosque behind the bazaar.
Susan and an Indian woman come into town and get bogged down in a large crowd listening to a prophet. The woman tells Susan the fellow says that the English have been here for 100 years and it is now time for them to leave India. Soon the Night of the Long Knives will come and death will come to the infidels. King arrives to tell the women to get back to the garrison as fast as they can. He follows behind them on his horse.
Back at his room, Baird tells King that Lt. Heath has left to be roommates with fellow members of the polo squad. Baird also mentions to King" "After all, we half-castes have to stick together." King looks like he might take a poke at Baird, but Baird laughs and says didn't King know: his mother is Irish.
Susan tells Lt. Heath of the adventure she had in town with the sinister looking Capt. King. It was amazing the effect King had on the crowd. Heath laughs and says that's because he's a native, a half-caste, a chi-chi. The general comes out and asks Heath why he suddenly left his room.? Maitland says he does mind that Heath moved out of his accommodations, because in this garrison whites, half-castes and natives are all British soldiers and will be treated accordingly. King now arrives.
At dinner the general asks King if he knows about the unit known as the Khyber Rifles? Not much. The men of the unit are all volunteers from the mountains and are mountain fighters. The reason why Maitland asks is that he is putting King in charge of the Khyber Rifles. The men of the unit are fierce and proud, but they lack discipline. For instance, the men won't salute officers because they feel this is undignified. They also just take off when they feel like it.
Susan changes the subject to the captain. He tells her that he went into town to see the man who took him in after he had lost his parents. He raised him along with his own son, Hassan. He saw the father, but Hassan was up in the hills. His current name is Karram Khan. Maitland says this is an awkward situation. He could transfer the captain to a less personal place, but King says he would rather stay here.
King starts the training for the soldiers of the Khyber Rifles. Susan sits outside and watches the training sessions. After King dismisses his unit, he passes by Susan without saying a word. She calls him back to her and congratulates him on his knowledge of handling men. But as for women, he doesn't seem to understand them at all. She says she hasn't seen him since the dinner and, so, she has put him down for two dances at the Queen's birthday ball.
At the ball Susan dances with Lt. Heath. After his dance is finished, it's the general's turn to dance with Susan. Susan asks him wasn't Capt. King invited to the ball? No. Is that because of his mother? Well, yes. Susan says it's getting stuffy inside and she is going outside. Dad comes out to soothe her hurt feelings. She says apparently her father did not believe his own speech to Lt. Heath about tolerance. He says he does believe in tolerance, but here he is not in charge of the officers' club and their rules. She says their rules are stupid and hateful. Then she apologizes to her father and asks for his forgiveness.
The general has to go in and speak to the commissioner. Baird tries to get a dance with Susan, but she says her feet are killing her.
Susan gets impatient and runs over to the officers' barracks. King almost chases her away with his remarks, but he stops her by being nice to her. So she dances dance number six with him on the porch of the officers' barracks. After the dance she says she has to give Major McAllister dance number seven on her dance card. She tells him she has never enjoyed a Queen's Ball so much as the one tonight.
The next day a dispatch arrives from Calcutta. Maitland looks out the window and sees his daughter going out for a ride. Major McAllister comes in and the general tells him that the 600 Enfield rifles are on their way to them. They should be coming in within a week.
Susan has been following King and now catches up to him. He says women are not allowed to ride outside the garrison without a male escort. She says that's why she vsihjy up with him. She adds that there in no sense in him trying to avoid her because it's simply impossible.
The couple go to a fancy restaurant and have some drinks. After lunch they have to take shelter from a storm in some old ruins. The two young people kiss. And here comes four horsemen with weapons. A shot is fired at King. He fires back and hits one of the horsemen. Now the storm really hits the ruins. A bolt of lightning lights up the area. Then there is so much sand in the air that it becomes as black as night. King takes Susan's hand and tells her to follow him into the black of the storm.
Three different patrols are send out to find King and Susan. Dad is very worried.
One of the patrols, led by Lt. Heath, sees King and rides over to him and Susan.
Back at the fort, Maitland figures the four horsemen were trying to kidnap Susan. He thinks it best that he send Susan back to England. She never liked it in India. She only stuck it out because her father was stationed here.
That was not news King wanted to hear. He goes to his barrack's room.
Dad goes into see the now awake Susan. He says she is going back to England, but she says she's not going. Dad says a month ago that was all she talked about, but Susan answers that's because she didn't know back then that she was going to marry Captain King. He hasn't asked her to marry him, but he will in time. Dad says she can't marry King, because he's a half-caste. Susan tells her father that she feels sorry for him and asks him to please go away. She starts crying.
A dead soldier is tied to a horse and is sent back to the fort by the Indians. The soldiers stop the horse and find the dead Corporal Stewart tied to the horse.
Maitland speaks with his officers. Lt. Baird and his patrol have been taken hostage. Furthermore, Karram Khan knows about the coming shipment of Enfield rifles. If Maitland does not hand over the rifles to Khan, then Khan will send one dead body a day back to the fort. The garrison will disregard this threat. Lt. Heath will take a detachment up to meet the arms convoy. The Enfields will be transferred into different boxes to be carried by a second convoy taking a different route. Then the fake convoy will continue on the normal trail.
King offers to go up into the mountain, find Karram Khan and kill him. Maitland turns him down.
Susan pays a visit to King in his barrack's room. She tells him that her father is sending her back to England. King says that probably is the most sensible move. Susan says she isn't going until at least she gets to say the things she wanted to say to King. She says she loves him very much. But: "You won't even listen to your own heart." She adds: "Hold me in your arms, Allan, and tell me just once what we both know to be true." They hug and kiss. He also says he loves her. King says she has to go. Susan says she doesn't want to go, but now that she knows he loves her, she can go home. She says she will come to him when he wants her and will always be with him.
Father sees Susan leaving the barracks of King. So it's not surprising that now he wants to send King in to kill Karram Khan. Mr. White comes in to say that King is no longer in the garrison. He was seen by an outside sentry riding alone toward Khyber Pass.
Khan's Indian sentries let King pass without interference. In the camp of the enemy, King says he will only speak with Karram Khan. King is brought before Karram Khan and the man remarks that he never thought he would see his brother again, except in battle. King says he has deserted from the army and now comes to serve his brother. Karram is still a bit suspicious, so King gives his word of honor that what he says is true. So Karram accepts King into his group. After King goes to get some proper clothes, Karram tells his aide: "Watch him. The British love their games."
The brothers have a meal together complete with music and a dancing girl. They talk a bit about their boyhoods together, but the conversation quickly turns to Karram's plans. "When the hour is called, the people will plunder and butcher and burn. The fools will lay waste to their own cities. It is what they leave of India that I shall build a new rule. An empire for Karram Khan."
A messenger comes in to tell Karram that the convoy was carrying empty boxes. Karram turns to King to ask if he knew about this? King says: "Evidently, Gen. Maitland has learned to respect your genius." Karram really gets angry and tells everyone to get out. They flee from the tent. Karram says it doesn't really matter because the British won't be able to use the Enfields anyway. He then says: "You lied to me, Alan." He wants the real reason for his coming here. King says he offered to kill Karram. He would have too, but something happened at the garrison. Karram seems to know all about the story. The general rejected King as a possible mate for his daughter.
Karram has his men bring in prisoner Baird, who begs King to help him. King throws his drink in the man's face. And then out goes Baird. Now Karram says that he begins to believe his brother.
At night while Karram sleeps, King creeps up on him to slit his throat. But Karram whirls to one side while picking up his pistol. He's got the drop on Alan. Karram says that Alan should not have hesitated that one second, but rather should have immediately cut his throat. Men like Alan remain ordinary men by their hesitation.
Including King, there are five British soldiers lined up to receive their fate. The first four, one after the other, are executed by a spear thrown from a man on horseback. So now it's Alan's turn. Karram decides to be the fifth executioner. He rides past Alan but does not throw his spear. He tells his brother that he spared his life last night and so now he spares Alan's life. He will be taken back to Pesawar. "But we'll meet again." But the next time he will kill Alan without any hesitation.
The bandits drop off Capt. King near the garrison. King walks into the colonel's office. He gives the bad news about the four executed soldiers. And he explains what happened as regards Karram Khan. He adds that there was a council of tribal leaders there. They are going to join forces, which will give them a force of 5,000 men.
Lt. Heath now escorts Capt. King who is now under close arrest in his barracks. He tells King that all the women have been evacuated elsewhere for their safety and protection. Heath now gives King a message from Susan. She will write him from where she is evacuated to and that things have not changed. Her feelings for him are still the same.
A message arrives. There has been a mutiny in the Meiruth garrison and civil uprisings throughout Bengal. Furthermore, there has been an uprising in Delhi. Security measures are to be taken immediately. The colonel figures this must be the Night of the Long Knives. "Mutiny on the whole frontier."
A rumor is started that the Enfield cartridges have animal fat on them, so the Indian soldiers will not use the new Enfield rifles.
The colonel speaks to his officers, including King. There have been uprisings all over the frontier. The garrison is not a safe place to fight off so many enemy combatants. They consider the possibility of hitting Khan's forces in a surprise attack. King says there is a way to get at the enemy in the hills. And if they use the Enfield rifles, the British will have a big advantage over the natives. A diversionary move will be made by a small contingent to try and fool Khan. King will take his Khyber Rifles under cover of darkness into the hills and attack the enemy.
Mr. White comes in to tell the colonel that an Afridi is here to speak to Capt. King. The Afridi is the same one who saved man British lives by alerting Capt. King of an ambush by Karram Khan. He tells King about the contamination problem. King in turn tells the colonel that the Khyber Rifles refuse to use the Enfields for they believe them to be contaminated. They have been told that the cartridges have been contaminated by the use of pig grease. He also says that the man who spread the rumor was Ishmael, the colonel's punkawallah (i.e. a manual fan operator).
King gives a talk to the men. He says there is no pig grease used on the Enfield cartridges. Furthermore, he has Indian blood in him from his mother. He would not defame her memory by using contaminated ammunition and rifles. He bites open a cartridge and rams it down the barrel. He puts the firing cap on and fires the weapon. He now asks the men to pick up their rifles. There is some hesitation but the Afridi Ahmed that has been such a help to the British grabs his weapon. And now the rest of the soldiers pick up their Enfields.
The men start riding out. The colonel tells King that he is doing a very brave thing. They shake hands.
King and his men head up into the mountains. They dismount and leave the horses behind. And now the troops again object to using the Enfields. But they will use their knives. So King grabs his own knife and leads the way. They move slowly along the rocky ledges of the mountains. They reach the encampment. Ahmed and another soldier jump from the rocks onto the sentries. Then all the others jump down. King jumps on the tent belonging to Karram Khan ripping it open with his knife. Karram fires his pistol but misses. King throws his knife but misses. The men start fighting each other without weapons.
A big battle rages in the encampment. The main weapons depot is blown up.
The fight between the two brothers continues. Karram, the larger man, wins the fight but just as he is going to kill King with his knife, Ahmed throws his knife into the back of Karram Khan.
The colonel walks back and forth waiting for the return of the Khyber Rifles. Many of the men have been wounded, including King, but they will make it..
Susan is at the garrison to watch the parade of the Khyber Rifles. She waves to Capt. King. He salutes her.
Like the film The Drum (Drums) (1938) this also is largely a fictional story. And so it is not much use for historians. But in addition to what was covered in the 1938 movie about the Northwest Frontier, this film also devotes quite a bit of time to racism. Captain King has a lot of difficulties because he is half-caste, a half-breed. His father was British, but his mother was a Muslim Indian. A young daughter loves King, but her colonel dad definitely does not. He is prejudiced against King. But the daughter is spunky and she wants to marry Captain King. Her strength then gives strength to the captain to face the resistance to his marrying Susan.. Lots of action in the film. Still don't like rooing for the colonialists.
Tyrone Power doesn't much look like he's got Indian blood in him, but he does pretty well as the very angry Captain King. I was impressed by Guy Rolfe (as the bad guy, Karram Khan).
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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