CLIVE OF INDIA added its blustering ‘God Bless Imperialism’ huzzahs to 1935’s “Rule Britannia” slate, letting England know America/Hollywood had her back (or number) via Mutiny On The Bounty, David Copperfield, The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer and Captain Blood, all of them classics and each more fun than this gabby farrago about one of history’s most successful misfits. *
India, the mid-1700’s. Stifled working as a clerk for the East India Company, ambitious, impetuous and quirky Robert Clive (Ronald Colman) uses daring in warfare to secure the riches of the subcontinent for the Company, for the King (our pal George III) and not least for himself. He charms beauty Margaret Maskelyne (Loretta Young) into marrying him based on seeing her picture in a locket, fights battles, amasses a fortune, enters Parliament, blows the fortune, survives scandals, is redeemed by posterity. Sorta. They just left out the bad stuff.
Though directed with some flair by Richard Boleslawski, the script by W.P. Lipscomb and R.J. Minney is a jumble of time compression, omission, and all-round whitewashing, not much more detailed—let alone authentic—than a comic book. Lipscomb was especially busy in ’35, tackling history and literature by writing better scripts for the much better Les Misérables and A Tale Of Two Cities. For a story with epic dimensions, it’s a budget-conscious production, with sparse crowd scenes undercutting any required sense of scale. Cramming decades into 94 minutes, title cards are employed throughout to skip through years and past money-drains like battle scenes: he fought a lot. When the main action showpiece arrives, Clive’s near miraculous victory in the Battle of Plassey on June 23, 1757, a brawl that involved 58,000 men and 15,000 horses, Boleslavski bites the budget by shooting it at night, in the rain, with just enough extras and animals to fill the three buses it took to ferry them to the studio set. BUT, there are also a half-dozen battle elephants, outfitted with spikes on their feet, topped by archer-filled howdahs, and the director goes mini-Eisenstein with closeups, quick editing and jarring violence to give the otherwise modest melee some juice.
Colman, 44, put ample dash and vigor into the fray, and that marvelous voice is always a pleasure, though it’s most-cherished delivery came that same year, on the chopping block, in A Tale Of Two Cities. Young, 22 and beaming, has little to do but look on in admiration. Colin Clive (aka Victor Frankenstein) has a small role: he was a descendant of the famous conqueror. Empire stalwart and England’s eternal emissary C. Aubrey Smith is on hand. Alfred Newman’s score has some suitable exotic flourish for the palaces and bazaars as well the expected Brit martial airs when it’s time to share the wealth.
The advertising campaign laid on with “Six words from a woman changed the map of Asia!” and “A CLERK AT THE AGE OF 25…AT 26 CONQUERER OF A NATION! Waiting to Marry A Girl Who Believed Him Penniless…A Girl He Had Never Seen! Fiction Can Never Equal This Drama Of Real Life!” The public payed out tribute tallying $2,000,000, earning position #64 for the year. As for history, it’s ‘They Died With Their Wigs On’.
With Francis Lister, Cesar Romero, Lumsden Hare, Montagu Love, Leo G. Carroll, Robert Greig, Etienne Girardot and Mischa Auer. Somewhere in the stew is John Carradine, uncredited, and purportedly also Don Ameche, in his first screen job, as a prisoner in the Black Hole of Calcutta (that legendary horror is given a brief but effective scene).
* Robert Clive’s accomplishments (or depredations, if you’re Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi) make those of another famous clerk-turned-hero, Lawrence of Arabia, seem like kid stuff. One age’s icon becomes another’s toppled statue, when a sober look at the historical tally sheet counts the casualties and loot demanded by Lord Glory.