KIM, the 1950 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 novel, was Errol Flynn’s last box-office hit. Though he’d star in 15 more before his death at the end of the decade, with a few exceptions (The Master of Ballantrae, The Roots Of Heaven) they were a disappointing lot. Though first-billed in this adventure, he’s actually a supporting character to 13-year-old Dean Stockwell in the title role. As a wandering Buddhist mystic, dull co-star Paul Lukas has more screen time than Errol’s roguish hero ‘Mahbub Ali’, a horse-trader who works as a secret agent for the British Raj in India. It’s the mid-1880’s and “The Great Game” is on, pitting England against Russia for control of the lands below the Czar’s southern borders. *
Wily orphan ‘Kim’ (Stockwell) had English parents, but he makes do passing as an Indian, adept at surviving in the bazaars and byways. Occasional favors for his disarming pal Muhbub Ali turn into high-stakes hijinks abetting the older man’s spying for the Raj. Complicating Kim’s enjoyment of his part in the back-door battle for empire is his loyalty to a wandering lama (Lukas) on a spiritual mission, and his word to British authorities that he’ll buckle down, stop playing “native”, and get a proper education. But fooling the Russians—and everyone else—is so much more fun.
MGM sent a 2nd-unit team to recently independent India (Flynn and Lukas went along) to get location footage in the States of Rajasthan (around Jaipur) and Uttar Pradesh (in and around Lucknow) to blend with their scenes with Stockwell done back in the States, at the studio and in the Alabama Hills around Lone Pine, the California stand-in for the Himalayas: Flynn was familiar with the boulders and Sierra Nevada mountain scenery from toiling on The Charge Of The Light Brigade fifteen years earlier under the lash of director Michael Curtiz. Hard-charging Curtiz would have been a better pick than Victor Saville, who doesn’t put enough pizazz into the talkative 113 minutes: there’s little action and it’s not too exciting. The script by Helen Deutsch, Leon Gordon and Richard Schayer is meandering, though there are some flavorful jabbers on the order of “Son of 10.000 maggots. Mudhead, thy mother was born under a basket” and “Begone, thou filth of the earth. Thou infected descendant of unspeakable slime!”
Fortunately, with the exception of Lukas, who was rarely enlivened, the actors are in good form and the Technicolor makes the most out of the scenery and costumes. The score, credited to André Previn, with Bronislau Kaper lending a baton, is subdued and flavorful. Flynn, with a a beard and hair dyed red, has some the confident sparkle from earlier classics and he has swell rapport with Stockwell—they greatly enjoyed each other’s company. Arnold Moss lends his piercing eyes and mellifluous voice as a good guy for once, ‘Lurgan Sahib’, one of Kim’s mentors in subterfuge, and Cecil Kellaway does a splendid job with an accent as ‘Hurree Chunder’, another spy for the Brits (therefore a “trusted” Indian). The movie wouldn’t work with the wrong child actor and the gifted Stockwell was one of the best of the day. **
Made for $2,049,000, a gross of $8,300,000 made it the 12th most popular matinee entertainment of 1950.
With Robert Douglas, Thomas Gomez (“Leave him to me. We have our own way of loosening a tongue“), Reginald Owen, Laurette Luez, Ivan Triesault, Hayden Rorke, Jeanette Nolan, Michael Ansara. 113 minutes.
* At the height of the Red Scare horse puckey, using the Russians (then Soviets) as nefarious foes worked in smoothly with the story’s Great Game position, which naturally assumed Great Britain had some divine White right to decide the fate of hundreds of millions of Indians and Afghans (Burmese, Malaysians, Kenyans, Cypriots, Egyptians, Caribbean islanders, kids in fantasy movies…).
** Stockwell: “I did a movie with Errol Flynn when I was 13. I got quite an education….I’m not saying I’d recommend him for the rest of society. It just so happened that at that time of my life – I was twelve or something – he was what he was: a truly profound, nonsuperficial sex symbol. He was the fucking male.” Other risqué Stockwell stories on Flynn are available to unearth online: if you’re not a complete p.c.-kneeling wanker/wankette, you’ll get a wicked chuckle out of them.