WELCOME ABOARD THE EMPRESS OF INDIA: NORTH WEST FRONTIER ( 1959 )

“The British never seem to do anthing until they’ve had a cup of tea, By which time it’s too late.”

After the death of Humphrey Bogart in 1957, Lauren Bacall followed a path that would lead to a career lapse before embarking on a treacherous train journey through rebel-held territory in British India.

Legendary actress Lauren Bacall endured a successful tenure in motion pictures. Although she is best remembered for her story-book marriage to Humphrey Bogart, Bacall was steeped in acclamation outside of their relationship. After her four-film collaboration with Bogart, Bacall decided to nurture a solo career of her own. It was during this period that she starred in such classics as, How To Marry A Millionaire ( 1953 ), Written on the Wind ( 1956 ) and Designing Woman ( 1957 ), in which she made while Humphrey Bogart was deteriorating from esophagus cancer.

While Lauren was celebrating the success of Designing Woman, tragedy struck the home front when Humphrey Bogart passed away on January 14th, 1957 from esophagus cancer at age 57. In spite of the tragic turn of events that eclipsed all the fond memories of making the film, Bacall often reminisced about her time on the set and her lifelong friendship with co-star Gregory Peck.

Humphrey Bogart’s death caused major heartbreak in the family, and with all the emotional turmoil she was enduring, Lauren found her career capsizing. For the rest of the decade, Bacall would only appear in two more films. In 1958, she starred alongside Robert Stack in The Gift of Love, a remake of the 1946 film, Sentimental Journey, and the following year she was cast in the British production, North West Frontier, titled Flame Over India in the United States. Both films were positively received at the box-office, especially the latter, which was a major hit in Britain.

North West Frontier is one of those films that plunges straight into adventure. Masterfully directed by J. Lee Thompson, and starring Lauren Bacall, Kenneth More and Herbert Lom, this glorious technicolor production came from the pen of Robin Estridge and Frank S. Nugent, who provided a screenplay that was infused with an undercurrent of suspense and razor-sharp dialogue.

The film opens in British India in the year 1905. The country is at the brink of rebellion. The moral focus is five-year-old Prince Kishan, the leader of the Hindu population. After Kishan’s father is killed, the young boy becomes the target for Muslim rebels whose motive is to end the family line by murdering Kishan. All plans prove to be impenetrable when Captain Scott ( Kenneth More ) is assigned the dangerous task of rescuing Kishan and taking him to safer territory in Kalapur. The adventurous escapade begins the next morning when Captain Scott along with the boy’s governess Catherine Wyatt ( Lauren Bacall ), two upper-class British aristocrats, a Dutch journalist and potential traitor, plus a team of others embark on a perilous journey through enemy lines on board a dilapidated old train. With the rebels in full pursuit and an engine that is liable to break down, the question is – will the Empress of India manage to successfully escape through firing lines? or will they be vanquished by the enemies?

Two years before the film went into production, Kenneth More announced that he was planning to play a romantic adventure part in a film adaptation of Night Runners of Bengal, but when the film never came to fruition, legend has it that More transitioned into a similar role in North West Frontier, where he portrayed Captain Scott, who is charged with the duty of escorting a young Indian prince to safety.

Initially, Olivia de Havilland was scheduled to play the female lead, but at the time de Havilland was tied to other work commitments and was unable to break her contract. Finding another actress whose talents closely mirrored Olivia’s was an erroneous task. The films requirements would not be suitable for all stars, and almost all possible candidates were attached to other motion picture engagements.

Finally the unquestionable search was over when Lauren Bacall was approached about taking on the role. For Bacall, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. When she was handed a copy of the script, Lauren was enduring hardships back home in Los Angeles. She was still mourning over the death of Humphrey Bogart, and she had recently ended her relationship with Frank Sinatra, but while she was struggling to come to terms with her series of mishaps, the news of the tragic passing of her aunt Rosalie who was killed in an air-line disaster fueled even greater problems.

Along with all the excitement about filming abroad, came the worries that was attached to this sort of assignment. Bacall realized from the onset that it was not going to be easy making a movie outside of her native country. After all she had two young children to care for, and it would be hard on them when their mother is jumping between cities for work, but after much consideration, she enrolled Stephen and Leslie at the American School while she lent her efforts to the film.

Despite the fact that she was carrying a burgeoning load on her shoulders, Lauren Bacall embraced the project with utmost enthusiasm. Work was her soul focus at this point and being in front of the camera gave her a sense of security that she felt was lacking in her personal life. The most challenging obstacle she faced was the separation from her children, but as much as she wanted to have Stephen and Leslie with her, she also felt that it would help prepare them for the future.

Adding to the worries of leaving her children for a few months were the emotional strains inflicted by a house robbery that left her tormented. Although, Bacall knew she had a trusted confidante in Stephen and Leslie’s carers, she still feared for the safety of the kids after hearing that the burglar had reportedly entered through Steve’s bedroom window late one night while he was sleeping. What disturbed her the most though, is that she was warned that there was a strong possibility that another home invasion might occur. To ensure that Steve and Leslie wouldn’t be exposed to danger, Bacall hired a detective to watch over the house at night, but fortunately, no other event of this sort came to fruition.

Lauren Bacall with her children, Leslie and Stephen Bogart.

You’ll have to forgive me for speaking my mind. I happen to believe that’s what it’s for.

By now the films commencement date was fast approaching. In order to prepare for the location shooting, Bacall conducted many hours of research into the destinations she was visiting. She was especially interested to learn more about the Indian culture and after her studies she was left with an ingrained knowledge on the subject. Her astuteness transcended the vast information that the rest of the cast and crew had on hand, and the fact that she was transmitting all sufficient details onto them sure made her feel like she was embodying the image of a consummate professional.

The thought of filming in foreign territory could be nerve-wracking, but nothing hints at Lauren displaying even the slightest fears of the project. If anything, she was marred with waves of excitement, which was caused by meeting the Queen Mother at the Royal Command performance of The Horse’s Mouth prior to shooting. This particular moment was forever etched in her memory, and for a long time after she realized that her life was beginning to be re-shaped.

After undergoing rehearsals in London, the cast and crew sprang right into action. The first destination was Bombay, which is now known as Mumbai. This lively city is nestled in the state of Maharashtra, and is famous for being the second most populous city in India and the fourth most populous in the world. For Lauren Bacall, India was a world away from home. The country was unlike anything she ever envisioned. If Lauren wasn’t initially apprehensive about visiting India, she soon lost her equilibrium on her arrival. In her autobiography By Myself and Then Some, Bacall reflected back on the experience and wrote “I felt the impact of a totally different world. There is no way to imagine it – veiled women in saris, red dots in the center of their foreheads; colored turbans on men dressed in white; cows – sacred, of course – walking in the street. The streets teeming with humanity. In India, awareness grows of how many people are alive on this earth. We get so caught up in our own worlds, we forget. And some of us never know.”

No photo could capture the exotic beauty of India. You have to physically be there to witness the many natural wonders the country has to offer and to appreciate its majestic charm. The destination is surreal, and its culture is so linguistically diverse. Lauren Bacall was that transfixed that she thought about eschewing all work commitments to explore the region as a tourist. Fortunately, the production allowed the cast and crew time to sight-see. Lauren took great advantage of the opportunity and devoted all her free days to embarking on an odyssey of discovery. As their time in India drew to a close, Lauren and Kenneth More wanted to avail themselves to one last final picture-perfect day before that chapter of their journey ended.

That final picture-perfect moment was captured in front of one of the world’s most iconic monuments. The Taj Mahal is the main tourist attraction in India. Millions of visitors’ flock to the famous landmark each year. Built with an optical illusion and perfect symmetry, the red stone and gleaming white marble facade dazzles any time of the day, but it is believed that the Taj Mahal is even more magical at dawn or dusk when the colors glisten over the moonlit waters. Based on recommendations from natives, Lauren and Kenneth More made sure they were present at the prominent architecture at the aforementioned hours. The Tah Majal as Lauren describes was “breathtakingly beautiful and better than she had ever imagined.”

I went to see a woman in Delhi who told my fortune – she was so convincing I almost believed I might really be a blade of grass or a butterfly next time around. And I met a wise old man who sat guru-like on a raised platform in his house, greeting people who had been sent to him or whom he had known in another world.

( Lauren Bacall )

Most of the India locales were filmed in Jaipur, the capital and largest city in the state of Rajasthan. Voted in a 2008 survey the seventh most popular city to visit in Asia, this exotic destination offers a wide array of cultural activities for tourists. One of the main attractions are the desert themed buildings, an artifact that adorns almost every vicinity. The uniqueness of the area provokes a strong interest in many visitors. Lauren Bacall perfectly captured the essence of Jaipur in her autobiography and considered it to be the highlight of her journey.

Lauren Bacall may have enjoyed her time on Indian soils, but Kenneth More on the other hand, was on a different wavelength. In his memoirs, More recalled how physically grueling the filming process was. The many obstacles that the cast and crew endured were intensified with frequent bouts of illness. Almost every member of the cast was sick with Dysentery and other health issues. This meant that production was often delayed until everyone was well enough to resume work. The constant hold-ups were a major impediment – especially since location shooting was a key component and that relied heavily on time.

The rail sequences took six weeks to complete. The filming of these scenes commenced in the Province of Granada on May 10th, 1959. Finding the perfect locales was often time consuming, but the dry Arid Steppe was an ideal backdrop for British India. The Anchurón Bridge that crosses over the Solanas de la Carreta, situated near the hamlet of Belerda in Granada was used for the bomb-damaged bridge in one of the films most electrifying scenes. After the work in Spain came to a close, the cast and crew returned to London for final preparations. Lauren Bacall looked back on the making of the picture as an experience of a lifetime. Although the long separation from her children was a challenge, the six-week shooting schedule in India was monumental for her.

The Anchurón Bridge that was used for the bomb-damaged bridge in one of the films most electrifying scenes.

While Lauren Bacall enjoyed basking in all the Indian glory, she was anxious to return to London to spend time with her children before traveling to Spain for the rail sequences. It was during her time in Granada that Bacall started plotting her next move. She knew that it would be impossible for her to live in California and face the same hardships she endured after Bogart’s death. What she really wanted was another career path to follow. Her problem was solved when Leland Hayward called and told her that he was producing a stage play titled Goodbye Charlie, and asked her to read it.

If Lauren Bacall pursued a part in Goodbye Charlie, she would be stepping out of her horizons – though she soon realized that in order to further succeed in her career she would have to charter different territories. The idea of appearing on Broadway had always appealed to Lauren. After all, the theatre was her initial destiny, and chasing after her unfulfilled dreams was one of her most pivotal goals. This sort of work also meant that Lauren would not have to return to Los Angeles – a city that she could no longer bare to live in. She saw the idea as her one way passage to New York, where she was serious about setting up permanent residency.

At last, Lauren Bacall felt like she was back on the radar. She had just attained a role in Goodbye Charlie, and she was elated about reestablishing herself as a New York citizen. Perhaps her biggest thrill though, was the news that North West Frontier was a major success in the United Kingdom, and was considered to be among the six most popular films of the year. Considering that Bacall’s last few pictures had floundered at the box-office, this was quite an achievement, and many believe that it helped set the next chapter of her career in motion.

Although it is believed that North West Frontier made a significant impact on her career, the 1960’s would hardly be considered a monumental decade for Lauren Bacall. This period was particularly notable for her successful venture on the stage in the 1965 production of Cactus Flower, which earned her critical acclaim and would help pave the way for her future work in the theater. The very few films she did appear in did nothing to enhance her motion picture work, and instead she decided to embrace a more domesticated life on the home front by caring for her son Sam Robards, who was born in December of 1961.

At the mention of Lauren Bacall or Kenneth More, North West Frontier is never the first film that springs to mind. Audiences consider it a viewing experience that will always be embedded in their memory and the stars who made it call it a great picture with a lousy title.

CAST

Lauren Bacall: Born Betty Joan Perske on September 16th, 1924, inAfter the death of Humphrey Bogart in 1957, Lauren Bacall followed a path that would lead to a career lapse before embarking on a treacherous train journey through rebel-held territory in British India. The Bronx, New York. Died: August 12th, 2014, in New York. Aged 89.

Kenneth More: Born Kenneth Gilbert More on September 20th, 1914, in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom. Died: July 12th, 1982, in Fulham, London. Aged 67.

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This post was written for the 2022 edition of the Rule, Britannia Blogathon, hosted by Terence at A Shroud Of Thoughts.

2 thoughts on “WELCOME ABOARD THE EMPRESS OF INDIA: NORTH WEST FRONTIER ( 1959 )

  1. mercurie80

    I always did like North West Frontier. Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall are superb in it, and the visuals are astounding. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about all the behind the scenes details you wrote about the film. Anyway, thank you for taking art in the blogathon!

    Like

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