The Brigand of Kandahar is, to put it mildly, not one of Hammer’s most admired films. Personally I think that many of the criticisms that have been leveled at this movie are rather unfair and don’t take into account the circumstances surrounding its production.
It was made in 1965, a time when Hammer were keen to make adventure films and were sometimes inclined (as was the case with their 1965 version She) to attempt productions that were rather too ambitious given their limited budgetary resources.
Lieutenant Case (Ronald Lewis) is a half-Indian half-British soldier who was worked his way up through the ranks to become an officer in the British Army on the Northwest Frontier of India in 1850. He is about to come face-to-face with the divided loyalties that are unavoidable given his mixed-race parentage.
Case is having an affair with the wife of Captain Connelly. Both men are sent on a dangerous mission to discover whether a tribal uprising is imminent. Captain Connelly is killed while Lieutenant Case escapes. Captain Boyd (Inigo Jackson) draws, perhaps unfairly, the obvious conclusion that Connelly’s death was remarkably convenient for Case, getting the husband out of the way so he could continue his affair with the wife. At Boyd’s instigation a court-martial is convened and Case is convicted of cowardice in the face of the enemy for not trying to rescue Connelly.
Case believes the court-martial was biased against him because of his mixed-race ancestry and in particular he believes that his commanding officer Colonel Drewe (Duncan Lamont) was determined to ruin his career. When the opportunity arises Case escapes and joins the rebellious tribesmen under Ali Khan (Oliver Reed).
Ali Khan is keen to make use of Case’s military skills and his knowledge of British methods and Case agrees to join him, on conditions. No British civilians are to be harmed and prisoners are to be shown mercy. Unfortunately Ali Khan’s ideas of mercy are rather flexible and his sister Ratina (Yvonne Romain) believes in showing no mercy at all. There’s also a power struggle going on between Ali Khan and his sister, exacerbated by Ali Khan’s murder of their brother. Ali Khan might be the leader but Ratina is popular and if he makes any mistakes the tribesmen might well change their allegiance to her. If she were backed by a strong man she would have an even better chance of ousting him as leader, and Case is definitely a strong man. Ratina is certainly interested in the idea of setting up Case as an alternative leader to the brother she hates.
Case has his own problems. The tribesmen are planning an attack on Fort Kandahar and while Case is delighted at the idea of seeing the British humiliated (and even more enticed by the idea of killing Colonel Drewe) he’s not so keen on the idea of the general massacre that both Ali Khan and Ratina have in mind.
Case is a man trapped between two worlds. He has tried to give his loyalty wholeheartedly to the British but is embittered by what he sees as their unwillingness to accept him fully and even more embittered by the court-martial which he sees as an outrageous injustice. But he cannot bring himself to betray them completely. He is not at home in either world. The casual cruelty of Ali Khan and Ratina repels him as much as the stiff-necked prejudice of Colonel Drewe. Ronald Lewis’s performance has been much criticised but I like its subtlety. He doesn’t give way to emotional outbursts or soul-searching angst because he was brought up as an Englishman. He represses his emotions, as he has been taught to do.
Oliver Reed’s scenery-chewing performance has been equally criticised, and again I think unfairly. He’s a charismatic larger-than-life leader whose leadership depends on being charismatic and larger-than-life. And unlike Case he has never learnt to repress his emotions.
Yvonne Romain is effectively seductive and cruel as Ratina and her obvious sexual excitement at watching men kill each other adds a nice touch of perversity. She also shows a formidable amount of cleavage, and does so at every opportunity.
John Gilling’s script does its best to handle the issue of colonialism even-handedly. Ali Khan might be vicious but he’s brave and in his own way he’s a patriot. Colonel Drewe is unable to overcome his prejudices but he’s a courageous and skillful soldier. Case is on one level a traitor but he’s genuinely torn in his loyalties. Ratina is even more vicious than Ali Khan but she’s equally brave and sees herself as fighting in a just cause. Anyone who’s read anything of the history of British India, and especially the horrors and massacres of the Mutiny in 1857, will not see Ali Khan’s ruthlessness or Ratina’s enjoyment of cruelty as being unrealistic. Religious or nationalist fanaticism unleashes passions that all too often lead to exactly this type of cruelty.
None of the characters are merely simplistic villains. They all believe they have right on their side. Cleverly, the movie doesn’t actually show us what happened on the fateful mission in which Captain Connelly was captured. We cannot be entirely certain that Case has told the full story with absolute truthfulness and more importantly we cannot be certain that Case is being completely honest with himself in believing there was no way he could have saved Connelly. Having Connelly out of the way was definitely very convenient indeed from his point of view and in the circumstances the suspicions of Captain Boyd and Colonel Drewe are not totally unreasonable. Perhaps Case really has been the victim of an injustice, but when he says there wasn’t one chance in a thousand of saving Connelly the possibility remains that if he hadn’t been sleeping with Connelly’s wife he might have taken that chance. It’s a nice touch of ambiguity.
The movie’s one major fault is that it was much too ambitious for Hammer’s resources. This kind of adventure film needs spectacle but on a Hammer budget there was no alternative to the use of stock footage for the battle scenes and there was no alternative to shooting many outdoor scenes in the studio. Yes, they are obviously filmed in a studio and yes the process shots are rather obvious but unless someone was going to give Hammer an extra million pounds or so it’s hard to see how else they could have made it.
The use of English actors blacked up will cause apoplexy to the politically correct but that’s a classic case of trying to impose our age’s values on another age. That’s the way movies were made in 1965. The important thing is that Gilling does try to address complex issues of race and colonialism in a critical and sensitive manner.
The Studiocanal DVD is a very good 16x9 enhanced transfer that preserves the correct Cinemascope ratio.
Not one of Hammer’s great films but much better and much more entertaining than its reputation would suggest. Despite the flaws inherent in its cheapjack budget it manages to be quite entertaining and exciting. Worth a look for fans of adventure movies.