NOT Available on DVD: KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES
Article by Dana Jung
When I was a kid, in between wanting to be Spider-Man and serving aboard the starship Enterprise, I wanted to join the Khyber Rifles. All my friends wanted to join, too. We had seen this really cool movie on the late show called KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES, and it was full of adventure, romance, and exotic locales. It had one of Hollywood’s most versatile and underrated directors in Henry King, a stirring musical score by the great Bernard Herrmann, plus one of the great matinee idol action stars, Tyrone Power. Unfortunately, none of us grew up to be Ty Power, and our quest went unfulfilled. But now, as an adult, I find myself occasionally wanting to relive those exciting scenes of derring-do, which is difficult, since KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES is not available on DVD.
Released in 1953 by 20th Century Fox, KHYBER RIFLES is based on a best-selling book by British author Talbot Mundy. Mundy popularized a more modern and rugged version of the historical romance adventure story, and whether it was Vikings, Roman warriors, or the British India he was most familiar with, his exciting style influenced everyone from Robert E. Howard (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) to Robert E. Heinlein (STARSHIP TROOPERS). Director King and his screenwriters, however, basically jettisoned the bulk of Mundy’s plot, but kept the main character and reworked the story into a sort of Middle Eastern FORT APACHE. Captain Alan King (Power) is a half-caste British officer who must not only deal with the prejudice of his fellow officers, but the guilt he sometimes feels for the British rule of the indigenous Indian people. Themes of racism run throughout KHYBER RIFLES, especially in the first half of the film, as the characters and plot elements are introduced. As a British officer complains about the stagnant heat, the film cuts briefly to a servant continuously pulling the rope that operates an overhead fan. When Capt. King is not invited to the Queen’s birthday celebration, the outraged daughter (Terry Moore) of the Commanding Officer (Michael Rennie) confronts her father with, “You mean he’s allowed to die for the Queen, but her birthday party is out-of bounds!”. However, King never allows the movie to become heavy-handed or preachy, as he emphasizes the ominous threat of revolution and war, and lets the love story subplot unfold in several beautifully shot set pieces. But the action enthusiast will be satisfied by the film’s conclusion, as King leads his Khyber Rifles on a daring nighttime raid of the enemy camp.
The comparison to Ford’s FORT APACHE is an apt one. Both films are set at an isolated outpost on the frontier; both have stern commanding officers with strong-willed daughters; both portray the daily lives of the cavalry soldier.
But KHYBER RIFLES may be the more successful film at weaving its themes of bigotry, and in portraying the romantic aspects of the story. And it is definitely superior to FORT APACHE in one respect – KHYBER RIFLES was shot in CinemaScope! And it has bagpipes! The veteran director King brought us many, many enjoyable films, including several with Power (another favorite, THE BLACK SWAN, is available on DVD).
Power’s performance shows why he was such a great action adventure star for over 20 years in Hollywood. In KHYBER RIFLES, he is every bit the British officer. Every salute is sharp and crisply done, his posture perfect.
Details like these, plus his restrained and stoic delivery, show a great commitment to the part. Captain King is a complex man, but sees his role as the simple one of the British officer. When asked if he minds the sometimes prejudiced attitude towards him, he replies, “I mind, but I hope for the best. The world’s still young.”
Michael Rennie again delivers a solid and subtle performance, of a man torn amongst his duty to his country, his parental duty to his daughter, and his duty to his own conscience. Terry Moore has lived a fairly picturesque life, even by Hollywood standards. A former child actress, she became a contract player who starred opposite just about every major male star, from John Wayne to Cary Grant. Oscar-nominated (COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA), cult film star (MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, TV’s BATMAN – she played Venus), much-married with children, Moore’s career never achieved that high level of stardom, and she drifted into television roles and low-budget features. In the 1970’s, she regained some notoriety by claiming to be secretly married to Howard Hughes. She ended up accepting a settlement, then posed nude for Playboy Magazine. In KHYBER RIFLES, her performance is the heart and moral center of the picture. She decries the bigotry she witnesses as “stupid and hateful”‚ but has a compassionate insight into human nature. “Your mother and father must have been very much in love” she tells Captain King on his mixed parentage, “to stand together against a world.”
Incidentally, the Khyber Rifles Frontier Corps actually existed, and may still exist today (they’ve been disbanded a few times). The character of Captain King was loosely based on a real person, Sir Robert Warburton, who was himself the half-caste child of a British artillery soldier and an Afghan princess. He commanded the Khyber Rifles for several decades in the 1800’s. If you want to learn more about the Khyber Rifles, you’ll need to check your local library or the internet. But if you want to see KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES, you’ll have to catch it on the late, late show as I did as a kid, because it was never released in this country on video or DVD.