Star: George Arliss
Exotic stories about India were commonplace in the pulp era and Hollywood was more than happy to play along, usually with Nigel de Brulier in some local garb. He specialised in such exotic roles, seemingly playing every fakir and witch doctor Hollywood ever needed. He was the Tsering Lama a year earlier in The Wheel of Life and a year later he'd be Rao Rama, the Holy Man in Jacques Feyder's Son of India. In between he was a Russian, a witch doctor and the mysterious Elijah in Moby Dick. Sure enough he's here too, as the Temple Priest of the kingdom of Rukh, a remote kingdom in the Himalayas, though he looks and sounds far more like a Klingon, as do his faithful. Given that the Raja of Rukh is also in trouble with the Ferengis, I can't help but wonder about how often Gene Roddenberry saw this movie.
Released in 1930, it was actually completed in 1929 so as you might expect the sound is problematic, but it's capable and we can keep up with almost everything that's going on without the static being too annoying. In fact the most annoying part is that the sound was originally released on Vitaphone disc, only being added to the film itself at a later date and forcing the picture to be shifted left to accomodate it. That means that the left edge is cropped away throughout, something that's especially noticeable during the opening credits but on occasion also crops away the character who's speaking and prompts us to curse the projectionist.
Sound apart, technically it's variable. The wing mounted camerawork is terrible but the modelwork is surprisingly good, as a plane is forced down into Rukh under harsh circumstances, to crash against a tree but fortunately leave the occupants unharmed. The pilot is Dr Basil Treherne and he's escorting Maj and Mrs Crespin to see their children in some remote corner of India. The Crespins are on dubious terms, because of something the Major has done that we're not told about, but they're still married. That doesn't stop the doctor from looking at her though, and perhaps she at him too. She's the lovely Alice Joyce and he's the manly Ralph Forbes, after all, while she's married to H B Warner, as officious and military as a only pulp Englishman can be.
It's great to see H B Warner again, as he was one of the great underrated actors of the era, but he succumbs more than a little to overacting here. There's a lot of that going on from everyone involved, as if this was all done on a first take or as if everyone deliberately plays up to the unabashed pulp nature of the story. Perhaps all these silent screen regulars were still adapting to the fact that they could talk. Alice Joyce in particular was in her last year of making films after a couple of hundred of them, almost entirely silent, since 1910. She reprised her role here from the 1923 version. Ralph Forbes lasted longer under sound but had a decade of silent films behind him already. Warner himself was a silent star whose portrayal of Jesus in the silent version of The King of Kings is still my favourite thus far.
Like all the characters in this film, surprisingly based on a play by William Archer rather than a story from the pulp magazines, Maj Crespin is something of a pulp stereotype and Warner plays up to that to no small degree. He's the English officer who combines manners, good breeding and self sacrifice with a peculiar colonial arrogance. Whenever he does something that offends the locals, like inadvertently sitting on one of their stone idols, he blithers, 'Well why didn't they say so?' even though they did and he merely doesn't speak their language. 'How was I supposed to know they worship a block of stone?'
Warner is not the star of the film though, that honour going to Mr George Arliss, the 'Mr' included on the title card, and he's a bizarre delight as the Raja of Rukh. He's a very educated Raja, fluent in English, impeccably polite and rather fond of quaint colloquialisms. He appears small and perhaps a little frail but is always utterly in control of his surroundings. We get the feeling that he's something of a mischevious god who could snap his fingers and make the world end, the only question being whether he really wants to or not. The turban makes his face look even more like a caricature, appearing precisely as it would in an exaggerated satirical cartoon, and the prominent lipstick and blush add more than a little effeminate touch. 'Of all the infernal purring devils,' says Maj Crespin, aptly, as there's a lot of infernal purring going on.
Arliss was one of the oldest actors working in early Hollywood, a man of considerable talent who won an Academy Award in 1929 for portraying Benjamin Disraeli, becoming both the first Briton to win an Oscar and the first actor to win for playing a real person. He was also nominated for this film, given that these were the days when people could be nominated more than once in the same category. He even discovered Bette Davis, so we can hardly discount his importance. As you might expect given the timeframe, he was also a highly regarded stage name, one who regarded the cinema as a lesser art, and he certainly appears to be playing to an audience for much of this film. He knew the material well, having played the Raja on stage and in the original silent film version in 1923. There are points where he seems to be reading from cue cards, as there are so many surreptitious eye movements to the camera, but perhaps as he knew the part so well it's really just sly Oriental cunning.
The story is a minor affair, revolving around the fact that three of the Raja's brothers have been condemned to death by the Ferengi in India for the crime of murder, and while he's the epitome of the civilised host he's almost pained to point out that his people are barbarians and that his Klingon temple priest and his followers live by the code of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life. Given the circumstances, having three westerners dropped into their laps must have been a sign from their goddess that they should be sacrificed. So everyone plays their part in these pulp games, including a fifth English speaking character called Watkins who's a low class Cockney thug in a bowler hat and dinner suit. He serves as the Raja's prime minister and his entire cabinet, but he's really just a thug who isn't welcome in either England or India.
This really isn't a good film, but it's blistering pulp entertainment, albeit frequently in the wrong way. When the Raja first arrives with much ballyhoo, preceded by wild men throwing scimitars into the air, one of them can't catch and the weapon clobbers him on the head with what must surely have been a fatal blow just before he walks off screen. Watkins is almost the epitome of the fish out of water, utterly ridiculous in his situation which makes him appear far more of a crude gentleman's gentleman, and George Arliss has so much fun with his role that it's impossible not to be engaged by the sheer insanity of it, not least when the apparently gay Raja forcibly seduces Lucilla Crespin or when he's flinging out hilarious asides to the camera after scenes finish.
Best of all are the amazing coincidences, if they truly are such, to hindsight. This film was made in 1930, no less than 36 years before Star Trek came along, but the similarities are palpable. Apparently the Klingons were invented by Star Trek scriptwriter Gene L Coon and I'm not seeing a reference to this film as an influence. There is also no Indian tribe called Ferengi but the word derives from eastern words meaning 'foreigner'. Perhaps the sources were merely the same. The other hilarious coincidence is the use of a piece of music while the Raja is entertaining his guests and explaining to them what an unfortunate fate they are going to reach. The Raja even namechecks it before it's placed onto his record deck, but even those who don't recognise the name of Charles Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette probably recognise it as the theme tune for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, highly appropriate given that Hitch found impish delight in his polite descriptions of the macabre.
By any standards used to rate movies, this is not a good one. The flaws are everywhere and more than obvious, the plot holes wide and the coincidences so unfortunate that we see far more in this film than was ever intended to be there. We see a Klingon Bird of Prey shimmer into reality right behind the English air fleet that come to save the day. We imagine Scotty beaming up the Crespins from the admirably huge sets right before Shatner lays out Nigel de Brunier cold with a punch to the jaw and a double handed club to the back. And we know that George Arliss was channelling Hitch for his final comment to the camera. It's all utterly delightful but mostly for the wrong reasons. And hey, in a black and white film, how do we know which one has the red shirt?