Ratina: You trust this man?Ali Khan: Like my own brother.Ratina: You killed your brother.Ali Khan: That is why I trust him.
You might think that any film featuring dialogue like this, where one of the principles is a wildly over the top Oliver Reed, might at least be worth a look for the delights of its script alone. Sadly, this exchange is one of the few highlights of a Hammer studios production that wastes an intriguing premise and is notable only for being Reed’s final film for Hammer, and for the possibility that it may well have been the inspiration for Carry On Up the Khyber.
Ronald Lewis plays Lieutenant Robert Case, a serving officer of mixed race descent in the British Raj. And as this is set in the 1880s, this means he has plenty of enemies who object to his rise through the ranks. However, because this was made in the 1960s, it also meant casting an actor who looked about as Indian as a Yorkshire pudding and blacking him up.
Racial insensitivities of yesteryear aside, the action kicks off with Case reporting back to his superiors following the capture of a fellow officer by local bandits. But what’s that? The captured officer was also the husband of the woman with whom Case was having an affair? Well, that’s just not cricket now, is it? So before you can say “trumped up charge”, Case is jailed for cowardice, escapes and is forced to join up with a group of rebels led by Ali Khan (Oliver Reed), a half-mad, Oxbridge educated despot (some things never change). Case then swears to take revenge on Colonel Drewe (Duncan Lamont), the man responsible for his downfall.
At this point you might be hoping for a fast paced drama of derring-do that examines the conflicting loyalties at work within a character who feels the pull of two distinct cultures, but knows he can never truly be accepted by either. Although this may have been the intention, such efforts are undermined by plodding direction, unconvincing performances and some muddled characterisation.
Director John Gilling would go on to deliver a couple of excellent Hammer horrors the following year with Plague Of The Zombies and The Reptile. Both of these films would demonstrate comparatively high production values that belied their limited budgets and proved how effective a director Gilling could be. However, The Brigand Of Kandahar looks like a movie that has been thrown together, an impression compounded by the fact that it saw Oliver Reed, Ronald Lewis and Yvonne Romain seeing out their Hammer contracts, as well as being the last film Columbia Pictures co-produced with the British studio. A sense of “let’s just get this one of the way” permeates the whole production.
Its cheapness is illustrated best in some battle scenes that initially look impressive, before one of the actors is superimposed in the foreground and you realise that Gilling was using stock footage from another film entirely (the Victor Mature vehicle Zarak in fact). The only original battle footage Gilling musters up is very studio-bound, and although the leads and dozens of extras attack these scenes with gusto, it takes the sort of suspension of disbelief found only in the most devoted fans to find any of it particularly convincing.
None of which would be insurmountable if the performers were more believable. Unfortunately, Ronald Lewis as Case is terribly miscast and wears the same unyielding expression throughout, a stoic mask of supressed fury tinged with a whisper of sorrow. At least that’s what you might guess he was attempting to convey. Most of the time he wears the sort of look of impotent rage you might see on someone who’d just got home from a hard day at the office, only to find that one of their kids had finished off that chocolate éclair the Mrs had got for them, and which they’d really been looking forward to all day.
As for Oliver Reed, his performance consists mainly of the kind of dastardly cackling only ever associated with maniacal movie villains, the kind that in real life usually ends in a lung busting coughing fit and some concerned pats on the back. As good an actor as Reed was, he could also be a ham of Porky Pig proportions, and this movie proves it, showing little sign of the heights he would be capable of hitting at other times in his career.
Although there are very few actors who come out of the whole enterprise with much credibility, one who does is Glyn Houston, a very familiar face from British films and TV for almost 50 years. As a journalist sent out to the region by the Times, Houston appears destined to emerge as the hero that the film so desperately needs, the one character who exhibits any sort of moral compass and with whom the audience can identify. It’s a shame, then, that he is too readily side-lined for this to ever transpire.
So what we’re left with is Lieutenant Case, Ali Khan and Colonel Drew; three antagonists who frequently seem as bad as each other, although clearly our sympathies are supposed to lie with Case. There’s a moment towards the end that seems to be urging us to believe that Case was the tragic hero, as it attempts to evoke (and blatantly rips off) the melodramatic climax of King Vidor’s Duel In The Sun (1946). But given that the scene takes place between two characters who up to that point have demonstrated an almost complete absence of any feelings for each other whatsoever, it comes across as flat, half-hearted and disingenuous. Rather like the film itself.
Despite all of this, it is good to see some of Hammer’s historical adventures getting a release on DVD with this film being released at the same time as Gilling’s The Scarlet Blade. Although it held a deserved reputation for producing distinctive and memorable horror films for well over three decades, it was its adventures, mysteries and comedies that saw the studio grow from its inception in the 1930s.
Unfortunately, The Brigand Of Kandahar isn’t the sort of film that can compare with the best of the studio’s output. As an example of Hammer’s alternate fare, it is unlikely to persuade anybody other than genuine devotees that the studio’s talents were best employed on anything other than horror.
You can rent or buy The Brigand Of Kandahar at Blockbuster.co.uk.