North West India, 1905, and there has been unrest there for some time as a result of Moslem rebels trying to overthrow the British rulers and the Hindus who control the region. Now it looks as if the rebels have their chance as they lay siege to the Rajah's palace and kill him, with his five-year-old son (Govind Raja Ross) the only heir and the sole hope that there may be stability achieved in the area. But first the British authorities must free the young boy from danger, and to do that they have to smuggle him out of the place on a rickety steam train...
Obviously in 1959 there was one British film star who would be man enough for that task, no, not John Mills but Kenneth More, beloved by audiences in his home nation for his good humour, unswerving sense of decency, and ability to keep his head while under pressure. Playing Captain Scott, he was ideal as the officer in whose hands the mission is safe, but the plot was not as straightforward as it might have appeared on the surface, as there were hidden depths as well as perils to be taken into account, not to mention a capable ensemble cast who were rather marvelous under the circumstances. Although often called the British Stagecoach, that was not to denigrate the quality here.
Indeed, in comparison with the John Ford classic this might not have been its equal in renown and reputation, but it was every bit as effective at both getting the adrenaline pumping and delving into the character interplay, and in some ways it bettered it as in that earlier favourite nobody began to discuss the justification for the American Indians' warlike behaviour and which side was really more moral. While the Moslems are ostensibly the villains as they wish to kill the little prince, you could just as well say the British have played their part in sending the situation into these dire results in the first place, and Scott is by no means given a pass simply because he is a soldier in a supposedly more civilised army.
So every time there is a lull in the action, the script (based on a story in part by Ford's son) filled up these stretches with the characters onboard the train stating their cases and finding some kind of agreement which was escaping those battling in the surrounding countryside. It was this intelligence which highlighted the difference between a simple rollicking adventure and a work which was a cut above the ordinary tales of derring do which preoccupied the cinema of the United Kingdom of this era - director J. Lee Thompson had already demonstrated his skill with merging the two angles in the acknowledged classic Ice Cold in Alex, and with this proved his worth with both the actors and the more kinetic sequences. The Brits did love their locomotive-based movies, and North West Frontier could hold its head high with the best of them.
Among that cast were Lauren Bacall as the resourceful wife of a doctor who she has lost along the way, an American who is none too convinced by the benefits of any side and sees the more personal picture as she tries to help those caught in the crossfire: an excellent performance, and far preferable to the weaker, more admiring heroine lesser films might have depicted. Then there was Herbert Lom, superb as the journalist who invites himself onto the train and proceeds to demolish the complacency of the other passengers with his sly wits - but is he capable of turning against them? He certainly seems to be welcoming the inevitable break up of the Empire, lending the proceedings even more of a siege mentality which amped up the tension significantly.
Wilfrid Hyde-White too may have been playing his usual silly ass Englishman, but he sees his polite, almost unthinking concern for humanity tested when he must face up to the fact there are a lot of violent people out there who don't deal in such niceties. Popular Indian comedian I.S. Johar also struck a humane note as the driver, humorous but no token he as he lightly explains how killing is anathema to him, but he can accept - and lament - why it has come to this in his native land. Suspense and action sequences including ambushes and a nearly destroyed bridge for the train to travel over added to the excitement, accompanied by increasingly terse conversations which alternated with an understanding - but which would win the by the end of the day? Although not as lauded as it should be, often lumped in with more staid and stodgy adventures, North West Frontier deserved every bit of praise it received. Music by Mischa Spoliansky.