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From Afghanistan With Love

Movies

Since the dawn of talkies, films have set stories from Kipling to modern warfare in the once-remote nation.

December 30, 2001|DAN BAGOTT

Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda gang, the Taliban, the U.S. and Northern Alliance forces and even the invading Soviet military of the 1980s all rate as Johnnies-come-lately to Afghanistan. In contrast, Hollywood--with a frequent salaam of thanks to Rudyard Kipling--has been making war in Afghanistan for more than 70 years and along the way managed to turn out Adolf Hitler's favorite movie. The films vary greatly in quality but almost all make use of that country's rugged landscape, unfamiliar (at least to Western eyes) customs and warlike inhabitants.

The Hollywood-Afghanistan connection began in 1929 with "The Black Watch," directed by John Ford and starring Victor McLaglen and Myrna Loy. Also in 1929, Sovkino, the Soviet Union's government cinema agency of the time, cranked out "Afghanistan," a documentary probably ranking as the first motion picture filmed on location in that land.

"The Black Watch" was the first full-length talkie directed by Ford, who had not yet gained the eminence he was to have in later years even though he had already racked up credits as a director, producer, screenwriter or actor on 38 films. Loy played an Afghan princess who, luckily for McLaglen's character, a captured British Army officer, falls in love with him. He is thereby spared the princess' usual punishment for POWs: castration. An unknown by the name of John Wayne appeared as an extra.

(The film was remade in 1953 as "King of the Khyber Rifles," directed by Henry King and starring Tyrone Power.)

Tales by Kipling have provided much Hollywood plot material, a good portion involving Afghan settings. Hollywood's usual Kipling gambit has been to follow his plots loosely. For instance, in 1937 for "Wee Willie Winkie," which included Afghan settings, 20th Century Fox ordered screenwriters Julien Josephson and Ernest Pascal to perform a sex change on the central character to adapt the role for its wildly popular star Shirley Temple, thereby assuring the film's box office success.

In another case of surgery, RKO in 1939 turned "Gunga Din" into an unlikely screen success. A colorful but simple Kipling poem glorifying a faithful bhisti (water boy) serving a British regiment on the fabled Northwest Frontier between India and Afghanistan, "Gunga Din" offered scarcely a plot. Nevertheless, at the behest of producer Pandro S. Berman, a writing team--including noted playwrights and screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and novelist William Faulkner--inflated it into a big-budget hit that starred Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Fontaine and McLaglen.

Sam Jaffe starred as Gunga--in those days, racial authenticity in casting wasn't a factor. Another example of this was "Drums," a 1938 British release that was shot in Afghanistan in the Khyber Pass. Wearing suitable makeup, Raymond Massey starred as beetle-browed Prince Ghul, an Indian with an attitude problem--or maybe he was an Afghan or a Persian or some kind of central Asian. The writers of vintage Afghan shoot-'em-ups sometimes were negligent in nailing down the specific bloodlines of their characters.

It should be pointed out that these films belong to a class of Union Jack-waving, Rule Britannia, "sun never sets on the British Empire" productions that during the 1930s were a distinct trend in Hollywood, one that experienced a modest revival in the '50s. The stories, presented in the context of the Raj--the British colonial regime in India--were set in the era long before Pakistan gained independence from India in 1947.

In those days, it was India proper (not Pakistan) that directly adjoined Afghanistan, and the British troops in the films were characteristically stationed along the storied Northwest Frontier that divided the two lands. In them, the Tommies did a lot of ominous muttering about who and what lay beyond the Khyber Pass, the historic crossing point between the two countries that to movie audiences once seemed impossibly remote and romantic, but that today has become almost a household term to news junkies.

In these movies, the Brits invariably used the Khyber Pass to march into Afghanistan to confront various legions of Pathan (or Pushtun) tribesmen, who were forever rebelling, massacring, kidnapping, smuggling and committing other forms of villainy.

Hollywood seemed to have, in fact, a fixation on the Khyber Pass. Unlike the suddenly Afghanistan-hip audiences today, moviegoers of five or six decades ago easily got the impression from these films that the whole of Afghanistan consisted of no more than a piddling expanse of desert and mountains at the western end of the pass.

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