Storylines In Review

The Outpost Command Crisis | InterTitle Historical Review Part 1 
Storyline: A command crisis develops at a remote outpost when danger threatens.

There seem to have been almost no examples of the storyline prior to the 20th century, though events that inspired later works happened in the 19th-C colonial era – the siege-battles that became the basis of Zulu [1964] and Khartoum [1966], for example. Perhaps there were too many embarrassing aspects to these events for those who studied them, which only more modern works would be free to deal with. Or it may have been such incidents were simply too depressing, grim and bloody for a mainstream literary or dramatic version. The same could be said for the 1836 siege of the Alamo, with apparently no novels or films about it for over a century. Similarly, the Alamo-style holdout of French Foreign Legionnaires, almost to the last man, at a Mexican hacienda at the Battle of Camerone in 1863, which established their reputation for toughness, does not seem to have been novelised or dramatised, apart from a recent self-published novel by Ian Colquhoun.

At the start of the 20C, the Boer War of 1899-1902 was also current. But it seems to have produced no novels celebrating its main real-life besieged-outpost battle, of the garrison town of Mafeking. The siege’s defending commander, Baden-Powell, being still alive and busy founding the Boy Scouts, was an untouchable celebrity hero. (He was believed to have illegally executed a native chief taken prisoner during the earlier Matabele War.) The other Boer War incident of potential interest here, the controversial 1902 events at an outpost in the Northern Transvaal which led to the first war-crimes trials of British officers for shooting POWs, was likely also regarded as out of bounds; it would only become a subject of popular drama in 1980 with the filmed Australian play Breaker Morant, written partly as an anti-colonial protest.

The 1879 siege of Rorke's Drift would not be dramatised onscreen until the 1960s, and its more controversial Zulu Wars 'prequel' event, the overrunning the day before of a British camp at Isandlwana, which is only shown in a brief prologue in the 1964 film Zulu (mouse over photo to see 2nd image), would not appear onscreen until 1979, with Zulu Dawn.

The 1884-5 siege of Khartoum similarly did not appear onscreen (apart from a brief prologue in the 1939 film The Four Feathers showing Gordon's death), until the 1960s, with a script by anthropologist Robert Ardrey. (Gordon was speared and his head cut off as a trophy, as the 1966 film shows.)

Aspects of the Boer War which would touch on British policy cruelties did not make it to the screen (apart from the 1941 Nazi film biopic Ohm Krüger, which showed Kitchener's concentration camps run by a Churchill-lookalike, and was not shown outside Axis countries.) until 1980 with the filmed Australian play Breaker Morant, which dealt with events at a forward base leading to the first war-crimes trials of British officers.

Above: Various besieged-outpost incidents from 19C British colonial history would not be filmed for some years. (Stills from Zulu 1964, Khartoum 1966, and Breaker Morant 1980)

Below: Drums Along The Mohawk [1939], perhaps the first US Technicolor instance of the storyline, from Walter D. Edmonds' 1936 bestselling novel, has a similar setting to Last Of The Mohicans and ends with a fort siege.

For some reason, the besieged-outpost scenario had not yet migrated to the popular western setting either, which it would do after WW2. Even the well-known 1836 siege of the Alamo did not receive a film treatment until the 1950s. A siege type of story may have been regarded by producers as too downbeat for US mainstream audiences.
There were some early American novels which dealt with sieges of frontier outposts such as the 1757-set The Last Of The Mohicans [1826] by Fenimore Cooper (filmed half a dozen times). But the storylines in these early works were not developed in our present context, the main characters not being those in charge of the outpost. The protagonists of the Colonial-era frontier-settlement story Drums Along The Mohawk [1939] for example are settlers from New York who simply get caught up in the war.

The one scene that would appear later in some versions of the storyline seems to be the ambush and massacre of fort inhabitants through treachery, after the departing occupants find their safe conduct promise ignored, as in The Last Of The Mohicans. (The scene would also appear in film versions set in India, inspired by real-life 19C incidents there, like the Cawnpore Massacre of 1857.)
Left - The Last Of The Mohicans, 1992: the fort’s occupants surrender under a French promise of safe passage, which proves meaningless to their Huron allies, and are caught out in the open. The resulting massacre, based on an actual 1757 incident (the surrender of Ft William Henry), was treated discreetly in the earlier versions, and would only be shown in all its brutality in the 1992 film version shown here. The 'company marching into an ambush' would become a standard scene.


Left: The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Kipling also likely used real-life incidents from 19C colonial history for inspiration, of ex-soldiers setting themselves up as ‘white rajah’ figures among the tribes. His 1888 novella has a pair of redcoated ex-soldiers overreaching themselves, with disastrous results, by setting up as petty rulers in a citadel in a tribal territory beyond India’s Northwest Frontier. Around half the standard motifs that would accumulate around the storyline are already present here in some form. Despite earlier plans to film it, a screen version would not appear until the mid-70s, when some of the touchier ‘imperialist’ issues could be dramatised without censorship.

The classic 1902 novel The Four Feathers by AEW Mason (1865–1948), set in the Sudan during the 1880s Mahdist campaign, was not a besieged-outpost story, but did anticipate some motifs and was influential partly through its film versions.

There were silent film versions from 1915 on, the only major instance being the 1929 one. Made just after talkies arrived, it was technically dated from the outset with lengthy dialogue scenes lacking intertitles, and many scenes set at night. It was filmed in California with some African wildlife scenes added as a gimmick (it was shot by Cooper & Schoedsack, who made wildlife documentaries, and later King Kong). The story, written by Hope Loring, Howard Estabrook, John Farrow, Julian Johnson [titles], compacts the novel's plot and the climax has the disgraced hero redeeming himself by saving a relief company when they are ambushed as they march through the pass to relieve 'Fort Khar'.

Right: The Four Feathers [1929]. A Highland Regiment detachment en route as a relief force are ambushed on their approach to the fort guarding the pass, and quickly adopt the famous British square formation. (The scene is an addition to the novel.)

In the 1920s, the much-filmed bestselling novel Beau Geste popularised the remote Saharan Foreign Legion outpost setting.

English author PC Wren (1875–1941) may or may not have served in the Foreign Legion, but he created an instant classic of Legion literature with his 1924 novel Beau Geste. Initially this is another tale of a gentleman ranker hiding in the ranks of the Legion from a financial scandal back home, but it develops into a major besieged-outpost climactic sequence, whose aftermath opens the story, the rest being a flashback.
The story has an eerie opening: a relief column arrives at a besieged outpost only to find its walls manned by dead men, propped up in the embrasures. A letter on one legionnaire launches the back story (set elsewhere) before returning to the fate of Fort Zinderneuf, whose tale unfolds in flashback. Its garrison was preparing to mutiny under the brutal regime of its NCO commandant, but this was pre-empted by a Tuareg attack (for no apparent reason, except as a plot device). The brutal NCO, Lejaune (Markoff in the 1939 film) disguises the garrison’s losses by propping up the corpses in their firing positions and have the survivors move around firing from different embrasures. There was a silent screen version made in 1926 but the most famous film version was in 1939, during the 1930s ‘cinema of empire’ cycle.

Above: The Yuma Desert’s large sand dunes, in southwestern Arizona, were a great location asset for Hollywood studios, used for a number of Sahara-set adventure films. Typically, a Legion column would wind scenically around atop the dunes, as illustrated here. (Images from Under Two Flags 1936 and Beau Geste 1939).

Left: screenshots from the 1926 version of Beau Geste. The Tuaregs attack, and the relief column arrives, too late (mouse over image to see 2nd photo)

Right: stills from the 1939 version. The story has one of the great mystery openings in adventure literature, as the relief column arrives at a fort manned by dead Legionnaires

(There's a Hollywood anecdote that at the 1939 Beau Geste premiere, the first reel of the 1926 film was shown to demonstrate how far production methods had come. But it backfired when the reviewers noticed the new film was a shot-for-shot remake. It's also possible the same fort, left as a standing set in 1926, was reused.)

PC Wren followed up his bestselling with a rather ad hoc semi-sequel, Beau Ideal, and the director who made the 1926 silent version tackled this as an expensive early talkie in 1931, scripted by Elizabeth Meehan. The novel's structure is convoluted and unconvincing, and its talkiness doomed it as a box office flop, but it has another Arab attack on a Legion post, plus a column being surrounded out in the scenic Yuma sand dunes. It was an expensive production with a new and large Legion garrison outpost built, and it's said that its box office losses put an end to Foreign Legion films until the end of the decade.

Soon after Beau Geste was published in 1924, British author Philip Macdonald [1900-80] published Patrol (1927, reissued as The Lost Patrol), about a British cavalry patrol during the 1920s Mesopotamian Campaign, which the author had served in with the cavalry. Cut off and stranded at a ruined fort in the desert, they are whittled down one by one by unseen Arab snipers, the psychological strain causing them to lose what the military call situational awareness, with fatal consequences. Macdonald’s novel also became a bestseller and was the basis of Lost Patrol, a 1929 British production scripted by its director, Walter Summers, that is sadly now lost. Its 1934 US remake, The Lost Patrol, written by Dudley Nichols and Garrett Fort, became better known. Filmed in the Yuma Desert’s sand dunes by director John Ford, the 1934 film does not have the flashbacks to peacetime life the novel and 1929 film had, and concentrates on the men slowly becoming unhinged.

The Lost Patrol established the patrol strongpoint refuge as a story-setup device. Though this would be the last film adaptation, the setup was emulated by other cutoff-patrol war stories. One, the 1943 film Sahara, credits Macdonald’s novel as a source, though the story development and resolution are quite different. Another film cited as both inspired by MacDonald’s story and a source for Sahara [still, right] is the 1936 Soviet film Trinadsat (The Thirteen), set in the Central Asian desert. Bad Lands (1939), Bataan (1943) and Last of the Comanches (1953) are also cited by IMDB as versions of the same story.

Author Kim Newman in the July 2012 issue of film magazine Sight & Sound argued that films like Prometheus, Alien, Aliens, Predator and many other films in different genres:

western, war, action, adventure, jungle, horror and science fiction” - all ultimately derive from this one source of inspiration: “The plot about a unit separated from a home base — picked off one by one by a mostly unseen enemy and riven by tensions within the group that make one or more of the men as much a danger as the external opponent — goes back to Philip MacDonald’s 1927 novel Patrol set in Mesopotamia (yes, modern day Iraq) during World War I and drawn from the author’s personal experiences.

Below, left and right: The Lost Patrol, 1934 US version.


Left: The Lost Patrol. The 1934 US version of Philip Macdonald’s 1927 novel popularised the storyline in the context of a tiny forward outpost, cut off by an almost unseen enemy who kill off the protagonists one by one. Here, the outpost is a ruin at a Mesopotamian oasis, at which a British army patrol takes refuge.

Macdonald’s story setup has an existential bleakness: only their officer knew where they were going, and he was killed at the outset, leaving the patrol desperately lost, with no escape, and the men ‘losing’ it and being killed by an unseen enemy, one by one.


Under Two Flags (1936) was freely adapted from an 1867 best-selling novel by ‘Ouida’, the English novelist Maria Louise Ramé (1839–1908). The original novel was not a besieged-outpost Foreign Legion story, but became one in the finale of the 1936 film. There had been earlier film versions based on a 1901 stage play, but this was another of Hollywood’s free adaptations, in this case scripted by W.P. Lipscomb and Walter Ferris (with contributions, uncredited on screen, by Bess Meredyth and Allen Rivkin).
Under Two Flags first established the motif, reused in Beau Geste, of the 'gentleman ranker' who joins up to escape an entanglement or scandal back home. The military unit was changed from the Chasseurs d'Afrique to the Foreign Legion, with the main setting a garrison fort adjoining a desert town in Algeria. A finale was added where a relief column headed for a besieged-outpost commanded by the hero is ambushed, and has to be rescued by the Chasseurs d'Afrique, alerted by the garrison’s camp follower Cigarette, who is in love with the hero and rides for help, being then killed in the Chasseurs charge on the Tuareg camp.



Below: Under Two Flags (1936). The novel has the hero, who has joined the Legion to avoid disgrace back home, gaining the enmity of his senior officer over the love of a woman. The film version, with 2nd-unit exteriors filmed in the Yuma dunes, turned the novel into a besieged-outpost story in its 2nd half. Thus there are standard scenes such as the fort being surrounded by natives, and the relief-column marching out. The finale features a cavalry charge on the Arab camp by the Chasseurs d'Afrique, who were the military unit featured in the original 1867 novel. It ends with another standard scene, the posthumous award-for-bravery ceremony, in this case for the person who rode to get help. (Mouse over photos to see 2nd image.)

The ‘Tribal Territories’ on India’s Northwest Frontier Province, in what is today Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan, would be a popular screen setting from the 1930s through the 1950s. California also had an area to the northeast which resembled India’s Northwest Frontier. Hollywood studios were able to use this area of desert and giant boulders around near Lone Pine (soon nicknamed Movie Flats), on the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, to double the Himalayan foothills around the Khyber Pass. To aid this, the studios built a number of sets representing fortresses and towns - all shiny white ( as they were made of plaster), though photos of the real frontier show the actual forts were made of mud-baked brick.

Right: the Lone Pine area in The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer (1935), the first film to really exploit this location resource, and the first of Hollywood's cycle of northwest-frontier screen dramas. (Mouse over photo to see 2nd image.)

John Masters, the future author of a series of novels inspired by his own involvement as an officer in the Indian Army, drove across the USA while on leave in the 1930s and commented in his memoir Bugles And A Tiger (1956) that the Sierra Nevada foothills did genuinely resemble the Northwest Frontier, though he devoted a chapter to satirising the many costuming and other errors in such productions.

This general similarity of California’s desert-and-mountains back country became the scenic basis of Hollywood's Northwest Frontier cycle of films. Apart from a few industrial sand pits or quarry areas, British productions had no such location asset and used the real Northwest Frontier for exteriors.

Right: Britain's Northwest Frontier strategy was in part one of heading-the-enemy-off-at-the-pass by putting a fort at the near end to control access. This tactical move would provide the story setup for a series of screen dramas set here (and later in the US southwest with the cavalry versus the Apaches).
The map seen at the start of The Drum shows the national and political borders, the main east-west road between the British garrison town at Peshawar and the Afghan capital of Kabul being via the famous Khyber Pass. The 2nd image [mouse over to see it], from a 1935 Laurel & Hardy spoof called Bonnie Scotland, about the pair joining a Highland Regiment posted there, shows a rather literal interpretation of the strategy. (In reality, no fort would be built where an enemy could shoot down into it.)

Below: the real thing - Jamrud, the fort near Pesahwar that guarded the British end of the Khyber Pass.

This Northwest Frontier cycle did not get going until the 1930s. Some cinema historians have suggested Hollywood made its 1930s cycle of ‘cinema of empire’ films showing the British empire as bringing order to the rest of the world for political reasons. That is, they were covert anti-fascist vehicles at a time when it was unwise to be what was later called a ‘premature anti-fascist’. The first major such production came out in 1935, two years after the Nazis came to power and insisted Hollywood not produce films showing national socialism in a negative light. The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer (1935), scripted by William Slavens McNutt, Grover Jones, Waldemar Young, John L. Balderston and Achmed Abdullah, has 3 junior officers getting into trouble when they go off on their own and get captured, but ultimately foiling a native rising. It was nominally based on a 1930 memoir by an Indian Army officer (who ironically had fascist sympathies). It became one of Hitler’s favourite films, along with The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936), scripted by Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh.
Despite its title, the 1936 film was mainly set on the Northwest Frontier, ending with another massacre by treacherous locals of fort inhabitants after they surrendered. In the finale, the hero changes the regiment's orders to achieve revenge. Neither of these works is really based on their supposed source material– the bestselling 1930 Francis Yeats-Brown military memoir of his stint in the Bengal Lancers, or the famous Tennyson poem, though the latter uses its verses onscreen. Both films simply imposed new besieged-outpost storylines on titles that would be well-known to the public.

Above - The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936): the relief column discover the garrison was massacred when they surrendered, along with their families, who were given safe conduct downriver - a topical late-1930s reminder what can happen if you surrender to a ruthless fanatical enemy.

Wee Willie Winkie (1937) is a free, gender-switching adaptation (by Julien Josephson and Ernest Pascal), of an 1888 Kipling short story, here set in ‘Northern India’ in 1897, at an outpost guarding a key pass to rebel territory. This has the stiff-necked commandant’s young grand-daughter (Shirley Temple), adopted as a uniform-wearing mascot by the post’s Highland regiment, charming the local rebel leader into disarming. (The novelist Graham Greene, then working as a film critic for a literary magazine, wrote a scathing review implying that Temple was being used pruriently; her parents and the studio sued the magazine, successfully.) Director John Ford would recycle some scenes for his postwar Cavalry Trilogy, particularly the first, Fort Apache, which also co-starred Temple. The outpost sits near a strategic pass and after it is raided, and a key character killed, the precocious heroine is kidnapped to force the garrison to stage a suicidal attack on the rebels' impregnable mountain stronghold. This plot turn was used in The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer (1935), and would be reused in Gunga Din, below.

Right - Wee Willie Winkie (1937): The captive heroine tells the Pathan rebel leaders in their mountain fortress the British only want to bring peace and prosperity to the Pathans, by helping them become farmers, which gives them all a good laugh. The film's northwest-frontier outpost (mouse over photo to see 2nd image) was especially built for the film on the studio-ranch backlot.


The only 1930s production to show the real Northwest Frontier was The Drum [US title Drums, 1938], which had some 2nd unit Technicolor footage of a modern Indian Army battalion ascending the real Khyber Pass, and setting up its mule-mounted artillery battery when attacked. However the actors went nowhere near India, the dialogue scenes being shot in a quarry in Snowdonia, North Wales. The protagonists are saved from being treacherously massacred at a feast in the enemy palace by a loyal boy-prince (played by Sabu) beating a war-drum signal. This was a device which Gunga Din reused, with a bugle call replacing the drumbeat signal. (Sabu was to have played Gunga Din, but proved unavailable.)

It was produced and directed by the Korda brothers, a predecessor to their better-known The Four Feathers (1939). This was originally a tale of a disgraced British officer going off on his own to redeem himself, infiltrating the enemy by posing as a native. However the Korda brothers 1939 version turned it into more of a besieged-outpost story. The setting was updated from the start of the Mahdist War in 1882 to its finale with Kitchener's Omdurman campaign of 1898, to allow use of modern British troops (now in khaki rather than red coats) as extras, as well as to tie in with a historic imperial victory. It had a British patrol being overrun in its fortified desert camp, and massacred, despite the hero's trying to alert them; he then rescues a blinded fellow officer and conducts him through the desert and down the Nile to a British forward outpost. Later the Khartoum arsenal fortress, held by the Mahdi’s successors, is re-taken with the hero’s help in the midst of the British artillery assault at the Battle Of Omdurman.



Below, left and right: The 1939 version of The Four Feathers had key scenes that became standard. One is where the patrol is attacked in its makeshift strongpoint, and the hero gives the alarm just before the stealth attack is launched. There is also a finale involving the 1898 Omdurman battle to retake Khartoum being ended by the hero's intervention when he frees his fellow-officer prisoners and they hoist the union flag just in time to stop Kitchener's bombardment. This time Korda had the budget, as well as the official Army cooperation, to stage scenes shot on location in Technicolor in the Sudan, with British Army troops and hundreds of native extras re-enacting parts of the Omdurman campaign.

Above and below: The Drum was the first release to show the real Northwest Frontier, having 2nd unit scenes shot in the Khyber Pass with an Indian Army battalion heading up it, then unpacking their field artillery and engaging in a mock battle - in effect acting as extras. The main exteriors were shot on the slopes of a boulder-strewn mountain pass in North Wales, and at a fortress facade built on the studio backlot outside London, bolstered by a matte-painting effect to complete the illusion.

Gunga Din (1939), inspired by a Kipling poem and his ‘Soldiers Three’ stories, is otherwise a largely comedic rehash of The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer. It had no less than 10 scriptwriters – as Wikipedia puts it, “it was written by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol from a storyline by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with uncredited contributions by Lester Cohen, John Colton, William Faulkner, Vincent Lawrence, Dudley Nichols, and Anthony Veiller.” The Ben Hecht / Charles MacArthur contribution may have been to recycle the romantic-intrigue subplot they had used in the screwball comedy The Front Page for Howard Hawks, who had previously been assigned as director.)
The enemy here, nominally a revival of the Thuggee cult, is fanaticism, so that the British rule it wants to destroy comes across as reasonable by default. The film was banned in India by local censors after public protests that it portrayed Hindu customs disrespectfully and there were objections to it being shown in Britain.
The plot has the 3 sergeants sent out in command (an unlikely setup) of a patrol to check out an outpost where the telegraph wires have been cut, and stumbling on a Thugee force. Back at the garrison, one sergeant wants to get married and goes off to find a golden temple dome their water-bearer Gunga Din tells him about, only to discover it is a Thugee stronghold. The other two go after him without orders and are captured as well, but the wounded water-bearer alerts the approaching relief column they are riding into an ambush. He crawls to the top of the golden dome, and blows a bugle call before being shot by the rebels from all sides. The column quickly deploys and takes the mountain stronghold. Din's noble self-sacrifice is then honoured by a reading of the Kipling poem as a funerary ode. ("By the living god that made you, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.")

Gunga Din (1939), to drive the plot, used a 3-musketeers style 'army buddy' characterisation among 3 Indian-Army sergeants who like to laugh in the face of - fanaticism, danger or, whatever.
This 'three-musketeers' setup is threatened by one of them wanting to get married and go into the tea business, and the other two conspire to stop this. In the course of that attempt, they foil a native uprising led by a fanatical cult leader.

Gunga Din was a major box-office hit, while The Four Feathers would run in London through much of the war, and was later shown with The Drum as a double feature in America. This pair of patriotic Technicolor flagwaving dramas seems to have been the high-water mark of the ‘cinema of empire’ cycle, whose values had come to seem old-fashioned well before war's end.  

One unfinished 1930s project demonstrated how dated the cycle was in the postwar world. This was an attempt by MGM to revive the storyline with a property loosely based on several Kipling short stories. Soldiers Three (1951) had done its 2nd unit location filming back in 1935, with a scene ‘especially written by Kipling’ shot with Army cooperation in the real Khyber Pass. It was eventually filmed afresh in California and Utah postwar, from a script by 9 different writers (Tom Reed, Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Marjory Gaffney, Sidney Gilliat, Michael Hogan, Grover Jones, Vincent Lawrence , L. du Garde Peach and Marguerite Roberts). The credit for British scriptwriter Sidney Gilliat may be for his work on the planned prewar production. The result did have the 3 protagonists taking over an abandoned small forward outpost as a ploy to save the garrison at ‘Hyderalipore’ [sic] from attack. But most of the film is devoted to the 3 getting into comedic brawls etc. of the John Ford variety in an attempt at another Gunga Din style high-jinks romp. Wikipedia has the story of how it went wrong [see text at right]. It's a cautionary tale of how American tampering delayed and doomed the project.

The studio’s idea of a successful formula was evidently to take the story and turn it into a knockabout army-buddy comedy like Gunga Din. While WWII discredited the old 'Kitchener-wants-you' simple-minded ideal of self-sacrifice for king and country, it had also shown there was nothing funny about fights and battles. (After his own war service, Gunga Din's director George Stevens changed his style completely, away from comedy treatments.) The notion suggested by the producer’s public comments that a broad-comedy approach would avoid protests by making the film innocuous proved right in the sense it caused no reaction. (This doesn't include the embarrassment of its nominal star, Stewart Granger, who was forced under his studio contract to play a chirpy cockney type in the style of Cary Grant.) The original 1935 authentic footage shot in Khyber Pass with the army providing the extras for a sequence specially written by Kipling for the film, which would have been a first in various ways, seems to be have been lost forever. (Its director, Geoffrey Barkas, who had had a successful career till then, gave up the profession when the war began.)

-Wikipedia on Soldiers Three, begun in 1934 but not finished till 1951:

In 1934, it was announced that Gaumont British would make a film based on Soldiers Three.[3] A film crew was sent to India under Geoffrey Barkas to shoot second unit footage.[4] A script had been written based on "The Courting of Dinah Shadd" and Lung Tung Pen" and involve a climax especially written by Kipling involving a battle at the Khyber Pass.[5] The battle was shot with army cooperation.[6]
Michael Balcon of Gaumont then set about trying to secure a cast. He visited Hollywood and said he was interested in Pat O'Brien to play the lead.[7] Then Richard Dix, Maureen O'Sullivan and C. Aubrey Smith were all mentioned as possible stars.[8] Gordon Harker was also announced as a lead.[9]
Smith actually travelled to England to make the movie, but wound up appearing in Trans-Atlantic Tunnel instead. Soldiers Three was postponed.[10]
Gaumont still insisted they would make the film and announced that Victor McLaglen would star[11][12] and Raoul Walsh direct.[13] Walsh said he was interested in making two versions, one for England and one for America - the latter without the British dialect.[14] Walsh left for England to begin pre-production and Charles Bickford was announced as co-star.[15]
However, Gaumont never made the film. In early 1938, MGM announced they were going to make the film along with another Kipling adaptation, Kim.[16][17] A script was written by Vincent Lawrence and Grover Jones. However shooting was postponed out of sensitivity to Indian audiences.
The project was reactivated after the war and the script was rewritten by Marguerite Roberts. The producer was Pandro S. Berman, who had worked on Gunga Din.[18]


One final prewar story, made when Britain (but not the US) was already at war, and set on the eve of WW2, is Sundown (1941), from a Saturday Evening Post story by Barré Lyndon. This was the pen name (taken from the Thackeray novel) of the British journalist, short-story writer, and playwright Alfred Edgar (1896-1972). He had just arrived in LA and was at the start of his career as a screenwriter, on such films as The Lodger (1944), Hangover Square (1945), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), The War of the Worlds (1953) and Omar Khayyam (1957). The script was co-written by another expat, Charles G. Booth (1896-1949).
It’s set at ‘Manieka’, a remote outpost at what appears to be the northern frontier of British East Africa bordering Abyssinia, where the district commissioner is keeping an eye out for gun-running across the border. They have an Italian POW-officer in camp who explains that, just as Britain rules the world by ruling the waves, the Germans expand their empire by infiltrating land borders and destabilising governments via such incursions.
With its unusual New Mexico location and dialogue range, it has a strangeness, a freshness not seen in any B-movie of the time about gunrunning to the natives. Though a US film, it is more in the tradition of Korda films like The Drum, probably because both scriptwriters were British.
At first glance, the story development seems odd, but on examination relates to elements from earlier works. The natives being supplied with guns for political ends by a rival power to foment a native rebellion is a stock one, appearing in westerns as well as Saturday matinee serials. There is a similarity of setup to the popular 1916 novel King - Of The Khyber Rifles by Talbot Mundy, which had been filmed in 1929 as The Black Watch (and whose title would be reused in 1953 for a different story).
In the 1916 novel, the Germans are sending in guns and explosives overland to encourage a jihad that will destroy British rule in India, and the hero must locate and enter a hidden cavern system where a mysterious native woman holds the balance of power. In this case, the woman, Zia, runs a vast caravan trading network she inherited from her Somali father. Here however she is falsely suspected of collusion in gun-running and ultimately helps defeat the gunrunners, Axis agents storing guns in a cavern system in preparation for a general tribal rising at the start of WW2.
Glenn Erickson of the DVD Savant site has suggested another plot development was the result of censor pressure to avoid the hero having a mixed-race affair ('miscegenation' being illegal in some US states). Thus, the supposed half-caste Zia turns out to be an English girl who was merely adopted by the Arab trader as a stepfather.
The command crisis develops when a by-the-book new CO who questions the commissioner’s more pragmatic methods flies in by bomber (a reminder of the modern eve-of-war setting). After the outpost is attacked in the night by a native using a submachine gun with tracer ammunition, the commissioner leaves his post to go off in search of Zia and the caverns to head off the impending uprising.
He succeeds, but the film’s title is valedictory: it implies the sun setting on the old Empire - though it was claimed that the sun never sets on the British Empire, this implies a period of night is about to overtake it as war looms. (There had been a colonial-service drama in 1939 called The Sun Never Sets.) The epilogue is set in wartime, in a blitzed English church, where a service is being held paying tribute to the CO, fallen in maintaining the ideals of empire.
The world was already changing by the time the film went on release in late 1941. Pearl Harbor was only weeks away, and the European war would soon expand into a global one.
Above: Sundown's epilogue, marking the end of an era.


Above and below: Sundown (1941)


Sundown (1941), long available only on home media in poor-quality 16mm public-domain prints (as with the one on YouTube), was finally issued on DVD from cleaned-up prints in 2010.


Left: A scene from the 1936 Charge Of The Light Brigade. The garrison officers relax in their seemingly impregnable fortress on the Northwest Frontier, unaware death and destruction are about to descend.

[to be continued – postwar coverage will appear on a separate page]

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