By Christopher Langley, Eastern California Film Historian
In the interest of full disclosure, I love “Kim” which is set in Indian but filmed partially in the Alabama Hills. I watched it again a few nights ago. I saw the film in my youth (six years old) when it was released and ever after I have wanted to be Kim, played by Dean Stock- well in this film and have a pal and mentor like Red Beard (Errol Flynn). Finally I sought the Lama (Paul Lukas) as a loving friend and guide through the vicissitudes of growing up. I never found a substitute for him. I am sure watching the film for the first time was when I set my sights on India, which I finally visited at length during my sojourn to Iran in the Peace Corps.
I was thoroughly charmed by watching it again, I guess partially because it is a very entertaining movie and because it brought me back to those wonderful times as a kid when movies were real, and what you saw was physical existence and true. As adults we know better, as we have lost so many things that we knew as authentic and matter of fact when young. Santa Claus is one. Stop and think of how many things you no longer believe whether big or small.
Enough nostalgia, let’s take up the case of “Kim” (1950). Much of the film was shot on location in India, but when it came to the Khyber Pass and the mountain city of Simla, where else would they come than here. The rocks and the mountains just look beautiful in this transfer to DVD. The story is reasonably simple. Kim is a British orphan Kimball O’Hara, but he has lived on the streets and developed the worldly skills of an adult. In fact Dean Stockwell’s performance is strong and at the center of the film.
Bosley Crowther wrote at the time in the “N. Y. Times,” “And, surprisingly enough, the performance which little Dean Stockwell gives as a young beggar and courageous adventurer is delightfully sturdy and sound.” Again recently, critic Kate Woodbury says, “Especially since at age 14, Stockwell already had that borderline look of amused insolence down pat…. Kim has that Buddhist edge. But the kindness masked by insouciance coupled with incredible energy is pure Kim.”
Kim becomes involved in “the great” game of espionage and the plot’s use of Russian villains working to break the British hold on the colony of India drives the film. The Holy Man is seeking the River of the Arrow, which represents achieving true enlightenment, and Red Beard is a bit of a womanizer, which Flynn is perfectly ready to play, even though he is now showing his age towards the end of his career.
Dean Stockwell has commented on working with Errol Flynn as quite an education in itself. Woodbury has also written, “Over the course of the book, Kim develops a more complex understanding of morality than he starts out with. This is necessary since Kim is cocky almost to the point of arrogance; he is only reigned in by his mentor, the extremely pacifistic lama.” Stockwell has said, “I did a movie with Errol Flynn when I was 13. I got quite an education.” Many of the stories Stockwell tells of working with Flynn cannot be told in a family paper, but he has also said, “I’m not saying I’d recommend him for the rest of society. It just so happened at that time of my life….he was what he was: a truly profound, non-superficial sex symbol. He was the…. male.” Stockwell was separated from his father and was raised only by his mother.
When the film premiered, much debate happened about whether this was a film appropriate for children at all. By today’s standards it remains rather tame. To this point, one anonymous writer states, “But sadly I wasn’t born until the 70’s and whilst I have a love of old cinema I feel that ‘Kim’ whilst probably hold warm memories for those who watched it in 1950 as it doesn’t quite pack the same punch for those coming to it much later in life.” Another on-line unnamed writer sums up, “What this all boils down to is that ‘Kim’ is one of those movies which didn’t really do it for me but I can appreciate why those who watched it as children in 1950 might love it. But it does feature a fantastic performance from a young Dean Stockwell which actually brings some depth to the character of Kim.”
There is some violence but off-camera and some mischief and light hearted play, but no great explosions, dramatic battle scenes, or special effects. It is a film of characters and romance. The images captured when the director of photography and crew are on location in India serve the film well, as does the work in the Alabama Hills. Perhaps part of the problem was that only part of the cast went on location. Stockwell did not, and although one writer said his work all was on the back lot, Stockwell, Flynn and Lucas were all clearly in Lone Pine.
I would wholeheartedly recommend the film to parents for adolescent viewers although as you can see without the intensity of scenes and action we have come to associate with “Iron Man,” or “X Men” your children might wonder about why you have wanted them to view it. Tell them it has a good simple plot that focuses on growing up in a foreign country. It takes up the complexity of morals, and features a subtext of spiritual growth. Not something they would see readily in today’s Cineplex.