2015 In Retrospect

2015 was, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, the largest ever year of 100 Films — or 200 Films in a Year, as it’s currently known. For 2015 only, I think, because I have no intention of trying to replicate that feat next year (see here for more on that topic).

How better to finally wrap up a year than with a look at the best and worst, right? As always, my picks are not culled from films freshly released in 2015, but from this list of my personal viewing. (For what it’s worth, that list includes 22 releases from 2015, as well as 37 from 2014, some of which others would count as 2015 titles… and some of them have indeed made my best-of list.)

You can also vote for your favourites from my pick, and find out which 50 most noteworthy new films I didn’t see. There might be a few surprise along the way, too.

So without further ado…



The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015

In alphabetical order…

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher
Marvel may dominate the live-action superhero arena right now, but DC has the edge in animation — and work like this is going to do nothing to change that. An uninteresting story that’s blandly told in every regard, this is a total waste of time.

Blitz
There are a lot of very, very good actors in this Jason Statham vehicle, but it’s a terrible film that’s even below standard for the star, let alone his supporting cast. So bad it feels like a spoof, there is no good reason for anyone to watch this movie.

Jack the Giant Slayer
X-Men’s Bryan Singer is the latest filmmaker to take a fairytale and give it the Lord of the Rings treatment. That formula doesn’t work here, unfortunately. The result is a flat, cheap-looking, overlong bore. Another waste of good talent.

Parabellum
Alfred Hitchcock once said that “movies are real life with the boring parts cut out.” I guess this isn’t a movie, then, because it’s not real life and it’s boring as can be. My least enjoyable viewing experience this year.

Runner Runner
Again, talented stars (Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton) slum it in a poorly-constructed thriller with no thrills. That it’s from the director of The Lincoln Lawyer, an excellent thriller that made my top ten a couple of years ago, only makes matters worse.



The Ten 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015

Given the extraordinary personal achievement in my viewing this year — doubling my titular goal — I’ve decided to also double my year-end top ten. It seemed appropriate.

Obviously I haven’t done such a percentage-related increase (or reduction) of my list before now, but then no previous year has seen quite so remarkable a change in my viewing total. In other (smaller) years, these additional films may well have made the cut, so this is a way of giving them their due. (Besides which, my list is numbered, so you can ignore #20 to #11 if you want.)

Final point: although this list isn’t limited to 2015 releases, there are six included, so I’ve noted their ‘2015 rank’ too.

2015 #6 After all the behind-the-scenes kerfuffle, Ant-Man probably had the lowest audience expectations for any Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man. Perhaps that’s what allowed it to become the mostly purely entertaining Marvel movie since Iron Man, too.

The Mission series here reconfigures itself as the modern equivalent to classic Bond, washing down espionage thrills with gadgets and humour. The result is fantastically enjoyable, and only so low on this list because of a certain other film a bit higher up…

John Cusack and Minnie Driver have never been more likeable as a guy and the prom date he jilted, brought back together by their high school reunion. Oh, and he’s now a hitman, in town on a job. Consitently funny, this is first-rate action-comedy entertainment.

An idiosyncratic crime drama from writer-director Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog stands alongside the otherwise-peerless Léon as a hitman movie that may not deliver enough action thrills for some, but is seeped in distinctive qualities of its own.

Martin Scorsese’s best-regarded works may hew towards the mainstream-intellectual, but here he sets his sights on genre material — specifically, a psychological mystery thriller — and produces a corker. Heavily Gothic in tone, it’s the first of several such films on this list.

A British-made India-set ‘Western’, this beautifully shot Boy’s Own adventure is rollicking old-fashioned entertainment from start to finish. It’s buoyed further by a cast of top-drawer British character actors, topped off with Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall. Magnificent.

One of the most acclaimed films of all time — if we’re talking “the history of cinema”, it’s certainly more important than anything else on this list. Almost 90 years old, it remains surprisingly accessible to modern eyes. An exceptionally affecting experience.

2015 #5 In a year overloaded with spy thrillers, this Bond pastiche stood out by, a) getting in early (it was released last January in the UK), and b) being a helluva lot of fun. Thematically questionable it may be, but the filmmaking verve is a joy to behold.

2015 #4 2015’s highest grossing film, this sequel/reboot of the beloved franchise has proved somewhat divisive. It certainly has flaws in characters and plot, but director Colin Trevorrow has bottled genuine Spielbergian awe and wonder, and that counts for a lot.

If this were only a top ten, I’d’ve slipped this in higher up, as much to recommend it as anything. In many respects it’s a familiar mismatched-people-fall-in-love rom-com (hence why its position dropped), but the uncommon melancholic tone makes it feel unique.

I’d wager it’s impossible to describe a Wes Anderson film without recourse to words like “quirky” and “unique”, both wholly apt epithets for The Grand Budapest Hotel, naturally. Others include hilarious, clever, inventive, controlled, and delightful. The last may be the most appropriate of all: this is a film full of delights, from the performances, to the dialogue, to the locations, to the design, to the camerawork. Anderson is the kind of filmmaker who has a cult following, which can sometimes be a bad omen. Based on this evidence, his fandom might just have the right idea.

2015 #3 There has been an awakening — have you felt it? Well, of course you have. Everyone outside of China has. Half of them twice. The J.J. Abrams-led return to a galaxy far, far away may have received a mixed reception, due to it essentially being the cinematic equivalent of a greatest-hits cover album, dealing in nostalgia more than it does originality… but it’s clearly been made by fans with an eye to crafting something that’s both enjoyable and recognisably Star Wars-y — two balls the prequel trilogy less dropped, more hurled to the ground. It’s a thrilling adventure with likeable new characters and, in my opinion, interesting new villains. There’s scope for the makers of Episodes VIII and IX to produce something even better off the back of this, and that’s exciting.

Terry Gilliam’s 1984 for 1985 is set in a dystopian Britain almost as bad as our current one, where mindless, faceless bureaucracy rules the day. It’s the kind of film where a typo can lead to a man’s death; where Jonathan Pryce fantasises about being a sword-wielding angel fighting a giant silver samurai; and where Robert De Niro turns up as a terrorist plumber. You know, if Wes Anderson is “quirky” and “unique”, I don’t think we’ve yet invented words to describe Terry Gilliam…

I promised you more Gothic and here it is. Director Chan-wook Park places 7th on my top ten for the second year in a row with this dark psychological thriller about a reclusive teenage girl who meets her uncle for the first time when he comes to stay following her father’s death. He’s charming, but mysterious — what are the secrets that everyone seems to know but her? Dripping with style and atmosphere, Stoker is a feast for the eyes and ears; a beguiling, sensuous, classically Gothic thriller.

2015 #2 Director George Miller returns to the Mad Max series after a 30-year hiatus for the stand-out action movie of… well, “the year” seems to undersell it. Once upon a time he was bold enough to make a chase the entire third act of a film; now, the chase is the entire movie. This is action filmmaking elevated to a genuine art form — literally, if the award season buzz is anything to go by. While the done-for-real stunts are busy boggling your mind, there slips by a story that’s surprisingly rich in theme and character. It gives added weight to a type of storytelling that could only be achieved on film — there’s a reason Miller started with a storyboard and only bothered to write a screenplay when the studio insisted.

A third dose of Gothic now, this time with a heavier dose of the “horror” element that’s so often attached to the term. Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are mother-and-daughter vampires on the run, hiding out in a seedy seaside town, where Ronan tries to lead some kind of normal life as a perma-teen while her mother’s busy doing what she’s always done: whoring. These vampires aren’t glamorous or sparkly, but damaged and discarded. Byzantium is not a very popular film, but its tarnished charms and fatalistic stylings, powered by two strong central performances and atmospheric direction, made me love it.

Selecting these 20 films was tough, then putting them in order was just as hard, but one thing was a lock from the start: these are my top four films I saw in 2015. The only question was the order they went in, which on another day may have been completely different — any one of them could’ve been #1. This little-seen documentary (Channel 4 premiered it in the middle of the night a few months ago, although it’s available on YouTube) takes us to a small, poor town in India where the locals make their own movies, and they’re a roaring success. It’s an inspirational film about living your dreams even when the world won’t let you, though undercurrents of reality stop it from becoming too tweely self-congratulatory. I’m not overstating it when I say I believe this is an absolute must-see for any lover of film, and probably a good many people besides.

I feel like I’m being in some way Awkward with many of this year’s choices, because there’s a notable strand of films that aren’t particularly well regarded by viewers en masse (see: #11, #7, #5, now #3). Well, I’m not being awkward, dear reader: I loved all of them, and I loved this one most of all. Like several of those others, it crafts a unique mood with lashings of style, in this case inspired by ’80s movies and music. Dan Stevens is a mysterious ex-soldier who enters a family’s life and brings a load of trouble in his wake, but is he (anti-)hero or villain? Even by the end, you might not be sure. Witty, exciting, stylish, idiosyncratic, this is one guest I want to stay forever. (Sorry — it seems I can’t end any piece about this film without a terrible pun.)

34 years before Fury Road, there was The Road Warrior. A post-apocalyptic Australian Western, it sees Mel Gibson’s titular drifter drafted into defending an oil-rich community from a violent gang of fetish-attired marauders. While the film has much to offer throughout, the real joy is the third act: a balls-to-the-wall multi-vehicle chase, as Max and co attempt to escape in a heavily-armoured oil tanker and the gang give chase in a fleet of vehicles. Maybe it’s not as slick or extravagant as Fury Road, but it was done without a lick of CGI (for all Fury Road’s “done for real” claims, there’s an awful lot of computer work across that movie) and that added tangibility gives it the edge for me. Not to mention that it did it first — without Mad Max 2, we wouldn’t even have Fury Road.

2015 #1 Not as life-affirming as Supermen of Malegaon. Not as stylish as The Guest. Not as groundbreaking as Mad Max 2. Certainly not as ‘significant’ as a host of films further down this list. But from the moment the familiar beats of the famous theme tune begin to pulse over the company idents at the top of the movie, Rogue Nation engages you in a perfectly-crafted entertainment. It delivers sequence after sequence of finely-tuned action-thriller excitement, both from Tom Cruise’s crazy stuntwork and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s Hitchcockian control of espionage scenes. The plot may only be solid rather than any great shakes, but it’s supported by likeable heroes, a menacing villain, and well-pitched humour. It’s all topped off with Rebecca Ferguson, who could hold her own in a stand-off with Daisy Ridley and Charlize Theron for 2015’s most kick-ass heroine. Mission perfected.


As ever, I welcome your opinion on my top ten — not just in the comments section, but also in the form of a lovely poll. Multiple selections are allowed, so feel free to pick several favourites.

And if you feel I’ve made an unforgivable omission, I welcome your scathing criticisms in the comments.


Despite doubling the size of my selection, this was still a really, really tough year for picking favourites. Competition was harder than ever, not just because I watched 200 films (47% more than even my next biggest year) but because I made a conscious effort to watch fewer time-killers and more things I’d really been intending to see. As a result, films that I enjoyed immensely or admired intensely fell by the wayside, leaving several big guns to duke it out for the limited slots.

As if doubling my top ten wasn’t enough, the tightly-fought race got stuck for a while at 30 titles. The closest to making it in was my 1,000th film, Mark Cousin’s epic 15-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey (so epic that my review draft is still in the form of 4,300 words of notes). It hurt to leave it out, but something had to go. The remainder of those 30 (which I guess would be #22 to #30, then) were, in alphabetical order, The Babadook, Gone Girl, High Noon, Looper, Paddington, Scanners, Spectre, Stranger by the Lake, and Wings. In most other years, any of those could’ve found themselves comfortably in my top ten.

I can’t end this without mentioning the 38 films that earned themselves 5-star ratings this year. 17 of them made it into the top 20 — I won’t list those again, so you can go find the three four-star imposters for yourself (clue: they’re right at the end… or start, in the order I’ve written it). The remaining 21 five-starers were Argo, The Babadook, Boyhood, Boyz n the Hood, Dreams of a Life, Filmed in Supermarionation, Fury, The General, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, High Noon, Interstellar, Looper, The Philadelphia Story, sex, lies, and videotape, Shallow Grave, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Stranger by the Lake, Whiplash, Wings, and The Wrestler. Reading through those again, there are several I feel should’ve been in my top 30… or 20… but what would I take out in their place? This year’s been too good, clearly.

Finally, on the same topic, there was one five-starer from each of my additional kinds of reviews (I love it when that happens — so neat). They were: non-list review 2001: A Space Odyssey, extended cut X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut, and short Feast.


Naturally, there were a considerable number of notable releases this year that I’ve yet to see. In my annual tradition, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films — chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety — that were released in 2015 and that I’ve not seen.

As is so often the case, it’s a funny old mix, because there were some films that seemed too ‘significant’ to leave out. This is why, despite recording my progress with these in my statistics every year, I’ll never, ever see 100% of them. For a current example, Minions is the 5th highest grossing film of 2015, so on the list it goes; but I didn’t really like Despicable Me and haven’t watched Despicable Me 2, so what are the chances I’ll ever decide to spend some of my time on Minions? Pretty darn slim, I reckon.

Anyway, the 50 I’ve chosen to highlight — some of which I do very much want to see — are…

Amy
Beasts of No Nation
The Big Short
Black Mass
Blackhat
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Carol
Chappie
Cinderella
Creed
Crimson Peak
The Danish Girl
Everest
Ex Machina
Fantastic Four
Fifty Shades of Grey
Furious 7
The Good Dinosaur
The Hateful Eight
Home
Hotel Transylvania 2
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
In the Heart of the Sea
It Follows
Joy
Legend
Macbeth
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The Martian
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Minions
Pan
Pixels
The Revenant
Room
San Andreas
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Sicario
Snoopy and Charlie Brown…
Spotlight
Spy
Steve Jobs
Straight Outta Compton
Suffragette
Taken 3
Ted 2
Testament of Youth
The Visit
The Walk


And so, after all that verbosity, the largest ever year of 100 Films comes to an end.

Apart from the 21 reviews I still have to post, of course. (In that respect, 2014 isn’t even finished yet.) But no matter, it will be done.

For now, all that remains is for me to thank you for reading, to wish you all the best with your own film-watching endeavours (having spent several days shut away in my own world of statistics and lists, I’ve a few people’s posts to catch up on!), and to say “see you soon” for 2016 — the 10th year of 100 Films! I have some stuff planned…

The Hyperbolic Monthly Update for September 2015

September 2015 has passed targets, smashed records, and wound up as the biggest month of 100 Films in a Year ever!

…maybe.

All will become clear…


When I started this year’s WDYMYHS theme, I was worried I would quickly watch the six “populist” films (due to them being accessible and easy viewing), and be left with all six “critical” films to squeeze in (due to them being Worthy and Arty and stuff). Things have panned out quite differently, however: after this month’s viewing, I’ve accounted for all but one of the “critical” films, while four of the “populist” ones remain. They’re mostly the Worthier end of populist though, so go figure.

Anyway, this month’s film was one that’s sometimes cited as being among the greatest ever made. I confess I wasn’t so enamoured with it, though it had its moments. It was Jean Vigo’s only full-length feature, L’Atalante.


North West Frontier#119 Go (1999)
#120 Murder by Death (1976)
#121 One-Eyed Monster (2008)
#122 The Swimmer (1968)
#123 They Live (1988)
#124 The Dark Crystal (1982)
#125 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Ed Wood#126 North West Frontier (1959), aka Flame Over India
#127 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)
#128 Superbad (2007)
#129 What Dreams May Come (1998)
#130 Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
#131 American Sniper (2014)
#132 Willow (1988)
#133 The Informant! (2009)
Filmed in Supermarionation#134 Ed Wood (1994)
#135 Filmed in Supermarionation (2014)
#136 Foxcatcher (2014)
#137 Boyz n the Hood (1991)
#138 L’Atalante (1934)
#139 Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)
#140 Terror by Night (1946)
#141 The Falling (2014)


  • Most months I watch a selection of films from the 2010s, topped up with a couple of films from the 2000s, and maybe an earlier decade getting a look in or two. That’s not a conscious choice, just how things usually pan out. September has gone quite differently, though: this month I watched films from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, as well as the 2010s (of course). Ooh, get me, right? But it’s notable for this reason if no other: that’s a better temporal spread in one month than I’ve managed in some entire years!
  • For what it’s worth, the 2010s still took the biggest share, with seven films — though in this particular month, that’s only 30.4%. Although they’re all Blu-ray or streaming views, five of them were only released to UK cinemas earlier this year… though two of those five were also big awards contenders from last year, so, you know, swings and roundabouts.
  • I’ve started so I’ll finish: to summarise the other decades, there were four apiece from the ’80s and ’90s (17.4% each), three from the 2000s (13%), and then one each for the rest.
  • #140, Terror by Night, is the penultimate Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie. I’ve been slowly making my way through that series for most of this blog’s lifetime, and may now finish it this year. Maybe.


Even before we get into the regular “how does this compare to previous Septembers” and “what does this mean for the rest of the year” type stuff, there’s a lot to say about this month — multiple milestones have been passed.

So to tackle that claim from the introduction: last month, I’d’ve told you that December 2008 was my “best month ever” with 19 films. Now I’d tell you it’s my third best. What dark magic is this?! Well, with 23 films watched this month, September 2015 beats it and then some. However, I finally got round to going back through 2007, when I recorded such things in weeks / clumps of weeks (rather than monthly), as anyone who followed this month’s reposts will have seen, and tried to estimate what each month’s viewing was. That’s why September 2015 may be the highest month ever, because I can only say with certainty that in August 2007 I watched somewhere between 21 and 29 films. My best guess is (coincidentally) exactly the mid-point of that range, 25, which leaves September 2015 in second place. Either way, it’s undoubtedly my most film-filled month for almost eight years.

Such a strong month coming at this point also helps 2015 pass all kinds of yearly markers, too. So at #123 it became my blog’s third most successful year; at #130 it slipped into second place; and at #137 it took the crown of my blog’s most proliferative year. (That’s a good word, isn’t it? Thank you thesaurus.) Plus, at #136 it became my highest overall-totalling year — that’s also counting the alternate cuts, shorts, and the like — with a grand tally of 142; as of month’s end, it’s up to 147. With three months remaining, in which I should watch a minimum of 30 films (for this year’s ten-per-month target), 2015 will be well established as my largest year.

I suppose it now goes without saying that all the regular monthly and yearly goals and records were achieved or surpassed, too: it’s the 16th month in a row with 10+ new films; it single-handedly raised the September average from 9.71 to 11.38; it passed the 2015 monthly average of 14.75 (now 15.67 — the first time it’s been over 15 this year, and certainly the first time it’s been nearer 16… excepting January, that is, which by itself was 16); and it’s the 11th month in a row to beat its equivalent from last year.

I do like statistics.

Looking ahead, then, there are no more records left to topple (well, unless I have another exceptionally large month — you never know), only new ground to tread. The aforementioned “at least 30 more films” finds the year ending with #171; if I can continue besting the same months last year, it’ll make #183; if I slip back to the previous 2015 monthly average I’ll make it to #185, though if I can maintain that freshly-established one it takes me all the way up to #188.

188! That’s exactly double what I managed in my worst-ever year (2009). Insane.



The 4th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
A tough call this month, but the joyous and information-packed Filmed in Supermarionation is pipped by the lovely surprise of unexpectedly discovering a marvellous Boy’s Own adventure in North West Frontier.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
I wasn’t sure what I’d make of L’Atalante, so wasn’t too saddened when I didn’t care for it all that much. However, I was quite disappointed by how much I didn’t enjoy cult favourite The Dark Crystal.

Film Where They Most Obviously Started with a Title and Went From There
One-Eyed Monster.

Award For Taking an Accidental Trope and Doing Something Ridiculous With It
“All our films end with huge flying things crashing into cities, but what if the huge flying thing was a city?!” Ah, Avengers: Age of Ultron, you were certainly… different.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
It’s Keanu Reeves again, though this time without the aid of a retweet. I guess that’s the sheer popularity of the film in question: John Wick.


I’ve made a poor fist of reading others’ blogs this month, I’m afraid (clearly it’s all that time spent watching so many more films), but here’s a couple (literally) of things nonetheless:

Invictus (2009) @ Films on the Box
We’re still halfway through the Rugby World Cup, so there’s still much relevance in Mike’s praise for Clint Eastwood’s somewhat-overlooked true story drama about Nelson Mandela and the South African team’s success when their nation hosted the 1995 competition.

Top That: Five of My Favorite Directors @ Digital Shortbread
I feel like, recently, I keep reading about how Ron Howard is an average, journeyman kind of director, so it’s interesting to come across a short list of favourite directors that includes him — which Tom’s selection does, of course. For the other four worthy picks, take a look. (I really must come up with a list of my favourite directors someday…)


Not so many new reviews as I’d like this month (clearly it’s all that time spent… yeah, you know the story now).


This month’s repostathon updates can be split into two sections. First, the final editorials:

With those complete, it was time for an entire week-by-week recap of Year 1, aka 2007:

Next month, daily double bills will see us race through all of 2008, 2009, and half of 2010 in just one week, before slowing down slightly to cover the rest of 2010 and all of 2011. Exciting times.


In Memoriam

At the risk of making this a semi-regular feature, this month we had to quite suddenly bid farewell to my partner’s mother’s dog, Lupa. She was an Irish Wolfhound, a giant breed with an average life expectancy of seven years. Sadly, Lupa was just four — what initially seemed to be some kind of sprained ankle turned out to be aggressive bone cancer and, a little over a week later, she passed away.


Rory and Lupa.

Getting an Irish Wolfhound fulfilled a lifelong ambition, so Lupa was a little bit indulged. When she was younger she was boisterous, especially when it came to saying hello with the whack of a paw — we all endured some scratches and bruises to attest to that — but she was sweet-natured (the whacks were friendlily meant) and matured into a dopey softie. Once she realised Rory was old and doddery, she was always very careful around him. I know some people think dog owners confer too much intelligence on their pets, but as she played riotously with other little dogs (including our Poppy) she certainly knew the difference. She will be sorely missed.

Finally: I jest about this becoming a regular feature, but their other dog, Millie, is 15 and looking every day of it, so 2015 may not be done with us yet.


…will almost certainly not be as good as this month. Let’s just expect that now, then we won’t be disappointed.

North West Frontier (1959)

aka Flame Over India / Empress of India

2015 #126
J. Lee Thompson | 125 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | U

British Army Captain Scott (Kenneth More) is charged with getting an Indian child prince and his American governess (Lauren Bacall) to safety as rebels attempt to murder him. With the palace under siege, their only hope is a barely-ready rust-bucket train engine, a single passenger carriage, and a long journey through enemy territory joined by a motley group of diplomats and hangers-on who’ve bargained their way on to this last train.

North West Frontier has been on BBC Two a couple of times in the last year or two (seven times in the last four years, to be precise), and on one of those showings I caught a few seconds and thought it looked fabulously shot — I confess, that’s the only reason I’d got hold of a copy. I’m so glad I did though, because it’s excellent stuff — a rollicking, action-packed, old-fashioned (in the good sense) adventure, full of peril, derring-do, chases and shoot-outs. In between all that there’s some great character stuff too. Judging from online reaction, some viewers seem to find these bits boring longueurs, but I thought they helped manage the pace and added to the whole feel.

In particular, it’s during those segments where you get to see that every cast member is excellent. More is surprisingly dashing as the heroic leader of this ragtag bunch on their ramshackle locomotive. Bacall is as feisty as you’d expect as the strong-willed, outspoken governess, creating an easy and perhaps-surprisingly plausible chemistry with More. For the rest of the cast, Herbert Lom seems to be channelling a little Peter Lorre as a critical Dutch journalist, Wilfrid Hyde-White is the perfect older English gent, I.S. Johar is fun as the train’s Indian driver, Ursula Jeans is redoubtable as the English lady forced to escape on the train by her governor husband, and Eugene Deckers is an arms dealer, who consequently no one likes but who remains unashamed of his trade. Through this prism there’s some discussion of the merits or otherwise of the British Empire and Indian independence, which some will judge to be extolling old-fashioned values, and others will take as little more than a (probably unnecessary) hat-tip in the direction of real politics.

And as for the reason I watched, success: it’s beautifully shot, in widescreen Eastmancolor by Geoffrey Unsworth, showing off stunning scenery lensed in India and Spain (with studio sequences shot at Pinewood, naturally). It may not be famed as a big-budget epic, but there’s nonetheless an impressively grand scale, with wide-open scenery, some extravagant locales, and hundreds of extras to fill out a few sweeping battle charges. They also come into play in one of the film’s most striking sequences, set at the scene of a horrid massacre, where a spread of blood-soaked bodies surely stretch the film’s U certificate. I’ve seen this part of the film described as unnecessarily dallied upon, but I think director J. Lee Thompson is more conveying the atrocity of such a tragic event.

In the US, the film was retitled Flame Over India (and Bacall was given top billing, as opposed to More in the UK), while in Australia it was named Empress of India, after the central train. That’s the best title, in my opinion. Flame Over India is pretty meaningless (Bacall didn’t like it either) and North West Frontier is a bit generic and bland, but Empress of India indicates the country and has meaning… though as it’s not about an Empress you could argue it’s misleading and sounds too romantic.

North West Frontier, on the other hand, sounds like a Western — which was perhaps the intention: the film’s structure and story style is fundamentally a fit for that genre, albeit British-made and geographically relocated. The storyline immediately brings to mind John Ford’s Stagecoach: a gaggle of mismatched strangers are thrown together as they cross hostile territory, interspersing conversations and arguments with adventurous survival challenges. In a review I otherwise pretty thoroughly disagree with, Glenn Erickson at DVD Talk makes the same comparison and offers this insightful point: “It may be a blatant reworking of Stagecoach as the original story was co-written by John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s husband Will Price. The final screenplay [by Robin Estridge] was adapted from a script by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, the writer of eleven Ford films.” Sounds pretty likely, doesn’t it?

North West Frontier is a film I would certainly have overlooked were it not for some whim of fate. Thank goodness for coincidence and chance, then, because it’s a cracking adventure; one made, I think, with pure entertainment in mind. I rather loved it.

5 out of 5

North West Frontier placed 15th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of The Lauren Bacall Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.