THE BLACK WATCH.  Fox Films, 1929. Victor McLaglen, Myrna Loy, Lumsden Hare, David Torrance, David Rollins, Roy D’Arcy, Mitchell Lewis, Walter Long, Francis Ford. Screenplay by James Kevin MacGuinnis & John Stone, based on the novel King of the Khyber Rifles by Talbot Mundy. Directed by John Ford.

   Whether you enjoy this early talkie or not may depend on your tolerance for Fordian sentimentality and the primitive technology of early sound. Stiff dialogue delivered stiffly doesn’t help a great deal either. Compare this to the superior Bulldog Drummond also from 1929 to see just how stiff it is.

   What does help is the stunning visuals true to Ford at his best ably abetted by Cinematographer Joseph H. August and some exciting moments thanks to the few times the film actually strays toward Talbot Mundy’s classic pulp novel.

   That said, the first twenty minutes of the film are a write off of Fordian sentimentality and unnecessary back story.

   Captain Donald (*) King (Victor McLaglen) of the famed Black Watch Highland Regiment is summoned to headquarters from the Regimental dinner on the eve of sailing for Europe and the early days of WW I.

   At headquarters Captain King is told he is needed in the Khyber Pass in India where he previously served in the Khyber Rifles. It seems the hillmen are rallying behind a mysterious woman known as Yasmani who they believe is a goddess. King is to find Yasmani and prevent the hillmen from falling on vulnerable India and sweeping the weakened British off the sub-continent.

   As part of his secret service work King cannot let his fellow officers know that he is being sent to India. They have to believe he is deserting the regiment as they march to war for safety in India. He can’t even tell his younger brother Malcolm (David Rollins) who worships him.

   That would be bad enough without a drawn-out scene of the regiment boarding the train for the ship to France and goodbyes to their family along with some much unneeded comedy relief.

   It’s twenty wasted minutes. Thankfully Ford will learn to better balance this sort of thing in later films and make a virtue of it (usually). He doesn’t here though there are more than enough Fordian touches.

   Things pick up a little in India where the Mundy novel begins in the first place. There King ties up with his old ally Major Mohammed Khan (Mitchell Lewis) who will help him in his mission which begins by attracting the attention of Yasmani (Myrna Loy) and her allies the ambitious Rewa Gunga (Roy D’Arcy) and the savage hillman Harim Bey (Walter Long) both with her longing glances at his manly presence and his heavy drinking and bad behavior leading Gunga to think King will be a good deserter.

   Staging the accidental killing of a fellow officer King “escapes” and is taken in by Yasmani who offers to take him into the Khyber Pass and the infamous Cave of Terror where the hillmen are meeting before sweeping into India. Unlike the character in the book, no one tries to pass Victor McLaglen off as a native in disguise (thankfully) though he does get to don a turban and robes.

   The sets and staging for the Cave of Terror scenes are worth the whole film. Though the restraints of budget show Ford and August use imagination, shadow, and smoke to create a genuinely entertaining vision replete with McLaglen battling a native bare chested to prove his worth.

   Despite the stiff delivery of dialogue that would read better on a silent title card they actually keep some of the more fantastic elements of Mundy’s novel including Yasmani’s claim to be a descendant of Alexander the Great and suggestions of past lives between she and King.

   And she almost wins him over to her vision of paradise in her arms as the king of India until she shows him his regiment in France in a crystal ball and he sees his brother Malcolm wounded in battle. Considering how Loy looks in those gauzy outfits, he proves a better man than me. This was from the era when she played exotic roles like the daughter of Fu Manchu and the murderous and vengeful Eurasian in Thirteen Women, gauzy suits her.

   A fairly exciting battle between the hillmen and King and Khan’s men armed with machine guns follows shot beautifully in smoke and shadows with captured and blinded Major MacGregor (Francis Ford) who King has freed from slavery leading the troops with King’s sword thrust into his hand.

   King doesn’t get the girl, but he does get his Regiment, a happy ending for any Ford film.

   Henry King ignored Mundy entirely for his version of King of the Khyber Rifles with Tyrone Power as a half Indian King. Despite having no relation to the book it was much more exciting even without Yasmani with a splendid set piece for the ending ironically mindful of a similar scene in John Ford’s The Searchers.

   McLaglen’s stiff delivery of his lines (Loy is no better) doesn’t help, but he looks great when he isn’t speaking and it is the visuals for this, often mindful of Joseph Clement Coll’s famous illustrations for the book, that make it worthwhile, and Loy is believably ethereal as Yasmani (though there is little ethereal about the vibrant wild child of Mundy’s novels).

   Mitchell Lewis and Walter Long fare best in the acting department, playing vibrant over the top characters with an energy you only wish McLaglen and Loy brought to their roles.

   This is an early example of the popular British Raj genre that reached its peak with films like Gunga Din, Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The Four Feathers, and Charge of the Light Brigade. The elements aren’t quite there, but even at this stage Ford hits most of the right notes.

(*) Just why King is named Donald in this is a mystery in itself. In the book his name is Athleston and in the Power version Alan. Donald seems a bit arbitrary.

   I’ve yet to spot them but supposedly John Wayne and Randolph Scott appear in this as Highlanders. Considering they are in uniform and shadow much of the film it may take some luck to find them, but the print on YouTube is pretty crisp.

   In addition you get a chance to see what McLaglen must have looked like a few years earlier when he was Governor General of Damascus after T. E. Lawrence captured the city.