#50 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
I’m pretty sure this is the first Shirley Temple movie I’ve seen where she was her iconic child self, and I can see the easy appeal she must have had on the masses in the 30s. She was a precocious, adorable child with a surprising amount of ability at such a young age. Paired with John Ford in this adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story about a young boy (changed to a girl in the film) who goes to India to live with her grandfather, a British colonel, and her efforts to become a little soldier, Temple has time to shine in her scenes, especially those she shares with Victor McLaglen. The movie as a whole, though, is less entertaining. More of a series of moderately entertaining vignettes than an actual story.
Priscilla (Temple) and her mother Joyce (June Lang) arrive in India by train to live with Joyce’s father-in-law, Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey Smith). Met at the station by Sergeant MacDuff (McLaglen), they quickly witness the arrest of the noted war chief Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero). They make it to the fort where Williams awkwardly meets the two women he barely knows but has agreed to house for their lack of income back in England. Joyce meets Coppy (Michael Whalen), a lieutenant on the wrong side of Williams and the two immediately strike up a romance through deep looks that we know will end in marriage by the end.
The movie sets up some predictable pieces from the beginning, and it does not fail to deliver on the promises of those early setups. Priscilla is going to soften the hard heart of Williams. Joyce and Coppy are going to fall in love. The rich older woman who has designs on Coppy for her own daughter will be humbled by the end. The precociousness of Priscilla will bring about joy and happiness throughout the land. It’s pretty stock stuff, and its success really hangs on the execution of the smaller moments along the way. Most of it remains stuck in stock levels without ever raising above it, but one where it does is in the relationship between Priscilla and MacDuff.
Coppy, probably because he thought it was funny, decides that MacDuff should carry out Priscilla’s wish and help to train her as a soldier. She gets a small soldier’s uniform, complete with kilt and wooden gun, and starts doing drills with the men. She’s a mascot of sorts, and they all love her because this is a Shirley Temple movie and she must win over everybody. With MacDuff there’s something special, though.
Victor McLaglen might end up my favorite John Ford actor because he’s actually really very good. His scenes with little Temple are surprisingly sweet as she softens the hard heart of the battle-tested sergeant. They bond, partially using a picture of MacDuff as a baby, and when things turn surprisingly down later in the movie, Temple plays the sense of loss Priscilla feels really well. She was a quality actress at such a young age.
What little plot the film has is about Khoda Khan escaping from custody, retreating to his mountain fortress, and preparing a new attack on the English position. There is one battle (at night, done with heavy blue tinting which was something I thought had gone out of style at the end of the silent era), brought on by a spy whom Priscilla naively trusts to take her to Khoda Khan so she can just sit down and talk sense into him, showing him that he and her grandfather just want the same thing for India. When Williams finds out, he marches out his whole force to get his granddaughter back. Williams’ march up the perilous stairs is actually a wonderful moment, a demonstration of tough, grizzled manhood in the face of real danger as Khoda Khan’s men fire at him and barely miss while Williams refuses to hide or stay his course.
The relationship with MacDuff is the best of the film, but the rescue of Priscilla, bloodless and warmly felt as it is, is a nice second place. The rest of the movie around it feels like just a bunch of events thrown in to pad the running time. The bitter old woman who ends up hating Priscilla’s dog goes just this side of nowhere (the event getting Priscilla her dog isn’t much better). The romance between Joyce and Coppy, which feels like, at the beginning, to be the B-plot of this kids movie in order to help the mothers more bear the overall film they’re taking their children to, ends up largely sidelined, only popping up quickly on occasion. The overtly naïve ending as well feels nice in the moment but ultimately feels kind of unrealistic upon reflection, but that’s not what Shirley Temple movies were really for. They were for light entertainment starring a precocious and talented child.
In that vein, it’s a moderate and slightly diverting effort.