“It’s about time the Lord started making all human beings the same on the outside as well as the same on the inside.” – Stewart Granger as Col. Rodney Savage
“They’d only change it back again, the moment his back was turned.” – Ava Gardners as Victoria Jones
Some will easily take offense with Bhowani Junction for its portrayals. To be sure, it’s working in terms of imperialism, British-Indian relations, and biracial identity. Oftentimes Westerners, and Hollywood in particular, are suspect of taking an oversimplified, superficial perspective when we represent other cultures. It could be the “White Man’s Burden,” The Nobel Savage archetype, or even “The Tragic Mulatto.”
Certainly, a lot of these stereotypes — now decades later — aren’t only indicative of a skewed or misguided sense of portrayal. Rather they get maintained through prolonged underrepresentation. It starts with ignorance and the kind of clumsy cultural shorthand that tries to make sense of other people who are different than ourselves. However, its continued pervasiveness lasts partially because it’s never fleshed out or totally dismantled by a flood of new portrayals. In many cases, we’re still getting over this very same hump in the 21st century.
For this reason alone, Bhowani Junction makes an admirable go at offering a slightly different perspective. It’s hard to say the Indian characters get to reclaim their own story because this narrative is still dominated by colonialism like its predecessors.
Granted, we must also still court issues of whitewashing (if not simply with Ava Gardner). You have both Bill Travers and Francis Matthews playing a mixed-race and a native Indian respectively. It feels especially regrettable since an actor like Sabu was passed over for a role.
Likewise, there is something convenient about Gardner ending up with the strapping white man (her fellow Anglo-Indian dies a sacrificial death). Meanwhile, the kindly Sikh she nearly marries out of gratitude is forgotten in the wake of ensuing drama. Still, these are only a few qualms.
The backdrop of the story is of vital importance in order to contextualize what’s going on. The British Empire’s foothold in India is crumbling. You have the peaceful protests of Gandhi sweeping the country. Meanwhile, more militant riots are being instigated by a local troublemaker named Davay (Peter Illing). Deciphering the socio-political climate is hardly easy and that’s why the conquerors usually got it wrong wherever they wind up.
The curious thing is how Bhowani Junction is not about holding the empire together. One of its main representatives, Colonel Rodney Savage (Stewart Granger), knows it’s only a matter of time before it crumbles. What gains importance is the process of leaving well. The primary objective is based on creating stability and relinquishing power honorably with as little bloodshed and animosity as possible.
It’s people like Victoria (Gardner) and her childhood friend Patrick Taylor (Bill Travers) who must figure out where they fit into this narrative. However, it’s noteworthy that the dissociation going on inside her own being goes beyond existing as a mere social pariah. Far from being an outcast, she’s a respected member of the British military and not completely rejected by the local Indian population.
Still, she is different than both. It’s reality and she must come to terms with it. What presents itself is a surprisingly unique perspective for 1950s Hollywood and even if it is imperfect, it proves willing to grapple with history in an altogether different manner. Thus, Bhowani Junction is a welcomed contour of 1950s Hollywood filling in and shading a cross-section of society we very rarely see.
Subsequently, the film does is offer up a case study of racial identity with Gardner caught between three men representative of the three “cultures” tugging at her very being. Because Victoria Jones, half-English, half-Indian, has her affections and allegiances split threefold.
However, Bhowani Junction adds a bit more nuance when it comes to the representation of biracial characters. I will dance around these lines gingerly as I know some might vehemently disagree. I can only speak from my own experience as someone who grew up with a similar background. Even if I am rarely accustomed to this kind of racism or private dissonance, questions of my own identity still creep into my mind from time to time. It’s only natural.
Yes, the romance with Granger and the melodramatics might fall within the realm of accepted convention, but under Cukor’s sympathetic eye, Gardner comes at the part with a ferocity — giving it her all. One particularly scarring moment involves a devastating rape scene.
Far from being a mere lynchpin of the narrative, it’s actually suffused with the terror and concern it should rightfully engender. What a horrible experience to be privy to as Gardner struggles for her life by the local train tracks. In truth, it left the actress so affected she had to make peace with her onscreen aggressor (Lionel Jeffries) off-camera. It’s graphic in movement and emotion and that’s terrifying enough.
Amid the foreseeable beats, there is a far more intimate and engaging story attempting to court themes of a far more personal nature. The hubbub and crowded train depots are momentarily diverting, but they are not Cukor’s prime concern nor his forte. He’s no Demille or David Lean. Give him the relationships, person-to-person, and on this scale, he is a wonderful handler.
Cukor also remains vindicated by history. Because the epiphany that his original structure was ruthlessly bastardized by the studio, through hastily constructed voiceover and other such shortcuts, gives me greater faith in the man. It’s only a shame we cannot see his personal cut of the movie. Not only does the thrown-together bookend narration kill the climax, it feels stilted, wrecking the basic integrity of our story. Alas, what could have been.
I love this movie in a way. Gardner was phenomenally good at that time – she had so many good roles throughout the 50s. Her passion is never in doubt and even the most trying and difficult scenes are arried off with great skill and sensitivity.
Granger too is very good, and again was doing some first rate work around this time. He had that slightly stiff, buttoned up sense of wounded dignity down to a tee and those occasion when he let some of the pressure escape is well judged.
As for theme, the racial aspect is of less importanc in my mind than the deeper question of identity. To my mind, the film is first and foremost a study of people seeking a place, both mentally and physically, where thy can feel they truly belong. This is a powerful theme and it resonates strongly with me as a Northern Irishman who grew up in a society where that sene of beloging, and indeed the lack of it in many cases, drove a savage conflict, and then later as an immigrant living in a very different culture. There is a universal quality to tales which look at the quest for the kind of spiritual peace brought about by finding one’s place in the world. As such, it’s a theme which can touch the lives of arguably more people than an examination of mixed race relationships alone could, which is not to say the latter is less interesting or affecting just narrower in focus.
Hi Colin, thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comments. I always enjoy them. I appreciate what you said about identity in general because it does give the movie a broader context and having lived in different cultures for varying periods of time, I definitely do appreciate that idea of looking for one’s place in the world where you don’t always seem to fit seamlessly in. I did this mini-marathon of Ava Garnder movies, and my esteem for her steadily grew. I’m glad I did it.
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