‘The Brigand of Kandahar’ or — Oli Reed’s Worst Movie?

I was extremely worried sitting down to watch John Gilling’s ‘The Brigand of Kandahar’ (1965) as not only did Oliver Reed call it the worst film he’s ever appeared in but also because it contains many white actors in brownface make-up along with battle scenes lifted and inserted directly from an entirely different movie. Oh dear! This could be an offensive, cheap-o nightmare, but let’s exercise a little tolerance and watch the movie first before passing judgement.

Bengal Lancer Lt. Case (Ronald Lewis) is framed for cowardice by his sadistic and racist superior officer, Colonel Drewe. The reason given is for Case’s failing to rescue a fellow officer from a bandit attack, yet the real reason soon becomes apparent — Case is of mixed-race and has been having an affair with the captured officer’s wife. This simply will not do in the British military.

Court-martialled, Lt. Case is sentence to ten years in jail but before long he is sprung from his confinement by a tribesman working for Eli Khan (Oliver Reed), the leader of an outfit of Afghan brigands. At Khan’s mountain stronghold Case and Khan strike a deal: Khan will help Case exact his revenge on the British officer responsible for his ignominy if Case will help Khan capture the British fort of Kandahar.

Meanwhile the vicious Colonel Drewe is hunting Eli Khan and threatening to start executing the locals if they don’t reveal his mountain hideaway (sound familiar?). It’s almost as though Britain invading and occupying Afghanistan was, and always will be, some sort of stupid, Imperialist, murderous mistake!

What’s surprising about ‘The Brigand of Kandahar’ is once you get past (if you actually can or should) the dated and problematic representation of British actors playing Afghans that the movie initially appears to be packing a relatively serious, liberal, anti-Imperialist punch. We’re under no illusions that the British officers are the villains of an occupying force to the point where the first half hour or so of this could work as a relevant criticism of the U.S./UK lead invasion of the nation in 2001… if you use your imagination really, REALLY hard.

Unfortunately none of this is developed with any real care or thoughtfulness other than to provide a boys own adventure romp which ‘TBOK’ does entertainingly enough, despite the incongruous shocks of suddenly having footage from an entirely different movie (’Zarak’ — 1956) pop up in lieu any large, bespoke battle scenes having been filmed. It’s disconcerting and disorientating, almost as though you were reading a film review and then suddenly, from out of nowhere, a scene from an unrelated novel declared that Mr. Fetlock’s Irish wolfhound had eaten all twelve of Mrs. Lancaster’s chickens and this was causing no end of concern back at Drakehall Manor. Except what should young Miss Ermintrude do? After all, it’s not as though a young lady, even one as independent of though and action as Miss Ermintrude, has any place telling someone of Mr. Fetlock’s standing as to what he should do with his chicken consuming wolfhound. It simply adds to the confusion.

So ‘TBOK’ is a scrappy, low-budget yarn that has all the signature hallmarks of John Gilling’s auteur style — i.e. cheap, borderline-awful and fun. But I’m going to have to be careful about slagging the director off too much because what with the papier-mâché Afghanistan sets, spliced footage from other movies, bizarre costumes, surreal make-up and frantic editing the overall viewing effect of ‘TBOK’ is almost like that of some sort of experimental, Soviet montage film or avant-garde collage piece for 8 year old boys. And, once again, Gilling certainly knows how to keep everything moving briskly along, possibly because if the film stopped even for a minute to allow any form of rational thought or discernment to creep in then the audience would immediately get up and leave the cinema.

With all that out the way let’s return to our opening question — is this Oliver Reed’s worst movie? No! And not by a long shot. ‘Condorman’ (1981)? ‘The Sting II’ (1983)? ‘Castaway’ (1986)? Hell, I might even prefer this to ‘Gladiator’ (2000) because ‘TBOK is at least more enjoyable to sit through and almost half the length.

I’d also say ‘TBOK’s got less issues and is way less boring and dull than Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ (1982). But let’s face it, ‘Gandhi’s a movie so labourious and self-serving that the ONLY engaging activity to do whilst sitting through it is to think how boring and dull it actually is. It’s certainly more fun than actually watching it.

Still, ‘TBOK’ is a dated slice of nonsense that’s bearable more as an insight into British cinema history than anything else… and goodness knows what Miss Ermintrude is going to do now that Mr. Fetlock’s wolfhound has escaped again and is bothering the chickens with vigour!

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.