Bhowani Junction [1956]

A landmark title in the evolution of CinemaScope, Bhowani Junction is a fascinating but exasperating instance of a provocative film running head-on into studio interference and censorship. This would be the next-to-last project in George Cukor's long history as an MGM director, and despite its rejection at the time, admirers regard it as one of his most personal achievements. What's irreducibly admirable is Cukor's sensuous embrace of India as both the film's location and its "major character." With F.A. Young as cinematographer (six years before Young shot David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia), this director chiefly associated with intimate settings and soundstage productions created rich, gold-brown canvases surging powerfully with vast crowds and unrest. Ava Gardner plays a half-British, half-Indian woman trying to find an identity for herself at that moment in 1947 when Great Britain was preparing to withdraw from the country it had ruled for two centuries. Her dilemma is focused through her relationships with several men: a fellow half-caste (Bill Travers) who's been her longtime lover, a slimy British junior officer (Lionel Jeffries), a pure-blood Indian aspiring to make her his bride (Francis Matthews), and the senior British officer (Stewart Granger) whose fierce ambivalence must inevitably mutate into passionate love. If it's sensuousness you're after, you can do a lot worse than having the luscious Gardner at the center of your movie, and the actress responded beautifully to both the exotic setting and Cukor's direction. Alas, Granger was mostly a stick (Cukor wanted Trevor Howard), and the script is awful--structurally incoherent and endlessly recycling bald-faced declarations of the divided-ethnicity theme. The situation is made worse by the studio's decision to reedit the film as a flashback, with Granger narrating. Still ... Ava, India, and CinemaScope carry the day. --Richard T. Jameson

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