The 1984 HBO mini-series The Far Pavilions, an epic six-part extravaganza filmed on location in India, is now available on a two-DVD set from Acorn Media. Based on M. M. Kaye’s exotic 1200 page historical romance, the series is a valiant attempt to translate to the small screen the massive novel about a love affair between a British officer and an Indian princess set against the British occupation of India in the late 19th century and the beginnings of the Indian revolution against that occupation. It is a leisurely told tale that tries to make the most of the exotic setting by filling the screen with lavish processions of camels and elephants, striking native costumes and scenic wonders.
The story’s emphasis on the clash between eastern and western cultures gives it an unexpected relevance still today, more than 30 years after it was made. The problems inherent when a foreign power takes control of a people with vastly different values and tries to impose its own norms on those people is as current as the latest bulletin on CNN. That the last few episodes deal specifically with an abortive British excursion into Afghanistan adds an even further currency to the series. While there will certainly be those that take exception to the series’ portrayal of the smug Brits and their feelings of superiority, there will also be those who object to the portrayal of devious natives and their outlandish barbaric customs. In this sense the series is an equal opportunity offender.
The series stars Ben Cross as Ashton Pelham-Martyn, a British officer who had been raised thinking he was Hindu after the death of his parents, and only later shipped off to England and Amy Irving as his beloved Indian princess. They are joined what for the period would have been the equivalent of an all star supporting cast. Unfortunately, in some cases it seems more like an all star miscasting. Sir John Gielgud, for example, is hard to buy as a hard-nosed British officer sent to take charge in Afghanistan. Rossano Brazzi portrayal of the aging duplicitous Rana of Bhihthor is something less than authentic. Too many of the lesser known character actors indulge themselves with eye rolling and indication. But perhaps the biggest problem in the film is Cross who gives a rather wooden one dimensional performance. Best known for his performance in the Academy Award winning Chariots of Fire, Cross is not very believable as a romantic action hero.
Amy Irving, on the other hand, is a true exotic beauty as the noble Indian princess who is willing to sacrifice herself for the happiness of her step sister. She seems very natural in what is certainly an alien role. Christopher Lee manages to pull back some and delivers a nuanced undertated performance as an advisor and protector to the throne. Omar Sharif is excellent as Koda Dad, an Indian courtier who helped to raise the young Ashton. A younger Rupert Everett makes an appearance in the first episode as a Brit coming to work in an Indian financial institution.
The film makes extensive use of Indian rituals and customs both as spectacle and as plot points. Much of the romantic element of the plot centers on the forced marriage of the princess and her younger sister to an older man. The elaborate ceremony is pictured in detail with all the pomp of a royal wedding. Much is made of the ritual of suttee, the outlawed custom by which living wives are immolated with the corpses of their deceased spouses. Indian dances and music are also used to lend the film an air of authenticity and emphasize the gap between the local culture and that of the British outsiders. Director, Peter Duffell seems always able to find quality time for the rich, if not always benign, heritage of India.
Unfortunately, the quality of the DVD picture is not always up to modern standards. At times, especially during the early episodes, the color seems washed out. It gets better in the later episodes. In general the filming seems dated, but that should not be unexpected in a film from this period, and despite its faults, it is still a compelling story told more often than not with style and grace. As far as extra material is concerned, the first disc includes some production notes from Cross and Amy Irving and a short biographical sketch of M. M. Kaye; there is nothing added to the second disc.