The Far Pavilions (1984)

More cheating.  “The Far Pavilions” aired on HBO in 1984, the cable network’s first miniseries.  However, it’s an HBO miniseries in name only.  It follows all the conventions of a network miniseries to the letter, setting a high standard of quality for coming HBO miniseries, but not at all setting a format.  I don’t mean that in a judging way, just a statement of fact.  HBO would go on to reshape the miniseries format to suit the needs of its subscribers, but in 1984, it was merely doing what network television was doing, giving us lush romantic escapism through the miniseries. 

It’s 1865, during the Raj in India.  Over the credits, we are shown a lot of history.  A young British boy is orphaned, but raised as an Indian, servant to a ruler and friend of an adorable little princess there with whom he splits the pieces of a necklace.  Killing a snake in the boy ruler’s room one night, our hero is branded by the men who had put the snake in the bed to kill the boy ruler and then escapes to The Commandant (Robert Hardy, not playing Winston Churchill, for a change), who sends him to London.

He returns to India as Ash (Ben Cross), traveling with George Garforth (Rupert Everett).  Ash is part of a native regiment, while George is part of a commercial house.  Ash is welcomed by Indians, which baffles his traveling companions, who find it baffling.  You see, the British fobs in India don’t think well of the Indians, especially since “The Mutiny” that caused so much fear.  Ash has trouble convincing them that India actually belongs to the Indians and not the British.  Ash goes to his Indian friends, asking “for this night, let me be Ashook again.”  You see the conflict coming?  Do you?  You do, right? 

On the journey to northern India, Ash regales his English compatriots with his history, getting insults hurled at him by George and the ladies, except for starry-eyed Belinda Harlowe (Felicity Dean).  He returns to The Commandant for his orders, which include training a native troupe, but not “getting too close” to his men.  He makes a jolly good time of it and even earns the respect of his men, but is a tough boss too.  The Commandant has his worries because the men love him so much.  “Let’s hope he never has to choose between them and us,” he snarls, hitting us with the coming conflict in case we missed it with the Brit nit wits in the earlier scenes. 

There is another, more subtle, conflict in Ash.  He was raised both Hindu and Muslim, so he “prays to the mountains” as his divine spirit, and we see him do it too.  How many worlds can the poor guy straddle? 

Ash goes to a British ball, with eyes only for Belinda, for whom he has competition in George.  Ash wins the attention of his pretty blonde, though to the dismay of her mother.  His way of getting in close with Belinda is to tell her yet more of his history, which is more for us than her, I suppose.  Belinda luckily spares us too much in the way of maudlin memory by suggesting another dance.  Not to worry, the memories come back on an otherwise lovely outing to tour the sights.  He does shut up long enough at one point to kiss her, which of course she’s been waiting for.  A problem awaits Ash when he applies for permission to marry Belinda, but The Commandant refuses to give permission until Ash is 30 because “that’s how long it takes to learn your trade!”  He is then sent to the mountains to collect taxes, which he does with spit spot efficiency. 

In a flash, Ash receives the news that Belinda is to be married to Sir Ambrose, a man old enough to be her father, though she denies that.  “He gives me such lovely presents,” she says, turning mercenary, which gets worse a moment later when she tells him they have turned George from their house because his mother was (get ready to gasp) a “half-caste!”  Add to that a slap to the face from her and Ash stalks off to find George, drunk with loyal Mrs. Viccary (Jennifer Kendal), friend to all.  George is now ignored by society, at least the part that knows.  He’s worried that everyone will find out and asks what Ash would do if everyone found out.  Ash jokes, “I would shoot myself.”  I know, I know, subtlety is not the watchword here.  To give credit to the writing, a scene is placed between Ash’s advice and when he finds out George has followed it.  Ash is so angry, he goes up to the mountains to live with the Indians who raised him. 

It’s a harsh life, in a cold climate and with only variations of ugly colors to look at, to make sure we understand what a harsh life it is.  There are rival clans constantly trying to knock each other off, seemingly for the purpose of collecting rifles from dead bodies.  Those rifles belong to the army, and Ash brings them all back, which puts the army in a bit of a bind.  Though he’s a “frontier hero,” he also has to be reprimanded for deserting and doing it on his own.  Ash is very valuable with the trust of the natives, so it’s decided to keep him in the army but send him to another regiment, one where he has no friends. 

He’s sent to Wally (Benedict Taylor), a chipper handsome blond who sings because he’s in love with a girl from his voyage who has tossed him out for an older man, causing an instant bond.  Only Wally can make poetry out of it.  Ash and Wally become such good friends that yet more crusty British officers have a reason to hate him, starting rumors that perhaps there is more to the relationship than just abiding friendship.  Over the course of three years, they do become good friends, despite Wally’s constant sicknesses (he has a boil on his bum at one point).

Ash takes Wally up to his beloved mountains where Wally sees the branding on Ash’s chest.  Hey, if Belinda isn’t around to listen to Ash’s past, Wally is.  He is reminded of the lovely princess, who is actually one quarter Russian.  “God knows where she is now,” he says.  Guess what, folks, she’s in the next scene!  Meet grown-up Anjuli (Amy Irving, done up in heavy dark make-up, and not at all convincing as three-quarters anything, let alone Indian!).  She’s still in the palace, though the new boy ruler is a pain-in-the-ass schemer. 

Following that is a long scene where Ash chews out a bunch of officers and visitors in the club, which pisses off the guys who had him down as a homosexual previously.  They are worried that his ideas will poison the minds of others, so the arrange to play a trick on him while he sleeps.  However, he manages to subdue the entire bunch of them, with some assist from Wally and their own incompetence (this scene plays like a Matt Sennett homage). 

Due to the fight, Ash is sent to escort two brides to their husbands (Anjuli being one of them, coincidentally), finally bringing our long-lost never-got-to-be-lovers together again after a huge amount of time.  The first friendly face he sees is Koda Dad (Omar Sharif), the man who raised him and whom he calls father.  He’s Master of Horse and fills Ash in on all that has gone on in his absence.  “How did you not know these things?” Koda asks, understandably (I was wondering the same thing).  His excuse is he was too angry to be paying attention. 

Ash gets his chance to see Anjuli under the most heroic of circumstances.  Anjuli is riding along and there is a crack in the earth that almost causes her to fall down a mountain (okay, it’s a hill and doesn’t look very dangerous).  Ash rushes in and saves her and her fellow princess, though Anjuli tries to avoid looking at him.  The other princess is so shocked by the experience that they have to make camp for two days.  Princess Shushila (Sneh Gupta) and her caretaker Kaka-ji (Christopher Lee) are at odds because Shushila wants to have fun, which is “not seemly” according to him.  As for Anjuli, she’s still wearing her half of the necklace, but doesn’t seem to recognize her beloved Ash until she realizes he has the other half. 

She shows up at his tent, breaking all rules of protocol and good manners.  This has to be the least romantic reuniting scene in miniseries history.  She’s afraid for his safety and he’s afraid for her honor and they speak in codes, stupid since they are the only ones in the tent.  She fills in her part of the narrative in the now-expected laziness of bulk monologue.  She claims not to recognize him, which is downright bizarre at this point, but it actually happens and she bursts into heaving sobs. 

The Prince’s younger brother shows up with Ash’s nemesis, Biju Ram (Saeed Jaffray), the man who branded him.  But, that only takes a second before Kaka-ji has to bore us with his backstory, his love for a half-caste, Anjuli’s mother.  I know the book is dense and beautiful, with so many wonderful plot strands, but unfortunately, like Michener and Clavell learned, some have to be cut. 

Against warnings, the little Prince Jhoti goes riding alone on a wild horse, causing everyone to chase him.  They stop the prince from going over a cliff, but unfortunately Ash is injured in the melee.  Koda Dad is the happiest of all to see his adopted son return to life, but also shows Ash that horse did not bolt on accident.  Someone is out to get the little prince.  Is it his jealous older brother?  Kaka-ji won’t let Ash think such a thing.  Is it Biju Ram, who is supposedly out of favor with the main prince? 

Ash and Anjuli get to have a heart-to-heart since he’s bed-bound in a tent.  I would like to say there is chemistry between Ben Cross and Amy Irving, but it’s too soon for that.  It’s still hard to get used to Amy playing an Indian princess.  Ah, 1984, before political correctness invaded pop culture. 

Unfortunately, Biju Ram knows it was Anjuli in Ash’s tent and Ash suspects Biju Ram is behind the plot to kill the prince.  Ash runs his theory across Koda Dad and also confesses his love for Anjuli and his desire for them to marry and escape everything.  It’s not a wise move, he’s warned, but this is, above all, a romance tale, though cloaked in exotica and daring-do.  Unfortunately, their budding love leads us smack into one of the hoariest of the miniseries traps: the slow motion montage.  Ah, yes, our lovers go riding on their horses slow enough so that you can pop in a microwave dinner, wait for it, and still be back in time to arrive for the next line of dialogue.  To cap it off, they have another heart-to-heart that goes in for heavy exposition.  It’s mercifully cut short by a gigantic sandstorm.

Now this I can get into.  Here we have the adventure part of the story that has been sorely lacking so far.  Oh, for crying out loud!  The lovers escape into a cave in mere moments and finally get the chance to have their clinch.  “Oh, my love, love me.  Love me now,” Anjuli says before they press their lips together and have a dimly lit sex scene right there in the cave.  It’s a long one too, and not even in slow motion.  “I never meant this to happen,” Ash says after they are done.  “I did,” Anjuli replies.  She’s wanted it forever.  She knows she can now be married off, having known love, but he wants to run away with her.  Since the movie is only half over, we have to invent excuses why this is not possible, such as “I can’t leave Shushila.  “If I’m not there to comfort her and love her, she will die.”  Oh, please!  Let the selfish sister go and stay with the hunky man who loves you! 

Anjuli has thought of everything, answering every question he has as a way to keep her.  Yes, she can pretend she’s a virgin for the man she will marry.  Yes, she will keep his baby if she gets pregnant and raise it as a prince.  Actually, she has a walloping grandiose speech about how much she would love that potential child and then insists they return to the others.  Overwritten?  You bet.  Badly acted?  You bet.  But, these are the slings and arrows of outrageous romances.  Luckily, it’s Kaku-ji who finds the lovers and has a story all prepared for when they reach camp and have to explain where they have been.  He knows full well what happened. 

Pondering his fate at night, Ash is shot at by Biju Ram with his very own pistol.  Biju Ram explains that his servant had stolen the guy and Biju Ram wanted to make sure it worked before he returned it, thinking Ash was an animal.  All of this time, apparently, Biju Ram hasn’t realized that Ash is the kid he tried to kill years ago!  They have a fight and Biju Ram dies, but Ash manages to make it look like a cobra bite.  There is only one button left near the body to prove that Ash was there…

Our army arrives in Bhithor, but it’s not a welcoming place.  First off, they are forced to camp outside the city walls in an indefensible position, which doesn’t sit well with Ash, but Kaku-ji tells him to accept it.  Then they find out the marriage contract needs to be redone.  That means having to meat the Rana of Bhitor (Rossano Brazzi, looking more Indian than Amy Irving, but sounding more Italian than Sophia Loren).

So, now come the negotiations.  One sticking point is Anjuli’s age.  The Rana thinks she’s too old and unless her dowry is tripled, a sneaky way of making a ton of money, since she can’t be send home; that would be a disgrace.  Ash tells her, in a very impassioned speech, but Anjuli refuses to leave her sister in the clutches of the Rana, another of those roadblocks stuck in their way that has many a solution around it if they would bother to consider any.  Right in front of old Kaku-ji, the two kiss big, with the whole violin section going hog wild.  He chews Ash out a bit for causing Anjuli pain by loving her and then, to be polite, falls on his own sword a bit for his “negligence and folly.” 

Ash decides to move the caravan out, a dicey proposition as they are in a valley surrounded by forts on mountains that communicate with each other by flashing light off mirrors (it’s 1865, pre-Twitter, so we have to accept there is no better way).  When the Rana’s soldiers go into the camp with guns, it gives Ash an excuse to threaten the Rana, telling him it’s an act of war against the government and unless the princesses are received under the original contract, he will tell the army, who will depose the Rana and send him into exile.  It’s a ballsy move, but it forces the Rana’s hand.  Well, kind of, since the Rana gives the other side a palace to stay in that they have to pay for. 

Using the lion’s share of the budget, we’re treated to a supremely long wedding ceremony.  There are extra a-plenty, elephants, fire, food, gold, Hindu priests, acres of silk clothing, and a glowering Ash standing high above the ceremony all but putting a curse on the whole damn thing.  He tells Koda Dad his “heart is breaking,” which sucks because the festivities go on for a whopping three days.  That means many more extras, now dancing, and a ton more glowering.  As a last humiliation, Ash is forced to watch as Anjuli leaves with her new husband in the finale of the budget-blowing cavalcade. 

Meanwhile, war has broken out in Afghanistan, and it’s a bloody one.  Our delightful blond Wally, too much missed, surveys the carnage with blood stains liberally applied to make it look like he was part of the action (remember, the budget is was spent on the damn wedding, so now we have to tighten our belts).  He’s part of a small retinue that has survived. 

This brings the British further into Afghanistan and John Gielgud as Major Cavagnari (hey, at least he’s not playing Indian) with them.  Though the British did not win the battle, Cavagnari forces the Afgans to accept a British mission in their country too, at the threat of toppling the government and setting up a puppet government. 

Ash and Wally are reunited, but Ash is gloomy over his lost princess, and in case you missed the last few hours, he fills Wally in on what happened in a few sentences.  Ash gets even more depressing as he tells an optimistic Wally that the British are merely doing in Afghanistan what they did in India and it causes a rift between the two.  Little Wally stalks off with, “go to hell!” which is about as mean as he gets.

At the Rana’s palace, Anjuli thinks only of Ash, spending her scenes staring into space as her maids gossip and Shushila learns how to twist the Rana around her finger to win jewels.  She’s cut off from her sister and her trusted maid is killed. 

Our hero resigns from the army, but with one condition, that he go to Kabul in native dress and spy on things until the British mission leaves.  Doesn’t sound like much of a resignation, does it?  But, Ash doesn’t exactly have much else to do.  He could pine like Anjuli, but that would make the rest of the movie downright deadly boring, wouldn’t it?  Plus, it keeps him part of the plot as Cavagnari, with trusty Wally as his military aide, sets up the British mission in Kabul in an enormous palace.  There are lots of politics going on, with Cavagnari the ultimate diplomat in wowing the Emir of Afghanistan with trinkets like clocks in appeasing him so that he doesn’t realize he’s losing his country.  He even slings that BS at his own people, and since he’s John Gielgud, they believe it. 

Ash had predicted that the army would look to the British to pay back wages, though Cavagnari disagrees.  He’s wrong.  Seemingly the entire male population of Afghanistan storms the British mission, where Wally has ordered that no one fire on them without his permission.  At first, there is simply just a lot of fist pumping and yelling, but Cavagnari thinks he can halt the mob with a few well-chosen words, telling them he has no reason to pay them; it’s an internal dispute for their Emir to handle.  His words appease them for about 10 minutes before they are storming back through the barricades and Wally is leading the defense (with a pistol).  Cavagnari is wounded, but is more concerned about the blood on his shirt and sends a man to get him a new one.  Unfortunately, he takes another bullet, dirtying another shirt.  He doesn’t ask for a third shirt because he dies. 

Wally, who once again looks fetching in combat, and who can kill anyone with his pistol without actually aiming, has barely enough soldiers left to defend the mission, but insists on fighting on, in slow motion so Ash can watch him die and then get shot himself.  He’s okay, but before he leaves the decimated mission, he, with the help of the whole violin section again, carries Wally’s body to a cannon, placing it there and draping a Union Jack over him.  Awwwwww.

This whole last section, with politics barely explained and a rather wan battle scene, is only a distraction from the main love plot.  Ash returns to Koda Dad to find out that the Rana is dying and, as custom, his wives will be burned with his body.  Ash asks everyone for help, but he is turned down.  Even the telegraph operator won’t help, but not to worry, there’s a trusty carrier pigeon that aids communication (what, no mirrors?).  Ash races to the Rana’s palace, to be informed that the Rana is expected to die that very day. 

The conflict is back.  You see, it’s custom to burn the wives of a dead ruler and if Ash tries to stop it, the people will rebel.  Ash threatens to bring the Raj, but everyone knows they won’t help.  “I will let you know when I have worked out a plan that will succeed,” Ash tells his pals petulantly.  Hmmm, should he respect the customs of the people who raised him or spit on them by the people who birthed him?  A half a scene later, he realizes there is no plan that will work, so he throws his arm around his chum and says, “let’s go eat, I’m starving.”  Boy, he gives up awfully easily! 

No, no!  A meal and a touching story by a servant later, he’s determined again to rescue his beloved.

And then Rana dies, loudly, so Brazzi can have one last moment to ham it up (it’s a small part, but don’t tell him that).  Ash joins the massive crowd of mourners drooling over the prospect of watching the pyre.  The next scene goes to Shushila and Anjuli, where Shushila reveals that she’s jealous of her half-sister and has caused her all the pain at the palace.  Shushila refuses to let Anjuli burn on the pyre and “defile the Rana’s ashes.”  But, just when you think that’s the escape clause, Shushila says she’s made “other arrangements.”  Just what that means, she doesn’t say, but it gives hope to Ash.  Now, come on!  Do you think Shushila is going to let Anjuli off that easily? 

Plus, we know how devoted Anjuli is to custom, and when Ash shows up to rescue her, she refuses to go.  She has found out that Shushila’s plan is to have Anjuli’s eyes poked out after having seen her die with the Rana’s body.  That is the ultimate revenge, but Anjuli would rather do that than escape with Ash.  For crying out loud!  But, to satisfy him, she will allow him to shoot her sister dead once the pyre starts going to spare her the fear of burning alive.  Once that happens, Ash and Anjuli hightail it out of the palace. 

Eternal happiness does not come so quickly.  It’s discovered that Anjuli has escaped and a posse is sent after them.  Anjuli’s horse is shot out from underneath her, but she is safe.  Ash leaves her with his trust men and goes back to fight.  He promises Anjuli he will return with giant kiss.  Ash, Koda Dan and a doctor get to fight the army sent after them.  What ensues is a fight straight out of the American West, with Ash as the fast shot who can pick off four men with one pistol before they can aim their rifles.  Though they rout the army, the doctor dies and Koda Dan is mortally wounded.  Ash leaves him to die and goes off into the mountains, the Far Pavilions as they are called, with Anjuli. 

“The Far Pavilions” is fine as romance, terrible as adventure.  The adventure parts (battles, crumbling mountains and such) look cheap and are so tied to the kind of backstory politics that work well in a book but badly on screen.  The romance is better, but only because Ben Cross gives all he has.  Amy Irving is never believable as an Indian princess, and her robotic devotion to custom wears awfully thin, so that by the end, one just wishes she would have followed the customs and let her beloved find a new gal.  Even the guest stars fail to register.  Rossano Brazzi has nothing to do, John Gielgud is around only for a few minutes, Omar Sharif is, well, Omar Sharif.  Christopher Lee, as ridiculous as an Indian as Amy Irving, is majestic enough for the part, but it’s not much of a part. 

The exotic locale and breathless story should have been a no-brainer for a miniseries in 1984, but “The Far Pavilions” presents a problem: there is no clear sense of good and evil.  Just when you think everything Indian is good and everything British evil, the story shows us how cruel the native customs can be (not that the British had any right to meddle).  An epic like this needs to have heroes and villains who are uncomplicated, unless it is so well written that the lack of moral clarity can be made acceptable.  The writing here is way too hackneyed for that, so ultimately we’re provided with merely an eye-popping spectacle, pretty to look at, but empty of heart.

Categories: Adventure Miniseries, Romance Miniseries

Leave a Comment or Question