How to Remain Relevant Without Trying: 'Carry On…Up The Khyber'

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Sometimes old movies gain new relevance way after they're first released. The World's Patrick Cox is here to tell me about one such film. Patrick, what is the movie?

Patrick Cox: This really is an old movie. It's 45 years old, and I think it's safe to say that if the people who made this movie back in 1968, if they were told today that this low-budget British comedy was going to be held up as some kind of art whose message had stayed relevant, well, they'd fall out of their chairs laughing. Let me give you an idea of what we're talking about.

[movie clip]

First speaker: Your Excellency, may the benevolence of the god Shivu bring blessings on your house.

Second speaker: And on yours.

First speaker: And may his wisdom bring success in all your undertakings.

Second speaker: And in yours.

First speaker: And may his radiance light up your life.

Second speaker: And up yours.

[end of movie clip]

Werman: What the heck is this movie, I'm already, I love it already.

Cox: It's called "Carry On Up the Khyber" and it's set in 1895 in what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of course, it was then, the British were in charge there.

[movie clip]

Narrator: And so the British carried on with their carefree life, little knowing that high in the snow-capped mountains to the north, the spark was soon to be lit that would set Calabar ablaze. Here was the famous Khyber Pass, the gateway to India. This was a vital key point guarded night and day by a detachment of the celebrated Highland Regiment, the Third Foot and Mouth, fearless fighting men aptly referred to by the natives as the devils in skirts.

[end of movie clip]

Werman: Third Foot and Mouth. I don't know how they'd survive in the terrain today.

Cox: That's right. The story is utterly ridiculous, but it is somehow prescient. It's got the kinds of characters that we've all grown quite used to hearing about more recently, whether accurate or not, when it comes to the outside occupations of Afghanistan. You've got the out-of-touch occupiers who constantly misinterpret the locals, and then the locals themselves, these corrupt warlords or bearded tribal fighters. And "Carry On Up the Khyber" never intended to be anything like a sharp political satire. It pretty much takes the low road at every opportunity. There's farce and cross-dressing and all of the characters, whether they're Western or Asian, they're all played by white British actors.

Werman: Absolutely brilliant. We can read all sorts of relevance now in this film, "Carry On Up the Khyber," but with the American occupation winding down in Afghanistan, does that kind of sound the death knell for this renewed relevance of the movie?

Cox: Well, I thought so until I re-watched the movie and I caught a scene at the end. The tribesmen are bearing down on the British, things look really desperate, and then you see a British soldier painting a red line on the ground. And then his sergeant asks him what he's doing.

[movie clip]

Private: A thin red line. They'll never get past that.

Sergeant: If you don't get out of here, you'll have a thin red line across your thick white back side.

[end of movie clip]

Werman: Reference to a red line there, an expression very much in the news right now, Patrick, which makes one very silly British film topical all over again.

Cox: However inadvertent that may be.

Werman: The World's Patrick Cox. You can see some clips from "Carry On Up the Khyber" at our website, TheWorld.org.

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