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In her autobiography, Ava Gardner displays a fine sense of humor about Bhowani Junction (1956): "[It] was a film with a split personality as far as Metro was concerned. On the one hand, they were happy to ballyhoo it as an epic, with ads shouting, 'Two years in Production! Thousands in the Cast!' But on the other hand, it had me in it, didn't it? Which meant lurid copy lines on the order of 'Half-Caste Beauty and Her Three Loves' and 'Ava..enticing..primitive..she must choose...one world to live in...one man to love!' Oh, brother."
It's too bad that Bhowani Junction exists only in the form that it took after massive re-editing by MGM, after director George Cukor had finished the film and moved on, for by several accounts, the original version was the more interesting movie. Set in 1947 India, it's the story of a half-British, half-Indian woman (Ava Gardner) who feels at home in neither country. She returns to India at the time that the British are leaving the country for good, and against this festering political backdrop, she tries to cope with her identity crisis by indulging in several romances, including one with a British officer (Stewart Granger) who is in charge of preventing trains from being sabotaged. Train wrecks and explosive crowd scenes with thousands of extras lend an epic atmosphere to a film which Gardner described as "the studio's biggest production of 1956."
Granger and Gardner provide amusingly different takes in their memoirs on what happened between them on this picture's location. Granger goes on for many pages about Gardner's advances toward him and his restraint of those advances because he wanted to be faithful to his wife, Jean Simmons. (By a strange coincidence, Simmons was at this time starring with Gardner's husband Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls, 1955, half a world away.) Gardner devotes a mere two sentences to the situation, referring to Granger by his given name, "Jimmy": "Sometime during the small hours of the morning Jimmy volunteered that he couldn't possibly be unfaithful to Jean. I smiled, patted his hand, and said, 'Honey, you've been reading the wrong press clips.'"
In any event, they played well together, although director Cukor later said that the bland Granger was not his first choice: "I wanted Trevor Howard. Stewart Granger was just a movie star and he brought out the movie queen in Ava. She was good, but she and everything else would have been better with Trevor Howard. He'd have been more cruel, more real, in their whole affair."
Ava Gardner was starting to be taken seriously as an actress. She had been Oscar®-nominated for Mogambo (1953) and had just finished The Barefoot Contessa (1954) opposite Humphrey Bogart. In Bhowani Junction, she displayed good range and was asked to perform some difficult scenes, including a harrowing rape sequence which left a lifelong mark on her psyche:
"I can still remember every moment of that scene," she later wrote. "I felt terrified, hopelessly vulnerable, spitting and scratching like a cat. Defeated. I was almost out of my mind at the awful violence, the awful reality. And the worst thing I had to do in that scene was kill my attacker [played by Lionel Jeffries]..I left that scene without speaking and went immediately back to my trailer. Trembling and shaking, I swallowed an enormous whiskey...I'd known Lionel for weeks now; he was a sweet man and I adored him, but I knew that if I didn't see him quickly, that scene was going to stick in my mind forever and I'd hate his guts. George came in to see if I was all right. 'George,' I said, 'for God's sake, please get Lionel over here - now! Because unless I see him and give him a big hug, I'll never speak to him as long as I live.' Lionel hurried over, I gave him my hug, and things were all right between us. No film scene had ever affected me so deeply before, had left me with such a nightmare sense of terror, and no scene would ever do so again."
Bhowani Junction was filmed in Lahore, Pakistan, because the Indian government was demanding script approval and high tax payments. Conditions in Pakistan for the crew were brutal, with high heat, humidity, and dysentery. The script also had many enormous logistical challenges, such as coordinating the street riots with thousands of people. Cukor and his ace cameraman, Freddie Young (of future Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, fame), pulled these scenes off superbly, using a burnt-out color palette.
The studio was impressed, but concerned about budget and schedule overruns. They decided to cut post-production time down drastically and rush the film into theaters. Because of the hurried schedule, test screening results and censorship concerns, many interesting elements were deleted from the final print, including much of the Indian atmosphere, an erotic love scene, and an infamous sequence in which Ava Gardner uses Granger's toothbrush after dipping it in scotch. Cukor said the picture was not simply recut, but simplified and "rearranged in an uninteresting way," with flashbacks and repetitive voiceovers inserted, explaining over and over Gardner's identity struggle.
Nonetheless, the film drew some modest praise, such as Variety's review: "The sense of realism in the film is one of the best things about it...Cukor, in staging his crowd scenes, achieved some magnificent effects and Freddie Young's lensing is first-rate. The milling, sweating, shouting crowds, egged on by Red agents, are almost frighteningly real, and the CinemaScope screen comes alive with an abundance of movement." The New York Times singled out Gardner's performance: "As the Anglo-Indian lady, Ava Gardner has moments of staggering power, especially when she expresses the violence of the lady's social sentiments."
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Sonya Levien, Ivan Moffat, John Masters (novel)
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Film Editing: George Boemler, Frank Clarke
Art Direction: Gene Allen, John Howell
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Ava Gardner (Victoria Jones), Stewart Granger (Col. Rodney Savage), Bill Travers (Patrick Taylor), Abraham Sofaer (Surabhai), Francis Matthews (Ranjit Kasel), Marne Maitland (Govindaswami).
C-110m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold