Acorn Media // 1984 // 307 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // June 19th, 2011
"I shall always be two people in one skin which is not a very comfortable thing to be."
Back in 1984, HBO wanted to compete with the major networks, and there was one sure way to do it. Produce an epic mini-series based on a massive novel. Make sure it had plenty of action, romance, intrigue and exotic locales. It was sure to be a hit. The Far Pavilions was created. Can it stand toe to toe with juggernauts like Shogun?
Ashton Pelham-Martyn (Ben Cross) now goes by the name Ash. But in his youth he was known as Ashok, born to a British father and Indian mother. After his parents die he is raised by his Hindu nanny in the ways of her people. He meets a young princess named Anjuli (Amy Irving) who is also of mixed heritage. The two become childhood friends, but a series of plots and perils forces Ashok to flee for his life. He falls into the hands of British authorities, and it sent to England to be educated.
When he returns at age 19, he joins the Corps of Guides, a regiment of the British Indian Army stationed in the northern frontier. He quickly rises to through the ranks, but a bit of intrigue forces Ash to go AWOL. When he returns to the military after obtaining valuable stolen guns, he is reinstated but suspended from the Guides.
He is given a desk job at first, and finds it intolerable. After a mixup that ends in fisticuffs, he is sent away from the desk as the British escort for a wedding party traveling across India. At first Ash is annoyed by the whole situation, until he discovers that one of the princesses in the wedding party is Anjuli. The two reunite and fall head over heels for each other. But love can not stand in the way of duty and tradition, and Anjuli's fate is to marry the very old and very cunning Rana of Bithor. Since this is based on an epic novel, we know this love can not be thwarted for long. Ash finds himself facing a deadly enemy from his past, thwarting a royal murder plot and engaging in the start of the Second Afghan War of 1879. Will he be reunited with his true love, and what will be the final cost?
This is another entry in the grand old miniseries that thrived in the '70s and '80s. It is huge in every aspect. The story is sprawling. The setting is exotic and filled with beauty shots. The acting ranges from theatrical to over the top. The music has a golden age sound. Clocking in at 307 minutes, the series is no slouch. So how come The Far Pavilions is not as well remembered as other exotic epics of the era?
I doubt the issue is the acting. Cross carries the film well. Sure it's a bit of a stretch to see him as a 19 year old when the series starts, but he plays the hot headed youth well. Ash is often frustrated by his ties to both worlds he lives in. He sympathizes with the people of India, but also understands the British perspective on things. Cross keeps this conflict simmering in the background. His gruff nature is tempered by Anjuli's understanding.
Irving does a fine job too. She looks alluring in the various costumes and her chemistry with Cross helps fuel the love story. Sadly her character is a bit flat. Most of the time she gets to look sadly out a window or from a balcony. Her best scenes are her interactions with Cross.
The supporting cast is really top notch. Omar Sharif as Koda Dad, a man who helped raise Ash, brings plenty of warmth to the series. Christopher Lee plays Kaka-ji Rao, a father figure to Anjuli. Lee's imposing presence at first comes across sinister, but he is quickly revealed as an over protective father to Anjuli.
But the big surprise was Sir John Gielgud as Cavagnari, an Englishman who is determined to set up a mission in Kabul. Gielgud nails the part, coming across as a pompous man that is out of his depth, but doesn't lack courage. Once things explode, he doesn't sit back and let his soldiers die. No, he grabs his revolver and starts blowing people away!
Also keep an eye open for always reliable Art Malik as Ash's best friend Zarin, and Rupert Everett as the snobbish George Garforth.
The whole production is bursting at the seams with impressive vistas and a cast of thousands. It really helps to give authenticity to the setting and period. Because is was shot on location, a lot of the outdoor scenes are jaw dropping and make you wish it was filmed in a cinematic aspect ratio. The costumes are excellent, although we learn pretty early on that Ben Cross looks goofy in just about any hat he wears in this (and some of them are hilarious looking on anyone).
While the screen spends a lot of time showing off the beauty of India, they's also plenty of time for action and adventure. Each episode contains some kind of intrigue or plotting, and usually a battle or two. The most impressive occurs in the fifth episode when a mob attacks the mission in Kabul. It's a well staged siege that increases the tension higher and higher as the situation becomes bleaker.
I also have to mention the sweeping romantic score by Carl Davis. It has more than a touch of Doctor Zhivago in it. But Jarre's style fits this type of epic series, and Davis does a great job adapting it to The Far Pavilions adding some ethnic touches when needed.
Acorn spreads the series over two discs. There are a total of six episodes, each running around 50 minutes or so. Sadly the image looks like what you'd expect from 1984 television. It is soft and the age of the print shows with nicks and lines. Outdoor night scenes are troublesome, rendering everything a murky slate color, but they are few. Luckily the sound is clear and well balanced. While I've seen reports of a remastered version, this set doesn't mention it anywhere. There was a release in 2002, and this looks like it might be a reprint with the addition of English subtitles for the hearing impaired. For extras you get production notes from Cross and Irving as well as a brief biography of M.M Kaye.
There are some issues with story pacing and all of it points to trouble adapting such a huge novel into a mini-series. Much like Shogun the series suffers from sequences rushing along at breakneck speed. Then you get the scenes that slow down to a crawl. The first episode is a whirlwind of flashbacks, exposition and a ton of characters. It's not quite confusing, but it doesn't draw the viewer in. The second episode makes up for it with a much more linear story path and this continues for the rest of the series.
The slowness rears its head during scenes of pageantry and romance. For example the wedding of the princesses is jam packed with costumes and beauty shots but some folks are going to be bored by the extended running time. The love scenes between Ash and Anjuli range from touching conversations to ridiculous slow motion riding on horseback through the wilderness. Yeah, it's that cheesy.
Some of the acting gets a little too overblown, or old fashioned if you prefer. In moments of high drama we get some stagy acting that may cause a snicker or two.
While the film does feature a main character who is against the colonization of India, the entire series takes place during this time, and there a plenty of supporting British characters who treat the Indian people with little consideration. I felt this was put in perspective by Ash and isn't offensive, but it might be an issue.
More bizarre is the use of make-up to transform very white actors into ethnic characters. Anjuli is supposed to be of mixed heritage, so I give the casting of Irving a bit of a pass. But sometimes she looks just plain odd under that makeup. More bizarre is Christopher Lee in brown face. Yes he performs with an accent and his acting is top notch. But the film has such a large ethnic cast, I found it odd that an actual Indian actor wasn't cast in this key role. I know some viewers are going to find it distracting.
There are rumors of a longer cut of this series, clocking in at nearly 500 minutes. I couldn't find anything concrete about the existence of it, but some folks are convinced they've seen it. This DVD is not an extended cut. If you already have the 2002 version of the disc, the only reason to upgrade would be for the English SDH subs.
In the end, I'm not sure why The Far Pavilions doesn't get mentioned with other miniseries classics from its time. I enjoyed it as much as Shogun and can easily recommend it for anyone looking for an old fashioned style epic with plenty of romance and adventure. It is very much rooted in '80s television stylings, but I think it is more charming than annoying. The first episode may be a little rough, but stick with it to the second episode and you'll find a lot to enjoy.
Review content copyright © 2011 Roman Martel; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 307 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Production Notes
* Wikipedia: M.M. Kaye
* Wikipedia: Corps of Guides