Nine Hours to Rama, the story of the killer of Mahatma Gandhi.
It's January 30, 1948 in New Delhi, India. Just a few months into the country's independence after 200-plus years under Great Britain's rule, India is still finding its voice as an independent nation, and peace-preaching Mahatma Gandhi is that voice. The police and the army have been mobilized. Evidence and rumors suggest an assassination attempt is going to be made on Gandhi before the day is out. The killer? An extremist hell bent on ending Gandhi's life, his name Naturam Godse (Horst Buchholz). He's been chosen by his movement as the man supposed to kill Gandhi and he is ready to do whatever it takes to accomplish his mission. His work is cut out for him though, as the police, including police superintendent Gopal Das (Jose Ferrer), are closing in on him.
What I don't know about Gandhi's life could fill volumes. The same for Indian history, even more recent history like earning its independence from England. This 1963 story from director Mark Robson has been basically completely forgotten over the last 50-plus years. I caught a couple minutes of 'Rama' a few years back on AMC and finally was able to catch up with the feature film thanks to a recent airing on TV. What an interesting if flawed movie. Robson filmed on location in India, an incredibly nice touch that gives his film quite the authentic feel. He films the crowded streets, the country roads, the people, and there's almost a documentary feel as the story develops. Composer Malcolm Arnold turns in an excellent score, slightly reminiscent of his Bridge on the River Kwai score, to aid the assassination story that's based on the truth but mostly fictionalized.
One of my favorite movies is The Magnificent Seven, a western featuring a cast full of stars and recognizable character actors...and Horst Buchholz, a German actor playing a Mexican gunfighter. It's a very good part, but one of two movies I actually have seen Buchholz in. Well, make that three now with Buchholz doing a solid job here as Naturam. I think the script makes a wise choice in not demonizing him. He's a flawed character, obsessive in his beliefs and convinced he's in the right through his actions. If you know the history, it takes some of the mystery out of where this will end up but that doesn't take away from the strength of the story.
And how about the weakness of the story? That's from a storytelling device that can make or break a movie...the dreaded flashback. This is a story with two paths. One, Naturam in the hours building up to his assassination attempt. Two, his life, how he ended up on this path. His motivations and reasons are one thing, but that doesn't make the flashbacks interesting. Maybe in a separate movie, the flashback device works, but I felt that it fell short here mostly because the other half of the movie is so straightforward and effective. The main focus is on Naturam's troubled relationship with Rani (Valerie Gearon), a woman from vastly different backgrounds and beliefs who's still drawn to Naturam. A fiery, up and down relationship, it just doesn't work well in context. Minimizing the story of Gandhi's assassin to a tortured love story just doesn't work.
With the rest of the cast, Ferrer is the best supporting part. His Das is a dedicated, driven police officer who wants India to succeed as an independent nation. He knows that future needs its leader, Gandhi (J.S. Casshyap, a dead ringer for Gandhi), and has to convince the great man to listen to advice when his life is in danger. Don Borisenko plays Naturam's worrying accomplice, Diane Baker plays a prostitute who Naturam comes across in his efforts to hide while the police search for him and Harry Andrews and Robert Morley don some face-darkening makeup to play an Indian general and an Indian politician.
'Rama' is at its absolute best in the assassination plotline. Ten years before The Day of the Jackal was released, Robson's film does a great job laying things out, a race against time with life and death on the line through a crowded city. Naturam knows he's being pursued with the police close behind every step of the way. The tension keeps building and building as the sun begins to set, especially knowing where the story will end up. Knowledge of the history isn't a hindrance to any enjoyment of the story. It all builds to an incredibly moving ending, a flawed movie that manages to rise above its flaws in its strongest moments. A not so well known historical story but an interesting one to watch develop to its inevitable end.
Nine Days to Rama (1963): ** 1/2 /****