Early impressions

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(Host) Lately commentator David Moats has been thinking a lot about early impressions and seemingly random cultural influences.

(Moats) I saw a movie when I was a small boy, and I always wondered about it.

You might have memories like this. It’s distant, yet vivid, and you wonder if you really experienced it, or if you dreamed it, or what.

The movie was called “King of the Khyber Rifles.” It was from the 1950s, and it involved a British colonial soldier on the Afghan border who is captured and tied to a stake. Afghan tribesmen race by on horseback hurling spears into the chests of soldiers tied to other stakes. But when he came to the hero, played by Tyrone Power, the tribal chieftain observed his stoic bravery and spared him.

This scene left two impressions on the little boy who saw it. First was the bloody impalement of one of the soldiers. Second was the stoic bravery of the hero.

Was it really possible to stand up so bravely in the face of a horseman with a spear? It was nice to think so.

But was the movie real?

Someone suggested I Google it. And here is the wonder of Google.

I typed in the name of a movie that had been lodged in my brain for 50 years, and up it came. It told me the movie was from 1953, which meant I was only 5 or 6 when I saw it.

It told me the movie was an early exploration of ethnic intolerance because the hero was a half-caste. His mother was Indian.

It also told me the movie was going to be on cable in five days at 6:45 a.m. I vowed to see it. But what would I see when I watched it again? Were my memories from 50 years before correct?

For the most part the movie was a cheesy romance involving British soldiers, the commander’s daughter, and dangerous Afghans. The theme of ethnic tolerance was not something I remembered from 1953. I was waiting for that death scene. And it came – toward the end – British soldiers tied to stakes.

The impalement was not as gruesome as I remembered. Blood didn’t spurt, as my memory had it do, though there was blood.

When Tyrone Power’s moment came, he showed the stoic bravery I remembered. No whimpering or screaming, just a willingness to accept his fate, eyes downcast, brave. Even his facial expression is close to what that 5-year-old remembered.

There was one difference. The tribal chieftain didn’t spare him because of his bravery alone. The two of them had been friends in childhood, and the Brit had spared the Afghan the night before. There were issues of honor involved, not just the hero’s bravery.

But now the question has been answered. The movie was real, and the bloody scene was real.

And for me it’s astonishing the way the bric-a-brac of our culture can shape the moral sensibilities of people, even impressionable 5-year-olds watching cheesy movies.

Now I think I need to Google Davy Crockett. I still remember the words of the song. But I promise not to sing it.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

(Host) David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pultizer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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