The story concerns a party consisting of three English people, an army officer, Major Crespin, the Major's much younger wife, Lucilla, and Doctor Traherne, a well-known scientist, whose plane crashes in the remote, exotic kingdom of Rukh. Rukh is ruled by an urbane, immensely wealthy Rajah, played by Arliss. The Rajah offers them the hospitality of his palace until some arrangement can be made to continue their journey, and they accept with some trepidation.
Two more circumstances must have increased the tension for conventional audiences; first, the Rajah has an English servant, which, in the context of the time, almost seems unnatural (I know of no other film -- or story, for that matter -- where this is the case). Secondly, his advances to Lucilla -- which include offers of luxurious surroundings and a closet full of fashionable Paris gowns -- make it quite clear that he has had several affairs with European women already.
At first the Rajah's hospitality seemed like a stroke of good luck, but over an elaborate Western style dinner, the Rajah explains to the travelers that sentiment in his country has turned strongly anti-Western, resulting in certain activists being arrested, tried, and convicted by the British, to the people's outrage. The Rajah coolly informs his unfortunate guests that public opinion will demand revenge if these individuals are executed. He proposes appeasing this outrage -- which he insists he does not share -- by holding the group hostage, and, if this doesn't succeed, executing them in turn.
A series of twists and turns bring a couple of unexpected casualties, and in fact, in another shock to convention, the Rajah shoots Major Crespin while he's trying to contact the British authorities nearby. The Rajah offers to spare Lucilla if she consents to stay on as his mistress; she refuses vehemently. Lucilla and Traherne declare their love and prepare to die together -- but it turns out that Major Crespin has redeemed himself somewhat by successfully alerting the British. The Rajah, whose people are frightened by the threat of an air attack by British forces, decides to release them.
The very last scene has the Rajah reflectively smoking a cigarette, as unruffled as ever.
"Oh, well," he says. "She probably would have been a damned nuisance, anyway."
I really can't think of another film of the 20s - 40s where this happens (with, as always, the recognition that this self-willed non-white character is of course played by a white person). Even those films that are respectful of people of other races -- and there are actually many of these -- only go as far as advocating cooperation between races; WASP values are still assumed to be superior, and inter-racial romance is strictly forbidden.
|The perfect host -- the Rajah of Rukh|