This film is held by the BFI (ID: 34709).


The orphan son of a British soldier, after being given a message for a British secret agent in India, is trained to spy and completes a mission before going to school.



Adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s 1900 novel, Kim was released by MGM in 1950 after a protracted production history which might be said to illustrate the ebb and flow of the ‘empire film’ genre in Hollywood. The rights to Kipling’s novel were purchased by Irving Thalberg in 1934, shortly before Paramount’s Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) established the commercial potential of adventure films set in British India. Plans were made for an Autumn 1936 release and a script written by Howard Estabrook and Hugh Walpole was submitted to the Production Code Administration for assessment (Kim, Production Code Administration Collection). Production was postponed, however, possibly due to MGM’s commitment to another Kipling adaptation, Captains Courageous (1937). The project resurfaced in 1937 under the aegis of producer Louis D. Lighton, whose prior credits included both Captains Courageous and Lives of a Bengal Lancer. According to notes written by Lighton in the redrafted 1937 screenplay, Victor Fleming was due to direct, with Robert Taylor, Wallace Beery and child-actor Frederick Bartholomew in the leading roles. Lighton’s notes also emphasise the commercial value of the British market to the project: ‘we want to please England with this picture’ he stated, adding that the film ought to depict ‘the very fine relationship that exists between the English officers and almost all of the natives’ (‘Script notes by Mr. Lighton’, 21 January 1937).

However, the project was shelved and did not reappear on MGM’s production roster until 1942. Trade press reports associated various actors with roles in the film, including Basil Rathbone, George Sanders and Mickey Rooney, MGM’s leading child star of the period (Kim, Production Notes, AFI Film Catalog). Nevertheless, production was abandoned once again. It was later reported that MGM had cancelled its plans on the recommendation of America’s Office of War Information, who felt that the film would alienate American allies in India, which was at the time an important counterweight to Japanese wartime aggression in Asia (Spiro, New York Times, 6 November, 1949, x5). Although an intervention of this type is certainly plausible, it also seems relevant that the ‘empire film’ had declined markedly in popularity by the early 1940s.

Production on Kim began again in 1949 amid a more stable political climate: India had recently become independent, making representations of its colonial past less sensitive. Moreover, the ‘empire film’ was regaining popularity: Kim was preceded by a successful adaptation of King Solomon’s Mines (1950), also from MGM, and followed by Soldiers Three (1951), a remake of Gunga Din (1939). Errol Flynn was cast as Mahbub Ali, Paul Lukas played the religious figure Lama, and Dean Stockwell, aged 13, was given the title role.

A limited amount of location work was undertaken in India from December 1949 to January 1950, but only a few cast members, including Flynn, were involved in the shoot. A body double was used for shots involving Stockwell, who remained on set in California (Kim, Production Notes, AFI Film Catalog). Nevertheless, the credits to the finished film emphasise the use of authentic settings: ‘To the government of India and to His Highness, the Maharajah of Jaipur, and His Highness, the Maharajah of Bundi, we express our deep appreciation for the facilities afforded us in filming this picture in India’. Kim premiered in New York in December 1950 and became a modest success. Records kept by MGM indicate that the film made domestic takings of $2.9m and  international takings of $2.4m against a production cost of just over $2m (Eddie Mannix Ledger).



Kim was one of the earliest representations of the British Empire produced in America during the Cold War period, and MGM’s adaptation of Kipling’s novel emphasises elements that vilify Russian expansionism. This political trope would be repeated in later empire films such as Rogue’s March (1953) and Khyber Patrol (1954). In an early scene, the head of the British Secret Service describes intelligence of an alliance between Indian rebels and Russian agents as ‘history repeating itself; Russian influence again advances like a tide throughout Central Asia’. As he speaks, he sketches the geographic threat Russia poses on a map of Asia. The idea of ‘history repeating itself’ refers ostensibly to the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880, but contemporary viewers might have been expected to project the events depicted in the film forward rather than backward in time.

The Cold War balance of power is also reflected by Kim’s acknowledgment of India’s post-colonial status. In the opening sequence, a narrator in Indian costume (played by a western actor, as almost all of the Indian roles in the film) locates the action in 1885 and states that the British Raj is ‘already part of a legendary past’. Efforts were also made to marginalise conflict between British and Indian characters. In the notes accompanying her revision to the screenplay, scriptwriter Helen Deutsch states that in the 1942 version ‘the picture begins to shift from a plot which involves the impending invasion from the north to another plot in which the Hindus and British are fighting each other’. Instead, she asserts that she has ‘tried to make it clear that the [Indian] heavies are the tools of the European power… in order to avoid the feeling that the Hindus and the British are fighting each other’ (‘Notes by Helen Deutsch’, 2 May 1949). However, perhaps due to the limited time available to alter the pre-war screenplay, Russian characters are largely absent from the film. When two Russian agents finally make an appearance (somewhat overdressed in Cossack fur hats), they are shown to be far less wicked than the Indian rebels they are supposedly manipulating. It may indicate the prevalence of empire film conventions in 1950 that Indian villainy was easier to depict than that of Russian characters.

The visual style of Kim is marked by the same exoticism and otherness of pre-war representations of colonial India. However, in keeping with the contemporary fashion for visual spectacle, the film was shot in Technicolor and incorporates a great deal of Indian location footage in establishing shots and back-projection. Due to significant differences in colour saturation, however, the Indian footage is unevenly integrated with the studio work, and although Errol Flynn was able to appear in the location shots, the frequent use of stand-ins for the other roles becomes obtrusive. The film’s finale is by far the most effective sequence in the film: rather than cutting between studio and Indian location footage, the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains perform a plausible replication of the Khyber Pass.

Jonathan Stubbs 


Works Cited

‘The Eddie Mannix Ledger’, Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study, Los Angeles.

Kim, Production Code Administration Collection, Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study, Los Angeles.

Kim, Production Notes, AFI Film Catalog, CD-ROM edition (Chadwyck Healey Inc., 1999).

Notes by Helen Deutsch, 2 May 1949, Kim Files, MGM/Turner Script Collection, Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study, Los Angeles.

‘Script notes by Mr. Lighton’, 21 January 1937, Kim Files, MGM/Turner Script Collection, Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study, Los Angeles.

Spiro, J.D., ‘Random Notes About Hollywood Activities’, New York Times, 6 November, 1949, x5.



  • KIM

Technical Data

Running Time:
112 minutes
Colour (Technicolor)
10129 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries: