The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)
In many ways, history has not been kind to movies extolling the virtues of the British Empire. It's sometimes hard for modern audiences to watch these tales of derring-do, of courage against the odds and the superiority of the Imperial machine, and separate the dash and fun from the grim political realities of the era, which included the subjugation of indigenous peoples and the marginalization of their cultures. The once-lauded author Rudyard Kipling, for instance, is nowadays practically blackballed from college literature courses and sniffed at by literary critics - a real shame, considering his massive talent as a storyteller.
Yet there's something intrinsically appealing about these old-school tales of honor, chivalry and action in far-flung lands. Avoiding this siren call of adventure and heroism out of a sense of political outrage can end up being somewhat akin to throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. I think it's possible to decry the mistakes and atrocities perpetrated during the reign of Empire, while still enjoying these kinds of movies - like many you'll see covered in this blogathon, such as Gunga Din, The Four Feathers, The Man Who Would Be King and many others - for what they are: cracking good yarns, full of dangerous escapades, exotic color and soldierly bonhomie in the face of impossible odds. An exciting, dramatic story with memorable characters, told with at least a modicum of visual flair - isn't that one of the principal things we're all looking for in a movie?
If that's the case, then 1935's The Lives of a Bengal Lancer more than fits the bill.
The main protagonist is Lieutenant Alan McGregor, known as "Mac" to his pals (played by Gary Cooper, rock solid as always, though I can't help thinking that pencil-thin moustache he's wearing was a mistake). Mac's a Scotch-Canadian fighting with Her Majesty's 41st Lancers far up in the Northwest frontier of India, and chafing under the strict, by the book command of Colonel Tom Stone (Sir Guy Standing). Stone is given staunch support by his second-in-command, Major Hamilton (C. Aubrey Smith - now there's a proper moustache!) Col. Stone's longtime nemesis is the rebel leader, Mohammed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille); both men are wily old tigers, trying to lure their opponent's forces out into the open where they can close in for the kill.
When an officer is killed in a skirmish whilst on patrol, two replacements are soon brought in. One is indolent, insolent Lieutenant Forsythe (Franchot Tone), fresh from service with "the Blues," a regiment, we gather from the occasional smirks from the hardened campaigners of the 41st, that was a prestigious but cushy posting. Forsythe quickly gets under Mac's skin but nonetheless proves a dab hand as a soldier, but the other new recruit is altogether more problematic: Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), who happens to be the Colonel's son, fresh from Sandhurst military academy. Unbeknownst to the Col., Major Hamilton arranged for Donald to be posted in his father's regiment, to help the old man to see more of his son during the waning days of his career (the Colonel's dedication to duty having resulted in his being an absentee father all the boy's life).
A stickler for order, discipline and duty to the Army above all else, the Colonel refuses to show any favors to his son, despite being glad to see him. Stone, Jr. is disappointed in his father's cool reception, but luckily, soon finds a surrogate father in the crusty yet softhearted Mac, whose nickname for the Colonel is "Old Ramrod." Mac does his best to guide the callow young Lieutenant in the ways of a soldier's life on the frontier - much to Forsythe's amusement.
When the Emir of Ghopal requests 2 million rounds of ammunition from the British government, Intelligence officer Major General Woodley (Lumsden Hare, in a fun cameo) suspects Mohammed Khan of scheming to ambush the weapons convoy and use the munitions against the British. Woodley sends Col. Stone and his men to pay a visit to the Emir at his palace, under the pretense of a "pig hunt," to suss out the situation. Dressed in full military regalia, Col. Stone, Major Hamilton and our three Lieutenant pals join the Emir in his palace, only to find that Khan is also a guest there. This leads to a civil yet barbed exchange between the old enemies, Col. Stone and Khan:
Khan happens to be accompanied by a dark, slinky beauty, Tania Volkanskaya (Kathleen Burke), who hones in on the disgruntled Lt. Stone. When Stone leaves the camp against orders, for a secret assignation with Tania, he's quickly captured by Khan's men and brought to a remote retreat high in the mountains far beyond the Khyber. The Colonel adamantly refuses to fall into Khan's obvious trap, so it's up to Mac (under arrest for insubordination) and Forsythe (in charge of keeping an eye on him) to disregard orders, dress up as Pashto rug merchants, infiltrate Khan's stronghold and attempt a rescue. Alas, Tania recognizes the two men despite their disguises, and soon Mac and Forsythe are enjoying a Dr. No moment ("I hope you enjoyed your meal, Mr. Bond...as it will be your last."). The festivities culminate in a round of "lit bamboo slivers under the fingernails" torture for the trio, as the Khan demands information about the route the weapons convoy plans to take.
Mac and Forsythe show they have true grit and hang tough through the torture, but young Stone is made of weaker stuff and blabs his guts out before being tossed with the others in a makeshift dungeon (Hammond does nice work here conveying a mix of terrible shame and pathetic "why should I care after the way daddy treated me?" whingeing, which leads to the poetry recitation above that opens this review.) Mac and Forsythe are jolly decent about Stone's breakdown, considering they went through nasty torture for NOTHING, thank you very much, and do their best to maintain that good old stiff upper lip, whiling away the hours of captivity betting on cockroach races, with Mac losing nearly every time (the pals name their competing cockroaches "Khan" and "Tania.") Despite these shenanigans, the two keep their eyes on the prize, constantly on the lookout for escape...and when they see Khan and his Afridi tribesmen prepare to wipe out the incoming Col. Stone's forces, Mac, Forsythe and a redemption-seeking Lt. Stone, come up with a daring, suicidal final plan to destroy the stolen ammunition and even the odds in the Lancers favor...
In many ways the spiritual precursor to the much better known Gunga Din, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a rousing tale of heroism, friendship, and fidelity to a cause. Based (very loosely) off the autobiography of Francis Yeats-Brown, it's not as opulent a production nor nearly as action-packed as Gunga Din, but is still great fun to watch. Despite being nearly 80 years old, it's a fresh, breezy and engaging adventure, thanks to its timeless themes, affecting performances and witty script. (A lot of writers took a crack at crafting the script, including Yeats-Brown himself, with final "screenplay by" credit going to Waldemar Young, John L. Balderston and Achmed Abdullah.)
In many ways the spiritual precursor to the much better known Gunga Din, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a rousing tale of heroism, friendship, and fidelity to a cause. Based (very loosely) off the autobiography of Francis Yeats-Brown, it's not as opulent a production or nearly as action-packed as Gunga Din, but is still great fun to watch. Despite being nearly 80 years old, it's a fresh, breezy and engaging adventure, thanks to its timeless themes, affecting performances and witty script. (A lot of writers took a crack at crafting the script, including Yeats-Brown himself, with final "screenplay by" credit going to Waldemar Young, John L. Balderston and Achmed Abdullah.)While there's definitely some good action to be found here (especially during the rousing climax), it's brief and infrequent by action movie standards. The film proves to be less about adventure or even politics during the British Raj than it is a character drama about codes of honor, friendship and fatherhood. These themes run throughout the movie, but it rarely comes off as heavy-handed or turgid, due to director Henry Hathaway's light touch, the script's cheeky sense of humor and the consistently wry, charismatic presence of Cooper and Tone. Their prickly friendship, forged out of equal parts respect, competitive one-upmanship and soldierly bonds, proves the highlight of the film.
Cooper (who I talked about in some detail previously here), well-known as the strong, stoic type, gets plenty of opportunity to show his lighter, more playful side in Bengal Lancer, as the anti-authority, hotheaded Canuck. Cooper's quietly powerful presence meshes perfectly with Tone's glib suavity and aplomb. (Interestingly, the script wisely explains away Coop's obvious lack of Englishness, but doesn't bother with the only slightly less American Tone.) The two stars make a formidable team, and it's great fun to watch them spark off each other as they grudgingly mother hen the wayward new recruit.
Richard Cromwell does what he can with his drip of a character, but despite his solid work, he can't help being overshadowed by his co-stars (unlike in Gunga Din, which got the buddy trio formula just right.) C. Aubrey Smith was the absolute epitome of the "I say, sah!" school of grizzled Brit military man, and his presence in this sort of movie lends it an instant authority. The (very Caucasian) Douglas Dumbrille as Khan seems a reach casting-wise, even for the time, but he brings a nice tinge of Oxford-educated, silky menace to the part. Kathleen Burke is given even less to do than Joan Fontaine was in Gunga Din, just a mere tool to get the plot rolling.
But the real acting honors go to Sir Guy Standing, a prominent stage actor who came to Hollywood late in his career. His stiff, military bearing and actual experience in the British Navy made him ideal for parts as commanding officers, but the actor does a great job letting us see the deep, conflicting emotions the Col. barely holds in check. Sadly, Standing's promising screen career was cut short in 1937 when he died from a rattlesnake bite while hiking near his home in the Hollywood Hills.
The film deftly mixes in stock footage of actual Indian daily life with action shot on stage and exteriors at a number of Californian locations, including Lone Pine, Buffalo Flats and the Paramount Ranch. I expect some of the long shots depicting Mogala, Mohammed Khan's stronghold nestled in the mountains, were done using matte paintings, but an actual large set was indeed built on the Iverson Ranch for the grand final battle. One assumes Achmed Abdullah's contributions to the script included the various regional languages and dialects heard in the film (including several lines spoken by Cooper). Who knows how authentic it all is, but it sounds right, and that's good enough for Hollywood, and likely most audiences. There are also some interesting reflections on Muslim cultural taboos. For example, one servant tries to kill one of the officers in the camp because he slept with his feet pointing toward Mecca. Col. Stone lets him off with a warning that if he tries to do such a thing again, he'll be hanged and his body sewn up in a pig's skin - a threat used again later, when Mac wants to find out from a captive where the Khan has taken Lt. Stone.
All in all, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer serves up the lighthearted Boy's Own Adventure goods all the way, but grounds everything with a strong sense of human drama. It might not be quite as dazzling as all-time greats like Gunga Din and The Four Feathers, but it's pretty dang close.
DVD Note: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer can be found on several import Region 2 DVDs, but the version I have is the 2-disc The Gary Cooper Collection from Universal (also featuring Design For Living, Peter Ibbetson, The General Died at Dawn and Beau Geste). It's a good, solid collection with good transfers...and best of all, it's cheap as chips!
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