“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review
For years, I could never understand Hollywood’s penchant for making so many films about the British Empire during the first half of the 20th century. The film industry had released films about imperial outposts under the control of other countries – like France, Spain and even the United States. But why did they film so many about British Imperialism? One of those films is the 1935 feature, “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”.
“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” is based upon the 1930 memoirs of a former British Army officer named Francis Yeats-Brown. But if you are expecting the movie to be a clear adaptation of Yeats-Brown’s book, you are in for a big disappointment. I suspect Paramount Pictures and producer Louis D. Lighton simply used the book’s title and setting – Imperial India – to create their own movie. The movie’s screenwriters, who included Waldemar Young and John L. Balderston, wrote a story about the experiences of three British Army officers serving with the 41st Bengal Lancers on the Northwest Frontier of India. The Scots-Canadian Alan McGregor welcomes two replacements to the 41st Bengal Lancers, the well-born Lieutenant Forsythe and Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), who happens to be the son of the regimental commander, Colonel Tom Stone. McGregor is regarded as some kind of North American savage, who needs to reign in his aggression. Forsythe, who comes from an upper-class family, takes pleasure in mocking McGregor’s Scots-Canadian ancestry. And Stone grows to resent his father, who is determined to treat him coldly in order not to show any partiality.
The three officers, who find themselves sharing the same quarters, slowly develop a grudging friendship. However, when word reaches the regiment from intelligence officer Lieutenant Barrett that a local chieftain named Mohammed Khan might be preparing an uprising against the ruling British, Colonel Stone and his senior officers respond with a display of both friendship and power to the chieftain. Unfortunately, Khan kidnaps Lieutenant Stone, using his mysterious “associate” Tania Volkanskaya (portrayed by a rather unexceptional Kathleen Burke) as bait. While Khan tries to extract vital information about a British ammunition caravan from Lieutenant Stone, the latter’s father refuses to make any attempt to rescue him. Outrage, McGregor and Forsythe go after their younger colleague without orders.
As I had stated earlier, I never could understand Hollywood’s penchant for Imperial British adventures for many years. Until now. I read in a few articles that “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first of its kind in this genre. Well . . . not really. The previous year – 1934 – saw the release of John Ford’s World War I adventure, “THE LOST PATROL”. And the silent era produced such films as 1929’s “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. But it was the box office and critical success of “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” that kicked off a major influx of British Empire movies that clogged the theaters up to the end of the 1930s.
How do I feel about “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”? Well . . . I certainly do not view it as a bad movie. I thought it was pretty decent. There were aspects of it that I found unoriginal – namely the “bromance” between the three major characters and the conflict involving a rebellious chieftain. How can I put this? I have encountered both scenarios before in other British Empire movies. The three buddies? Hmmm . . . the friendship between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone strongly reminded of a similar friendship between the three protagonists in 1939’s “GUNGA DIN”. One could accuse the 1939 film of plagiarizing the 1935 film, since it was released four years later. But the friendship featured in “GUNGA DIN”was based upon Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories called “Soldiers Three”. Who is to say that the movie’s screenwriters used Kipling’s stories as inspiration for the “bromance” in “THE LIVES OF THE BENGAL LANCER”?
Speaking of the movie’s trio, why did Paramount cast three American-born actors in the leading roles? Was there really a serious shortage of British actors? As I recall, Ray Milland was under contract with Paramount around that time. The writers made excuses for Gary Cooper and Richard Cromwell’s characters by portraying the former as a Canadian and the latter as an Anglo-American raised in the U.S. Franchot Tone is another matter. He portrayed the upper-class Englishman, Lieutenant Forsythe. Mind you, I have no problems with the actors’ performances. But I had a difficult time watching a movie set in British India . . . and starring three American actors.
I realize “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first movie to really utilize the whole “local chieftain rebels against British Imperial authorities” into its plot. This was also used in subsequent movies like “GUNGA DIN”, “THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”, and “WEE WILLIE WINKIE”. The problem is that I have seen these movies before I saw the 1935 film. And if I must be brutally honest, the screenwriters and director Henry Hathaway’s use of this trope rather dry and bloodless. Hell, even the torture that Richard Cromwell’s character underwent was handled off screen.
After viewing “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, it occurred to me that the movie’s character studies impressed me a lot more than the “action-filled” subplot. The interactions between the characters – especially between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone – struck me as a lot more interesting and complex. First of all, the screenwriters and Hathaway did an excellent job in portraying the problems (or lack of them) that the three major characters had with the film’s other supporting characters – especially their fellow British officers. I was especially impressed by the film’s portrayal of the officers’ low regard for McGregor’s so-called North American aggression, and with the younger Stone’s cool relationship with his estranged father. I was also impressed by how the three disparate leading characters developed into a strong friendship by the movie’s last act. But the screenwriters and Hathaway are not the only ones who deserve the praise. The movie’s strong characterization would have never worked without the first-rate performances from the cast – especially Gary Cooper as McGregor, Franchot Tone as Forstythe and Richard Cromwell as the younger Stone. The three actors were ably supported by solid performances from Guy Standing, C. Aubrey Smith and Douglass Dumbrille.
Do not get me wrong. I do not dislike “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”. I think it is a pretty solid film. But I find it difficult to believe or accept that it received a total of seven Academy Award nominations. Despite the movie’s strong characterizations and excellent performances, I did not find it particularly exceptional. A part of me believes simply believes it would have been better off as a character study (with a shorter running time) than an epic British Imperial adventure.