Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

Paramount Pictures takes us to the dangerous borders of British India in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Gary Cooper stars in a loose adaptation of a Francis Yeats-Brown novel sharing the stories of the strife of the brave men, known as Bengal lancers, who protected India’s borders in the name of the British Empire from hostile natives. It is an adventure story mixed with the tale of a son ever trying to prove himself to his father, who is his commander while in the wilds of Asia. The film is a smaller known feature in the long résumé of Gary Cooper, often over looked, but the picture was highly regarded for its time with fine production quality, adventure, and emotion.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is an adventure film about the brave Bengal lancers who protect the Indian border, while one officer juggles with the issues of his commander’s son who has recently joined the regiment. We follow adventures of Lt. McGregor (Cooper) as he struggles with his duties of doing what he thinks is right versus what he is commanded to do by his superiors. Attitudes of the lancer camp change when two replacements join the group, one a young, self-satisfied soldier named Forsythe (Franchot Tone), the other an even more green, but hard working Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), the son of the commanding officer of the lancers, Colonel Stone (Sir Guy Standing). The Colonel tries to not show favoritism towards his son, which comes off as shunning Donald, but the younger Stone tries desperately to please his stonewalled father. Caught in the middle is McGregor attempting to get the two to share some personal and affectionate time together.

The climax of the picture has Donald being kidnapped by the group of hostile natives led by fearless and charismatic Mohammed Kahn (Douglas Dumbrille). When Col. Stone follows orders to not pursue his son, McGregor has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. Joined by Forsythe, McGregor head out in pursuit, to be captured by Kahn and are tortured along with Donald for sensitive information. Young Stone is the one that cracks from the torture, but the three rise up and destroy their captures in dramatic acts of heroism. McGregor sacrifices himself for the safety of Stone, while Stone feeling forever indebted to McGregor, kills Kahn is a brave fashion.

The picture comes as a wonderful 30s adventure film with a heartfelt story of an ever trying son to attempting to please a stern, yet loving father. Cooper is the glue that holds the film together as the emotional core and stabilizer. When the Col. Pushes his son away emotionally, out of his service to his country, McGregor is there to bring heart to the situation, seen pleasing to Col. Stone as a father that McGregor is that someone willing to bend the rules to protect his son.

The production quality is high using great location shooting in the many wildernesses of Southern California to stand in for Northern India. Directed by Henry Hathaway, then a small time director with experiences in westerns, the movie shares the qualities of a classic western story. You don’t get to see much of the wilderness, but Hathaway does create the sense that you are in a far off place surrounded by unseen danger that could poke its head out at any moment, a president set within the first scene of the film when McGregor witnesses a fellow soldier next to him being shot by a sniper. Hathaway would be noticed by the Motion Picture Academy with an award nomination, making this his breakthrough movie. It is clear Hathaway would continue to find work in the future with westerns.

Cooper, Cromwell, and Tone.
Even though the heart of the story centers on Richard Cromwell’s Lt. Stone character, it is both Cooper and Franchot Tone’s characters that your eyes are drawn to. They are the bickering veteran and the proud new soldier that keep your attention. Both are fine men, but battle over their differences in experience. This was a beginning for a very successful year for Tone who would be seen in many of the year’s top pictures, including the years big hit Mutiny on the Bounty, for which he would win an Oscar. Cromwell’s career was a far quieter one up to this point, an actor many times loaned out to other studios, never quite finding a hold, despite being well like by fellow actors.

The film was a sizable success that captures the attention of many audiences. The most controversial of the picture’s fans was that of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi leader admires the military actions of the Bengal Lancers as depicted in the film. How the soldiers stood their ground, not letting emotions sway them for performing their duties and swearing the strongest allegiance to their army and their country. These were values Hitler loved in his own men as would be seen in the coming dark decade in global strife.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer would be given seven Academy Award nominations, tied for most that year, for its motion picture art. For its fine recreation of the exotic wildernesses and culture of India, the film nominated for best art direction. For its story and assemblage of the picture, it was nominated for best adapted screenplay and best editing. Also the film was nominated for best sound recording, best directing, and best picture. Despite not winning in those six categories the picture did take home one statue for best assistant director (Clem Beauchamp and Paul Wing). This category would honor the work of the men that would do much of the side work while Hathaway managed the main characters of the story. It is a just award for the production, but an honor that would not merit much public attention and be removed a few years later form the ceremony.

The film is a fine example of earlier Gary Cooper work that many might not know about. Paramount was a studio that produced a brand of film that was grand, like MGM, but with more emotion, unlike the more carefree lion-bedazzled Hollywood studio. The only real Paramount production theme the film lacked was a romance, but this picture would not need such a storyline. It makes for a fine film about brotherhood of soldiers and the emotional battle of a father and son, both trying to do what they think is right. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was an enjoyable medium treasure to watch to view from 1935 cinema.


  1. Nice film, and that's interesting about Hitler. I would otherwise lump this in with big cluster of Anglophilia that I'm sure you've noticed in crawling through the films of this period, which coincides with the rise of the Nazis and the inevitability of war resumption.

    Much of the filming was done in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine, California. I had business up there last year (The High Sierras in California, about equally distant from L.A., S.F., Reno, Las Vegas.) It's sort of a speed trap on the way to skiing in Mammoth, and also the source for L.A. drinking water and Crystal Geyser bottled water. There are broad plains, rolling rocky brown hills in the foreground, and big white peaks in the background -- an ideal spot for Hollywood to go film if you don't mind the 4-5 hour drive to get there. It also houses tourists who either really like to hike, or are visiting from Europe and want to see some Old West.

    Other movies filmed in that same area include Gunga Din, Tremors, Bad Day at Black Rock, a jillion low-brow Westerns with singing cowboys, and the opening sequence to The Lone Ranger.

  2. I am well familiar with the area of Lone Pine and the small towns between LA and Mammoth. I spent much of my high school years traveling the highway through the town, which lies near the base of Mt. Whitney, as well as the nearby Owens River Valley, through Big Pine, Bishop, and up into Mammoth.

    I am a fan of desert or wilderness film settings. Myself growing up not far from where many movies were made in the deserts, recreating the middle of nowhere, Mexico, and the ever present gas station or motel in the desert, I recognize many of the locations I see in such films, knowing full well were they were shot, based on hills and mountain in the background I recognize. I am a fan of Vasquez Rocks as well, and the areas just east of the Sierra Nevada listed above.

    Talking about these places make me nostalgic for my more youthful days. I miss riding through those small towns, making many stops in Lone Pine, usually for lunch.

    1. I like it there, too. Talk about a small town. The second time I was there I went in for a pizza and the guy at the cash register knew who I was and why I was in town.


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