“The Lives of a Bengal Lancer” launched a subgenre in 1935. It was such a box office success that it was followed by a series of similar movies like “Gunga Din” which are collectively known as the British Imperial action/adventure subgenre. Otherwise known as the “handsome British colonialists slaughtering inferior brown people” subgenre. It is considered by many to be the best of the lot. Today these movies are considered very politically incorrect and the last time a film of its type was made was “The Man Who Would Be King” which was actually critical of the pro-Western attitude of the previous films. (That’s one reason TMWWBK is such a great movie.)
The movie is set in northwestern India during the British Raj (the time from 1858-1947 when England ruled India). The Bengal Lancers are stationed near the Khyber Pass and are being threatened by a pesky local chieftain named Mohammed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille) who for some reason does not like the foreign occupiers. There are snipers in them thar hills. One of them kills the head of a column and a Lt. MacGregor (Gary Cooper) disobeys orders to lead a cavalry attack to rout the enemy, thus establishing himself as the stock insubordinate warrior.
Back at the base, the movie develops into a buddy film as MacGregor is joined by the wet-nosed Lt. Alan Stone (Richard Cromwell) and the sarcastic glory-hound Lt. Forsythe (Franchot Tone). MacGregor and Forsythe immediately butt heads. I wonder if there will come a time when they will learn to respect and depend on each other. Stone is in a different dysfunctional relationship. His father happens to be the commanding officer, Col. Stone (Guy Standing). Daddy is none too happy to see his son and is determined to not show him any favoritism. “There is no room for sentimentality in the Army.”
|the three amigos|
The unit is sent to deliver an ammunition caravan to an emir. The countryside is beautiful (the movie was filmed in California, but it doubles well for India). At a banquet featuring lots of local color, Alan meets the suave Khan with his arm candy. They go on a pig hunt that includes beaters, elephants, and lancers. Go to the theater – see the world.
|Hey baby, I'm going to be Gary Cooper|
When his son is captured by Khan, Col. Stone refuses to take the bait and rush to his rescue. MacGregor and Forsythe see the chance for a great adventure and oh, by the way, he is our roommate. Oops, they get caught too. Stone is tortured (sadly off camera). This is the movie that gave us “We have ways of making men talk”. Stone cracks and gives up the ammunition caravan. This will be bad because now the brown people will have fire power, too!
|Do we really need this tripod?|
Somehow our trio gets loose before the outmanned Lancer rescuers launch a suicide attack on Khan’s fortress. MacGregor gives the future John Rambo an idea by lifting a Vickers machine gun avec tripod (65-80 pounds) and firing from the hip. They blow up the ammunition as the Lancers charge into the fort. There are lots of dead brown bodies lying around, but sadly, one handsome white body. Back at camp, the trio all get medals with one of them getting a posthumous Victoria’s Cross.
The movie is very old school. The deaths are bloodless and there aren’t even bullet holes. There is a mix of schoolboy humor and young male adventure. The action is pretty intense and is entertaining.
The movie is well made. Henry Hathaway was an underrated director. The studio gave him a big budget so the sets are extravagant. Although not shot on location, Hathaway visited India to get the look right and he used documentary-style footage shot in India. The costumery makes the film look authentic. The film was nominated for Art Direction. It is a colorful film. The cinematography is fine.
The acting is strong. This movie made Gary Cooper a superstar. Tone is a good foil and they have the appropriate buddy chemistry. Dumbrille is very effective as the villainous Khan. He plays Khan as suave and intelligent, not a fanatic (unlike most villains in the upcoming subgenre entries). The movie reminds me of old school Westerns where the bad guys (the Native Americans) are actually the aggrieved party.
The theme of the movie is “for the good of the service”. You also get a dose of no matter how much you may dislike your bunk mate, you’ll still give your life for him. The movie throws in a lame father/son subplot. As far as the theme that the natives need to be civilized, it might be interesting to note that Adolf Hitler loved the movie because it depicted a small British force controlling the inferior people of India. The movie was required viewing for the S.S.
Antique or classic? Both. The colonial attitude is quintly shameful so that makes it an antique. However, being the progenitor of a subgenre makes it a classic. Watch it for the adventure, but feel guilty at the same time.
grade = C+