“What’s a son to him, compared to his blasted regiment?”
When the young son (Richard Cromwell) of a crusty British colonel (Guy Standing) joins his regiment in India, both his mentor (Gary Cooper) and another new recruit (Franchot Tone) are skeptical of his competence and motives — especially when he falls under the sway of a beautiful, mysterious woman (Kathleen Burke) introduced to him by a local rebel leader (Douglass Dumbrille).
- Akim Tamiroff Films
- Father and Child
- Franchot Tone Films
- Gary Cooper Films
- Henry Hathaway Films
- Historical Drama
Having just reviewed The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), I thought I would revisit its better known predecessor — this historical adventure (directed by Henry Hathaway, and based in name only on an autobiography by a British cavalry officer) which is likely responsible for bringing the military term “lancer” to modern viewers’ awareness.
The story revolves around ongoing tensions between a career-obsessed colonel (Standing):
who can’t fathom leaving his work behind when he dies, and his quietly ambivalent son (Cromwell).
As with Gunga Din (1939) — also taking place in colonial India — it’s hard to watch a film which so blatantly elevates imperialism; but this is ultimately a relic of its time. As pointed out in TCM’s article:
“It seems unlikely… that we’ll ever see the return of British Imperialist action adventures. During the 1930s, tons of movies were made in which handsome British officers lightheartedly slaughtered whatever group of extras was thrown at them, with the enemy sporting decidedly darker skin tones than the nominal heroes.”
With that said, the entire affair is atmospherically filmed; Cooper and Tone are charismatic compatriots-in-arms (check out the freaky snake-“charming” scene):
… and the finale is excitingly staged.
Note: This film is also distinctive as “one of only two pictures in which Cooper wears a mustache” (!).
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone as Lts. McGregor and Forsythe
- Atmospheric cinematography
No, but it’s worth a one-time look for its historical relevance.
2 thoughts on “Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The (1935)”
Agreed; not must-see. However, for those whose interest in it may be simply as a piece of filmmaking… it’s solid work – well-directed and acted (with the weighty Cooper / Tone dynamic a strong one), and it’s effectively photographed. And, yes, the scene with the snake is a standout.
I took particular note of Tone’s performance this time. I’ve wondered why, in general, I’ve rarely paid much attention to him – but, as it turns out, that’s partially because the latter part of his career (say, the last 20 years) was mainly spent in television; appearing in the kinds of programs that I didn’t normally watch. However, earlier on, he proved to be the kind of actor who – though seemingly not of wide range – was not exactly one-note. He had the kind of persona that could turn in a good performance as long as he was properly cast. My best guess is that he turned more to tv as the means to finding more challenging roles (so that he would be type-cast less often).
Funny you mention that about Tone, because I’ve watched him in a number of early films recently, and been taken with his performances — more so than I thought I would. Like you, I’m pleasantly surprised by his range and a little sheepish I was unaware of his skill.