Henry Hathaway's “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” starring Gary Copoper, Franchot Tone and Richard Cromwell, is one of the most rousing adventures of the 1930s—perhaps of all time.
Set in Northwest India, this war tale, which celebrates courage and male camaraderie, combines an intriguing story, healhty dosage of humor, thrilling stunts, and beautiful vistas. A favorite among many Hollywood action directors and young male viewers, the movie is often shown on TV, recruiting another generation of fans.
When the officers are captured and tortured by the treacherous Mohammed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille), he threatens one of the three, Lieutenant Alan McGregor (Cooper) with his often-quoted line, “We have ways of making men talk.” Two new officers, Lieutenants John Forsythe (Tone) and Donald Stone (Cromwell), are assigned to the 41st Regiment of Bengal Lancers, located in a dangerous territory.
Donald is the son of the Commanding Officer, Colonel Stone, and both men are placed in charge of Lieutenant McGregor, an experienced frontier fighter. Donald hopes he'll be greeted as a son, but he's handled as coldly as the other officers, which makes him disappointed and bitter.
McGregor is given an order to search Lieutenant Barrett, a spy who has disappeared. Makings contact with Barrett, the group learns that Mohammad Khan is forming a coalition of the tribes, promising them 2,000,000 rounds of ammunition. After reporting to the colonel, the latter tells McGregor about ammunition which has been consigned to the friendly Emir of Gopal (Akim Tamiroff). The Lancers find an excuse for visiting the Emir's palace, enabling them to be there for a week of pig-sticking and hunting wild boar with lances.
When the colonel is wounded during the hunt, while protecting his son, McGregor and Forsythe discover that young Stone has been kidnapped by the alluring Russian spy Tania and taken to Khan's mountain fort. Colonel Stone refuses to send aid, but the lieutenants, disguised as pilgrims, gain access to the fort. Discovered and taken prisoners, they find Stone, but all three are tortured. Stone finally gives the Khan the information he seeks, and the men see the munitions arrive in Khan's city. The Khan taunts them about the 300 Lancers who are planning to attack his fort. They break loose, and Donald proves himself courageous by killing the Khan. For his part, McGregor dies as he blows up the arsenal. Weeks later, the colonel pins the D.S.O. on Forsythe and his son and the Victoria Cross on the saddle of McGregor's horse.
You may quibble with the conservative political values, which glorify the then dominant British Empire, and the limited portrayal of Indians, but placed in the context of 1935, the movie is not as offensive as the era's other action-adventures made in Hollywood.
The entire troupe is excellent, but like other ensemble-driven films, none of the actor received recognition by way of Oscar nominations. This is one of the pictures that catapulted Gary Copper to national stardom.
Henry Hathaway (One of John Wayne's favorite directors), in his first and only Oscar nomination, helms with gusto, showing his penchant for male-drive stories and exotic locales, splendidly shot by Charles Lang and Ernest B. Schoedsack, whose on-location footage is well integrated into the saga.
Oscar Nominations: 7
Picture (produced by Louis D. Lighton)
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Achmed Abdullah, John L. Balderston, Grover Jones, William Slavens McNutt, and Waldemar Young
Interior Decoration: Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson
Sound Recording: Franklin Hansen
Film Editing: Ellsworth Hoagland
Assistant Directors: Clem Beauchamp and Paul Wing
Oscar Awards: 1
Lives of a Bengal Lancer competed for the Best Picture Oscar with eleven other films: Alice Adams, Broadway Melody of 1936, Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, Les Miserables, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mutiny on the Bounty (which also co-stars Franchot Tone), Naughty Marietta, Ruggles of Red Gap, and Top Hat. Mutiny of the Bounty won Best Picture, and John Ford won Best Director for The Informer.
Gary Cooper (Lieutenant McGregor)
Franchot Tone (Lieutenant Fortesque)
Richard Cromwell (Lieutenant Stone)
Sir Guy standing (Colonel Stone)
C. Aubrey Smith (Major Hamilton)
Monte Blue (Hamzulia Khan)
Kathleen Burke (Tania Volkanskaya)
Colin Tapley (Lieutenant Barrett)
Douglass Dumbrille (Mohammed Khan)
Akim Tamiroff (Emir)
Jameson Thomas (Hendrickson)
Noble Johnson (Ram Singh)
Lumsden Hare (Major General Woodley)
J. Carrol Naish (Grand Vizier)
Rollo Lloyd (The Ghazi (Prisoner))
Charles Stevens (McGregor=s Servant)
Boswhan Singh (Nuim Shah)
Abdul Hassan (Ali Hamdi)
Mischa Auer (Afridi)
Clive Morgan (Lieutenant Norton)
Eddie Das (Servant)
Leonid Kinskey (Snake Charmer)
Hussain Hasri (Muezzin)
James Warwick (Lieutenant Gilhooley)
George Regas (Kushal Khan)
Major Sa Harris, Carli Taylor (British Officers)
Ram Singh, Jamiel Hasson, James Bell, General Ikonnikoff, F.A. Armenta (Indian Officers)
Claude King (Experienced Clerk)
Reginald Sheffield (Novice)
Ray Cooper (Assistant to Grand Vizier)
Myra Kinch (Solo Dancer)
Lya Lys (Girl on Train)
Director: Henry Hathaway.
Producer: Louis D. Lighton.
Scenarists: Waldemar Young, John L. Balderston, Achmed Abdullah.
Adaptation: Grover Jones, William Slavens McNutt.
Photographer: Charles Lang.
Art Directors: Hans Dreier, Roland Anderson.
Editor: Ellsworth Hoagland.
Sound Recorder: Harold C. Lewis.
Musical Score: Milan Roder.
Assistant Directors: clem Beauchamp, Paul Winz.
Pageantry/Choreography: LeRoy Prinz.
Based on the novel by Major Francis Yeats-Brown.