Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (dir by Henry Hathaway)

The 1935 adventure film, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, is a film that probably could not be made today.

Of course, that’s true of a lot of films from the 30s.  In some cases, that’s a good thing and, in some cases, that’s a bad thing.  The Lives of Bengal Lancer is an entertainingly old-fashioned adventure story but it’s also a shameless celebration of the British Empire.  The fact that it was made in Los Angeles and featured all-American Gary Cooper in the lead role doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s pretty much a celebration of British colonialism.

Gary Cooper plays Lt. Alan MacGregor, a Scottish-Canadian who serves in British Calvary.  He’s a member of the Lancers and is currently serving in India, which, at the time that this movie was set (and made), was still under British control.  When the film begins, MacGregor is greeting the new arrivals.  Among those arrivals are Lt. John Fosythe (Franchot Tone) and Lt. Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell).  Lt. Forsythe is an experienced officer who has been sent to India as a replacement for another officer who managed to get himself killed while out on a patrol.  Meanwhile, Lt. Donald Stone is a newly commissioned officer who is desperate to win the approval of his father (and McGregor’s superior), Col. Tom Stone (Guy Standing).  Unfortunately, Donald quickly discovers that winning the approval of his father isn’t going to be easy.  Col. Stone, after all, has a lot to deal with.

For instance, there’s Mohammed Khan (Douglas Dumbrille).  Kahn is a local prince and he boasts that he has got an Oxford education.  He pretends to be an ally of the British but instead, he is plotting a revolution.  The first step in that revolution is to intercept a convoy of British weapons but how can Kahn discover the convoy’s route?  Maybe he could kidnap a lancer who is close to the unit’s commanding officer?  With the help of a Russian femme fatale named Tania (Kathleen Burke), Khan is able to capture Donald.  When MacGregor and Forsythe defy the colonel’s orders and attempt to rescue Donald on their own, they end up getting captured as well!

“We have ways to make men talk!” Khan declares and soon, the three men are having their fingernails ripped out and the skin underneath burned with fiery bamboo.  It’s a shocking act of sadism, one that caught me by surprise in 2020.  I can only imagine how audiences in 1935 reacted to Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone being so graphically tortured on the big screen.  Though the men swear that they will not reveal the location of the convoy, how much torture can they take before they break?

As I said at the start of this review, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is an old-fashioned film and, with its depiction of savage rebels and heroic colonizers, it would probably cause a riot if it were released today.  However, if you can set aside the whole pro-imperialist theme of the film, this is a fairly entertaining film.  It gets off to a slow start and, to modern eyes, some of the acting is bit creaky but Gary Cooper is, not surprisingly, well-cast as the film’s hero and he’s ably supported by Tone and Cromwell.  Douglas Dumbrille and Kathleen Burke are entertainingly campy villains and the film’s final battle is well-done.

A box office success, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to an even bigger hit (and a film that was a bit more critical of the British Empire), Mutiny on the Bounty.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Pied Piper (dir by Irving Pichel)

The 1942 Best Picture nominee, The Pied Piper, opens in Eastern France, shortly after the outbreak of World War II.

John Sidney Howard (played by Monty Woolley) is an Englishman on holiday.  He says that he just wants to enjoy some fishing before the entire continent of Europe descends into chaos.  He knows that France is going to be invaded at some point and he even suspects that the country will probably fall to the Nazis.  In his 70s and still mourning the death of his son (who was killed during an air battle over occupied Poland), Mr. Howard just wants to enjoy France one last time.  Despite the fact that the bearded Howard bears a resemblance to a thin Santa Claus, he’s quick to declare his dislike of both children and humanity in general.  He’s a misanthrope, albeit a rather friendly one.

Howard’s plans change when the Nazis invade France sooner than he expected.  With his vacation canceled, Howard just wants to get back to England.  Complicating matters is that a diplomat named Cavanaugh (Lester Matthews) has asks Howard to take his children, Ronnie (Roddy McDowall) and Sheila (Peggy Ann Garner), back to England with him.  Despite his self-declared dislike of children, Howard agrees.  However, it turns out that getting out of France won’t be as easy as Howard assumed.  After their train gets diverted by the Nazis, Howard, Ronnie ,and Sheila are forced to take a bus.  After almost everyone else on the bus is killed in a surprise Nazi attack, Howard and the children are forced to continue on foot and rely on the kindness of a young French woman, Nicole Rougeron (Anne Baxer).

Throughout the journey, Howard keeps collecting more and more children.  Everyone wants to get their children to a safe place and Howard soon has a small entourage following him.  Unfortunately, he also has Gestapo Major Diessen (an excellent Otto Preminger) watching him.  How far is Howard willing to go to ensure the safety of the children?

The Pied Piper is an interesting film, in that it starts out as something of a comedy but it then gets progressively darker as events unfold.  At the beginning of the film, it appears that the whole thing is just going to be Howard getting annoyed with the precocious Ronnie and Sheila.  But then that bus is attacked and Howard find himself accompanied by a young boy who has been left in a state of shock by the attack.  When the group is joined by a young Jewish child named Pierre, it’s a reminder that, though the film itself may have been shot on an American soundstage, the stakes and the dangers in occupied Europe were all too real.

The Pied Piper was nominated for Best Picture of the year.  Viewed today, it may seem like an unlikely nominee.  It’s a well-made movie and Monty Woolley gives a good performance as John Sidney Howard.  It’s the type of film that, due to the sincerity of its anti-Nazi message, should bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened cynic but, at the same time, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking or aesthetically unique about it.  Still, from a historical point of view, it’s not a surprise that this competent but conventional film was nominated.  With America having just entered the war, The Pied Piper was a film that captured the national spirit.  Other World War II films nominated in 1942 included 49th Parallel, Wake Island, and the eventual winner, Mrs. Miniver.

In fact, one could argue that The Pied Piper is almost a cousin to Mrs. Miniver.  Both films are not only anti-German but also unapologetically pro-British.  Just as Greer Garson did in Mrs. Miniver, Monty Woolley is meant to be less of an individual and more of a stand-in for Britain itself.  When both Mrs. Miniver and Mr. Howard refused to surrender in the face of German aggression, these movies were proudly proclaiming that the British would never lose hope or surrender either.

Thankfully, the movies were correct.

Horror on the Lens: Dracula vs. Frankenstein (dir by Al Adamson)

Zandor Vorkov is Dracula!

John Blood is Frankenstein’s monster!


No, actually, they don’t.  If anything, they cause crimes to happen.

First released in 1971 and directed by Al Adamson, Dracula vs. Frankenstein may not be a good film but it’s definitely an unforgettable film.  Yes, it may be thoroughly inept but it’s also perhaps the strangest take on the Dracula/Frankenstein rivalry that you’ll ever see.

Plus, it’s one of the final films of Lon Chaney, Jr.  Unfortunately, Lon doesn’t exactly look his best in Dracula vs Frankenstein...

Speaking of slumming celebrities, long before he played Dr. Jacoby and inspired America to shout, “Dig yourself out of the shit!,” Russ Tamblyn played a biker named Rico in this movie.

Also, like every other exploitation film made in 1971, Dracula vs. Frankenstein features hippies, leading to the age old question: who needs the supernatural when you’ve got LSD-crazed hippies running around?

Another age old question: Is Dracula vs. Frankenstein merely inept or is it a classic of bad filmmaking?

Watch below and decide for yourself.