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.