They certainly don’t make movies like The Lives of a Bengal Lancer any more. This 1935 Paramount production is the kind of movie that would simply not be permitted in our supposedly enlightened times. It’s a stirring tale of adventure, friendship, heroism, loyalty and duty, all deeply unfashionable values.
The 41st Bengal Lancers are stationed on the Northwest Frontier of India, presumably some time early in the 20th century. There’s a reference to the King so I’d hazard a guess it’s during the reign of Edward VII.
As usual there’s trouble brewing. Mohammed Khan is trying to unite the various tribes against the British. The commanding officer of the regiment, Colonel Stone, has to find a way to stop him without being manoeuvred into being the aggressor. Stone has a responsibility to protect the people of his district and to keep the peace. His subtle policy is misunderstood by some of his junior officers, especially the brave but impulsive Scots-Canadian Lieutenant Alan McGregor (Gary Cooper).
Two replacement subalterns have just arrived to take up their duties. One is Lt Forsythe (Franchot Tone), the other is Lt Donald Stone, the son of Col Stone. Donald Stone is fresh out of Sandhurst, enthusiastic but completely green. And the Northwest Frontier is no place for inexperienced officers.
Of course he gets himself into trouble. In fact he is constantly getting himself into trouble. Col Stone is determined to show no favouritism to his son but young Donald cannot understand his coldness. He cannot comprehend the fact that to his father duty is everything. As Mohammed Khan’s plotting matures Lt Stone’s rashness and lack of judgment will endanger everything the colonel has tried to achieve. Stone’s downfall will come through the agency of the beautiful but mysterious Tania Volkanskaya (Kathleen Burke).
Lt MacGregor is a rather crusty Scots-Canadian but he’s fundamentally good-hearted and he sees it as his responsibility to take the colonel’s son under his wing. Lt Forsythe is another thorn in his side. Forsythe is a fine officer and also fundamentally good-natured but he cannot resist playing jokes on MacGregor. Forsythe has an impish sense of fun which is lost on the dour MacGregor. Both MacGregor and Forsythe will feel compelled to rescue the impulsive Lt Stone, with fateful consequences.
Gary Cooper is a actor I’m starting to like more and more and he delivers another fine performance. C. Aubrey Smith gives a regulation C. Aubrey Smith performance as the regimental adjutant. Richard Cromwell is adequate enough as the younger Stone while Guy Standing captures the elder Stone’s strict sense of duty and the effect this has on his humanity rather well.
The big surprise is Franchot Tone, an actor I’ve always been a little dismissive of. He’s exceptionally good as Forsythe, managing to be cynical, warm-hearted and likeable. It’s not that different from a typical Franchot Tone performance but this time with some real substance behind it.
Henry Hathaway’s direction is solid and technically the movie (being a typical product of Hollywood’s golden age) cannot be faulted. There are some fine action sequences.
The sense of duty and sacrifice and honour, the demands of heroism and the conflict between duty and emotion, that motivate the characters are not things that will be easily understood by modern audiences raised in an age when duty and heroism are qualities to be sneered at. There was a time when such things were taken seriously and whatever one thinks of British policy in India there is no question of the courage and dedication of the officers and officials who administered British India.
An old-fashioned adventure tale, and all the better for being old-fashioned. Recommended.
It was released on DVD by Universal in their excellent Gary Cooper Collection boxed set.