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The Lives of a Bengal Lancer Movie Review

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1935 – Henry Hathaway –

Balancing the adventure of foiling a native uprising with the drama of a father-son conflict, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a lesser Gunga Din, but is still a pleasing adventure about the British raj. The first plotline supports the authority of British militarism while the second (and more compelling) element undermines it.

In the opening scene, one of the officers of the British forces in northern India is shot by a native sniper. His replacement turns out to be the son of the duty-first colonel (Sir Guy Standing). His two tentmates, McGregor and Forsythe (Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone), eventually befriend him as concern grows among the British that the native chieftain Mohammed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille) plans to unite the surrounding tribes and intercept the forthcoming munitions convoy.

In one of most intriguing scenes, Colonel Stone summons McGregor and Forsythe to his tent, wanting to discuss the welfare of his son. Stone, however, has become so calcified by military tradition that he cannot voice any fatherly concern. He blusters about in the conversation, evading the issue, talking about the quality of various tobaccos and finally questioning Forsythe about his father. The drama of the scene comes entirely from the subtext of the submerged love the colonel cannot express. Back in his own tent, Forsythe is keen enough to tell McGregor that the fault for such estrangement is partly the father's but “partly the system.” The natives also see these lapses. They kidnap young Stone (Richard Cromwell) in order to coax a rescue mission out in the open. McGregor and Forsythe defy orders, adopt disguises as native peddlers, and attempt to bring back the colonel's son.

Cooper and Tone are enjoyable, but they do not generate anything like the wonderful chemistry that animates the trio of chums in Gunga Din. The scenes that show Cooper and Tone becoming friends work well but at a less raucous level than those in the other film. Tone, for example, enjoys irritating Cooper by playing on a snake-charmer's pipe. Unknown to Tone, he is also attracting a cobra that slithers closer and closer. While Tone is frozen in fear and can barely keep playing to prevent the snake's attack, Cooper calmly goes for his gun. The ending of the film also relies on the bond among the comrades-in-arms for much of its force. Captured by the enemy, the friends must endure the torture of burning bamboo under their fingernails. Through their prison bars, they see the powder magazine and begin to design an escape plan. The audience pleasing climax is no surprise, but still effective.

Cast: Gary Cooper (Lieutenant Alan McGregor), Franchot Tone (Lieutenant John Forsythe), Sir Guy Standing (Col. Stone), Richard Cromwell (Lieutenant Donald Stone), C. Aubrey Smith (Major Hamilton), Kathleen Burke (Tania Volkanskaya), Douglass Dumbrille (Mohammed Khan), Monte Blue (Hamzulla Khan), Colin Tapley (Lieutenant Barrett), Akim Tamiroff (Emir of Gopal), J. Carrol Naish (Grand Vizier), Noble Johnson (Ram Singh), Mischa Auer (Afridi), Lumsden Hare (Major General Woodley), James Thomas (Hendricks) Screenwriter: Grover Jones, William Slavens McNutt, Waldemar Young, John L. Balderston, Achmed Abdullah Cinematographer: Charles Lang Composer: Milan Roder Producer: Louis D. Lighton for Paramount Running Time: 109 minutes Format: VHS Awards: Academy Awards, 1935, Nominations: Director (Henry Hathaway), Editing, Interior Design, Picture, Screenplay, Sound; National Board of Review Awards 1935: 10 Best Films of the Year.

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