1750 to 1! Always out-numbered! Never out-fought! These are the Bengal Lancers…heroes all…guarding each other’s lives, sharing each other’s tortures, fighting each other’s battles…
Not usually recognized as one of Coop’s better films, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer makes one wonder why some films are revered (much like Pride of the Yankees, Sergeant York, and High Noon are in the case of Gary Cooper) while other, like Lancers are relegated to the second tier. Perhaps a conundrum for another time. It is worth noting however, that Lancers is overshadowed in terms of reputation by somewhat similar films of the same period, namely Beau Gueste and Gunga Din. This overshadowing is perhaps a bit incorrect.
As plots go, this is standard fare. Two young recruits arrive on the Indian Frontier in replacement of their fallen predecessors. One, a Lieutenant Forsythe (played by Franchot Tone) is highly arrogant while the other, Lieutenant Donald Stone (played by Richard Cromwell) is a bit naive. The young Lt. Stone is, ironically the son of the commanding officer of the regiment, Colonel Tom Stone (played by Guy Standing). The indomitable Gary Cooper plays Lieutenant Alan McGregor, who takes both new intakes under his wing.
Throughout the run time the action builds not on the screen, but rather behind the scenes- leading ultimately to the ultimate climatic battle which we know ends all classic films. And this battle is quite the visual spectacle, especially for 1935. The horsemanship demonstrated is first rate – one only wonders about potential injuries to these fine animals as this was prior to the animal treatment provisions created after the filming of The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936.
This behind the action story is the standard one of familial relations (in this case the commanding officer/father and the subordinate/son) and loyalty both to one’s fellow soldier and to one’s country. Director Henry Hathaway does an outstanding job balancing the action against the drama against bits of humor. For humor’s sake take a look at the “snake charmer” scene which is over the top to say the least.
What also adds to the allure of the picture is the lack of any romantic thread running throughout the story as movies (especially current ones) insipidly seem to feel is required. This is purely an adventure story of soldiers at odds with their enemies and in some instances, each other.
Again we come to this film’s passage back into the mists of time. Lancers was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture; it won two for assistant directors Clem Beauchamp and Paul Wing. Strangely none of the nominations are for in-front of the camera categories.
The casting is superb, although the star Cooper is overshadowed a bit by Franchot Tone. Tone rarely comes up in conversation and has for the most part been forgotten, but he was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category in 1935 (the same year as Lancers) for MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty. After romantic daliances with both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, coupled with his successes on screen, Tone seemed destined for the big time but never truly came out from supporting actor status. By the early fifties Tone had, for the most part, left Hollywood for the smaller screen of television.
Lancers isn’t the easiest film to find, although it does make airings on TCM on occasion. It is available on DVD, but only as part of a box set, The Gary Cooper Collection
A somewhat forgotten gem. Recommended.