British Imperial adventure stories like Beau Geste and Gunga Din now represent a defunct genre, but many of the movies and books of that genre retain their initial appeal much in the way of Arthurian legends: seeking adventure, brotherhood and an overarching ideal. We know it’s not real, but it’s such a lovely thought
The Lives of the Bengal Lancers was released in 1935 and although quite popular then, it lies somewhat under the shadow of the more well-known Beau Geste and Gunga Din. Starring Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, and Richard Cromwell as three friends in the 41st Bengal Lancers, it differs from other films in that it is not just a buddy film. It is also about the 41st Bengal Lancers, with the emphasis on the three friends.
Lieutenant Alan McGregor (Gary Cooper with a mustache) is a hot-headed Scotch-Canadian who is frustrated with his commanding officer, Colonel Stone (Guy Standing), who he calls Ramrod and thinks is a stickler for regulations and not a flexible and compassionate enough commanding officer. But Major Hamilton (C. Aubrey Smith – the quintessential British officer) knows that Colonel Stone will be retiring soon and also knows that Stone has not seen his son in years. Thinking that it would comfort Stone to know that his son is going in his footsteps and provide an opportunity for father and son to reunite, Hamilton has Stone’s son transferred to the 41st Bengal Lancers, though Stone is dismayed.
McGregor is sent to pick up the new soldiers. One is Stone’s son, Donald (Richard Cromwell), and the other is an officer from a more high society division, Lieutenant Forsythe (Franchot Tone). McGregor and Forsthye instantly exchange manly insults, but McGregor soon develops a soft spot for Donald, who is frustrated at the reception he receives from his father and the kind of jobs he is set to do, like overseeing the mucking out of the stables.
But while McGregor, Forsythe and Donald begin to form a bond – in between McGregor and Forsythe generally irking each other and engaging in a semi-friendly rivalry – Stone is in the midst of trying to catch Mohamed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille – somewhat improbably cast, though suitably suave and villainous), who is trying to unite various tribes under one banner to oust the British. Khan and Stone are old enemies, circling each other for fifteen years now, both seasoned and clever.
One of the things I appreciated about this film is that the leaders are not total idiots, which seems to happen a lot in films, presumably to boost the heroism of the lead characters. But in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Colonel Stone is a wily old soul. Despite their frustration, it is McGregor, Donald and Forsythe who do not see the bigger picture or understand why Stone is doing what he does. The only one who understands Stone is Major Hamilton.
Likewise, there is no one hero who personifies all the positive attributes. McGregor is from Canada, a hot-head, impatient, brave man with an average education and intellect and a caring heart. It’s a slightly different role for Cooper than I am used to. He’s usually the strong, laconic type and in this film he’s a bit more chatty and loses his cool more often than his characters usually do, which was fun to see.
Initially, McGregor does not respect Forsythe because he arrives with tons of baggage and a general playboy attitude. But Forsythe is more erudite, mentally quicker and turns out to be just as game, though he masks his own good heart with sardonic comments about McGregor’s soft-heartedness.
Richard Cromwell’s Donald is less interesting than the other two. He goes from likable callow youth eager to please his father to resentful, rebellious and rather whiny. But he looks up to McGregor and between McGregor and Forsythe, they manage to mostly keep him out of trouble, until the end, that is, when they disobey orders to go rescue him from Khan.
But the most interesting character by far is Guy Standing as Colonel Stone. McGregor calls him Ramrod and assumes that he has no heart. But it’s extremely clear that he does care, he just can’t express it very well and goes from commanding officer to tongue-tied man when he tries. But it is also clear in his actions that he is not as unyielding as McGregor says. He’s simply a man who chose his profession years ago, even over his wife, and he gives his all to it. But on several occasions, it is shown that his bark is worse than his bite. His son doesn’t initially understand that and thinks his father doesn’t care. Stone’s only great fear is of retirement, where he poignantly imagines being put out to pasture, sitting in a club, a tepid ending to a forceful career.
Mercifully, there is no romance forced into the film. They do manage to briefly get a woman in the story, but she has a very specific purpose. The film also has a considerable amount of real footage from India, filmed by Ernest Schoedsack (who co-directed King Kong) and although it is obvious when they are using stock footage, it is woven seamlessly into the film. The poem that Forsythe recites near the end is a bit much (they liked poems in these kinds of stories: Charge of the Light Brigade, Gunga Din). The message is that what Stone is doing is more important than anything. He’s one of a few special men who has what it takes to rule 30 million people (though the 30 million people are never in evidence).
But at its core, it is a fun adventure film, with pig hunting, traveling in disguise, an ending battle in Khan’s fortress.There’s not quite as much action as one would suppose, though. Gunga Din has much more, but what I especially enjoyed was the character’s interactions, their imperfections, their misunderstandings, their loyalty and their growing respect for each other.