(director: Henry Hathaway; screenwriter: from the novel by Francis Yeats-Brown/Grover Jones/William Slavens McNutt/Waldemar Young/John L. Balderston/Achmed Abdullah; cinematographer: Charles Lang; editor: Ellsworth Hoagland; music: Herman Hand; cast: Gary Cooper (Captain McGregor), Franchot Tone (Lieutenant Forsythe), Richard Cromwell (Lieutenant Donald Stone), Sir Guy Standing (Colonel Stone), C. Aubrey Smith (Major Hamilton), Monte Blue (Hamzulla Khan), J. Carrol Naish (Grand Vizier), Kathleen Burke (Tania Volkanskaya), Colin Tapley (Lieutenant Barrett), Douglas Dumbrille (Mohammed Khan), Akim Tamiroff (Emir), Lumsden Hare (Maj. Gen. Sir Thomas Woodley); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Louis D. Lighton; Paramount; 1935)
“A rousing adventure story in the Kiplingesque fashion.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Henry Hathaway (“The Real Glory”/”True Grit”) directs an old-fashioned stiff-upper-lipped yarn that tells the story of three British soldiers, Captain McGregor (Gary Cooper), Lieutenant Forsythe (Franchot Tone) and Lieutenant Stone (Richard Cromwell), serving with the 41st Bengal Lancers in the North-West frontier of India. It’s based on the novel by Francis Yeats-Brown and written by a team of writers that include Grover Jones, William Slavens McNutt, Waldemar Young, John L. Balderston and Achmed Abdullah. It received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Time has taken its toll on its pro colonialist paternalistic attitude and its uncritical look at soldier heroism, but as a look at the Brit empire through Hollywood eyes it still retains punch for its entertainment value as a rousing adventure story in the Kiplingesque fashion. It was remade in 1939 as Geronimo, which showed how easy it was to transfer the story to a different set of Indians.

The 41st Bengal Lancers, under the command of rigid traditionalist Colonel Stone (Sir Guy Standing), believing in strict discipline and loyalty to the military above all else, are fighting Muslim rebels in the hills of Northwest India, who are led by Mohammed Khan (Douglas Dumbrille). He’s stealing ammunition and supplying it to the restless natives to kick the Brits out of their homeland. Lieutenant McGregor is a Canadian, of Scotch descent, who came to India for some action. When on a patrol, McGregor’s captain gets killed in an ambush and McGregor disobeys the colonel’s orders not to fire by routing the attackers, and will get a look of displeasure from the colonel for not following orders. The experienced rough-and-tumble Lieutenant Forsythe, nicknamed Fort by McGregor, and the colonel’s son, Lieutenant Donald Stone, a recent grad of Sandhurst military college, a callow lad with no military experience, are assigned as replacements to the Bengal Lancers. Major Hamilton (C. Aubrey Smith) arranged without knowledge of the colonel for his son to be with the Bengal Lancers, which doesn’t please the colonel even though he does love his son. The colonel is divorced from his American wife, who claims hubby chose the army over married life. The son soon realizes his dad will show him no favors and wants to have only a professional relationship, which spurs on a deep emotional conflict as the son rebels against dad’s cold-blooded attitude.

Donald is quartered with McGregor and Fort, and they become close friends despite the friendly rivalry between the two veteran soldiers and the lack of soldier experience by Donald. The heart of the story concerns Donald kidnapped by Mohammed Khan when he’s with Tania (Kathleen Burke), Khan’s woman. When McGregor captures a native and gets him to tell where the kid is being held, the father refuses to rescue his son because he says it will endanger the mission of the regiment to get ammunition to their supposed British ally, the Emir of Gopal, who might be supplying the Khan on the side. McGregor insists on going alone on the rescue but is arrested for insubordination with Fort as his guard. The buddies decide to go on the rescue without permission and make for Khan’s stronghold at Mogala disguised as merchants. Tania recognizes them and Khan imprisons and tortures them to make them tell him the route of the ammunition. McGregor and Fort do not blab despite the pain of bamboo slivers placed beneath their finger nails, but Donald quickly, out of hatred for his father, reveals the route. As the Bengal Lancers approach Mogala, the captives escape and through various forms of heroism stop Khan single-handedly. Donald redeems himself by ending the revolt when he stabs to death Mohammed Khan, as the natives refuse to fight without their leader. In the final scene Hamilton and Col. Stone give medals to Lt. Forsythe, Lt. Stone, and award the Victoria Cross posthumously to Capt. MacGregor.

The film made good use of documentary footage; its lavish sets were so well-constructed on Paramount’s California ranch that they look like location shots. Cecil B. DeMille used them again in 1935 for his epic The Crusades. Bengal Lancer became a big box office smash and the charismatic Cooper was elevated into a superstar.

Gary Cooper in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)