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You are unlikely to have heard of "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer." It
has long been overshadowed by it's more popular contemporaries "Beau
Geste" and "Gunga Din", though it is, in my humble opinion, a finer
film then either of them. But I'm getting ahead of myself, let's start
at the beginning.
"The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" is the story of a regiment of British
soldiers in Imperial India. It's an adventure film first and foremost,
but it is also an intimate drama about the life of a soldier in an age
of Victorian honor, chivalry, and stiff upper lip stoicism. The
characters are all interesting and complex and the dialogue is witty
The film holds up very well for a movie made in 1935, largely due to
the lack of any melodramatic romantic subplots, which have permanently
marred other adventure films of the period. This is a man's film about
men in desperate situations, it's about being willing to die for your
country or your friends at a moments notice. It's about a concept that
most people consider outdated, honor. How many films have you seen
recently about honor, loyalty, and true courage? Probably not many. The
action scenes are exhilarating, and the film really does a wonderful
job of establishing it's Indian setting.
The performances are all first rate, Gary Cooper stars as Lt. McGregor.
I've always imagined Cooper as the quiet, serious, everyman characters
he played later in his career. Here he gets to try his hand at comedy
and complexity and gives arguably the most layered performance of his
career. Franchot Tone is also perfectly cast, he won on Oscar the same
year for his performance in Mutiny on the Bounty, but his performance
in this film is equally deserving of acclaim. Tone was one of the best
actors of the 1930's, though he never really hit it big as a leading
man. He's wonderful here, his character exudes charm and wit, and he
and Cooper bounce off each other wonderfully. Richard Cromwell is a
little over the top, but he makes sense for the character. British
stage actor Guy Standing plays Colonel Stone as being emotionless on
the outside, and yet torn apart on the inside, having to make the
impossible choice between loyalty to one's family and loyalty to one's
country. It's a great performance for which he should have received an
Oscar nomination. As for C. Aubrey Smith, he is wonderful as usual, the
quintessential British officer, often imitated but never equaled, there
is no one like the man himself. Douglas Dumbrille also gives a fine
performance as the evil Muhammad Khan.
"The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" is a great film, that has been unfairly
denied the classic status it so deserves. For years the only way to see
it was on Turner Classic Movies, but recently it was released as one of
the five films on the $25 "Gary Cooper Collection". Don't miss it.
10 out of 10
Also, though most people don't know it, this is the film in which the
now famous line "We have ways of making men talk" is first uttered.
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