The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a 1935 American epic-adventure-drama film that used the title of the 1930 autobiography of the British former soldier, Francis Yeats-Brown. The film is a Paramount picture. Henry Hathaway directed, and the writers, who created a story that had nothing in common with Yeats-Brown’s book other than the setting, included Grover Jones, William Slavens McNutt, Waldemar Young, John L. Balderston, and Achmed Abdullah.
The plot is the story of a group of British cavalrymen and high-ranking officers desperately trying to defend their stronghold and headquarters at Bengal against the rebellious natives during the days of the British Raj. It stars Gary Cooper as Lieutenant Alan McGregor, Franchot Tone as Lieutenant John Forsythe, Richard Cromwell as Lieutenant Donald Stone, Guy Standing as Colonel Tom Stone and Douglass Dumbrille as the rebel leader Mohammed Khan, who utters the frequently misquoted line “We have ways to make men talk.”
On the northwest frontier of India during the British Raj, Scottish Canadian Lieutenant Alan McGregor (Gary Cooper), in charge of newcomers, welcomes two replacements to the 41st Bengal Lancers: Lieutenant John Forsythe (Franchot Tone) and Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), the son of the unit’s commander, Colonel Tom Stone (Guy Standing). Lieutenant Stone, a “cub” (meaning a newly commissioned officer), volunteered to serve on the Indian frontier in the belief that his father specifically sent for him; while Lieutenant Forsythe, an experienced cavalrymen and something of a teasing character, was sent out as a replacement for an officer who was killed in action. After their formal introduction, Lieutenant Stone, during a heated argument with his father, realizes his father did not send for him, a discovery that breaks his heart. Attempting to show impartiality, the colonel treats his son very properly. The Colonel’s military behaviour and adherence to protocol is misinterpreted by young Stone, who resents such treatment from the father he has not seen since he was a boy.
Lieutenant Barrett, (Colin Tapley) disguised as a native rebel in order to spy on Mohammed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille), reports that Khan is preparing an uprising against the British. He plans to intercept and hijack a military convoy transporting two million rounds of ammunition. When Khan discovers that Colonel Stone knows of his plan, he orders Tania Volkanskaya, a beautiful Russian agent, to seduce and kidnap Lieutenant Stone in an attempt to extract classified information about the ammunition caravan from him. When the colonel refuses to attempt his son’s rescue, McGregor and Forsythe, appalled by the “lack of concern” the colonel has for his own son, leave the camp at night without orders. Disguised as native merchants trying to sell blankets, they successfully get inside Mohammed Khan’s fortress. However, they are recognised by Tania, who met the two men before at a civil event. McGregor and Forsythe are taken prisoner.
During a seemingly friendly interrogation, Khan says “We have ways of making men talk,” and has the prisoners tortured. Their nails are ripped off and the sensitive skin underneath burned with bamboo slivers. When McGregor and Forsythe, despite the agonising pain, refuse to speak, Stone cracks and reveals what he knows to end their torture. As a result, the ammunition convoy is captured.
After receiving news of the stolen ammunition, Colonel Stone takes the 41st to battle Mohammed Khan. From their cell, the captives see the overmatched Bengal Lancers deploy to assault Khan’s fortress. They manage to escape and blow up the ammunition tower, young Stone redeeming himself by killing Khan with a dagger. With their ammunition gone, their leader dead, and their fortress in ruins as a result of the battle, the remaining rebels surrender. However, McGregor, who was principally responsible for the destruction of the ammunition tower, was killed when it exploded.
In recognition of their bravery and valour in battle, Lieutenants Forsythe and Stone are awarded the Distinguished Service Order. McGregor posthumously receives the Victoria Cross, Great Britain’s highest award for military valour, with Colonel Stone pinning the medal to the saddle cloth of McGregor’s horse as was the custom in the 41st Lancers (according to the film).
- Gary Cooper as Lieutenant Alan McGregor:
- A highly experienced officer in his mid-thirties, who has spent a long time with the regiment.
- McGregor, a Canadian, is portrayed as a charming, open character who befriends most officers, but because of disregard for his superiors and habit of speaking his mind is regarded askance by his superiors, who nevertheless respect his military abilities.
- Franchot Tone as Lieutenant John Forsythe:
- An upper-class cavalryman in his mid-twenties from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
- Transferred from the Blues, one of the two regiments at the time the movie was made tasked with guarding the Sovereign, Forsythe is presented as the funny guy of the main characters, and is noteworthy for his Sandhurst style in military exercise, something that earns him countless compliments from his superiors.
- Richard Cromwell as Lieutenant Donald Stone:
- A recent graduate of Sandhurst and a very young officer.
- As the son of a colonel with a famous name, he is treated respectfully but becomes frustrated and morose because of personal issues with his father.
- Guy Standing (actor) as Colonel Tom Stone:
- A long-serving colonel who left his home in Britain to serve on the Frontier, and explains to his son in the film that the “service always comes first … something your mother never understood.”
- He is considered to be a dyed-in-the-wool, by-the-book colonel who suppresses his feelings and never does anything without orders.
- C. Aubrey Smith as Major Hamilton:
- An old, very experienced major who serves as Colonel Stone’s adjutant and Lieutenant Stone’s second father and friend.
- He, along with his chief, planned and coordinated the big assault on Mohammad Khan’s fortress.
- Kathleen Burke as Tania Volkanskaya:
- A beautiful and seductive young Russian woman who is Khan’s ally. She is used as Khan’s secret ace, who seduces young men when needed to forward Khan’s plans.
- It was she who, with considerable ease, outwitted first Stone and then McGregor and Forsythe.
- Douglass Dumbrille as Mohammed Khan:
- A well-known, wealthy prince of the region, educated at Oxford and ostensibly a friend of the British.
- He is also the secret rebel leader who fights for Bengal’s independence from the British Crown.
- He is portrayed as the film’s villain and is responsible for the death and torture of many people.
- Colin Tapley as Lieutenant Barrett:
- A close friend of Lieutenant McGregor who has been ordered to infiltrate Khan’s group of bandits and delivers vital information about the rebels’ location and movement.
- Lumsden Hare as Major General Woodley:
- The man in command of the British intelligence service in India. He is disliked by most of the regiment’s officers, especially McGregor, because his orders usually involve training exercises in locations where the pig-sticking is good.
- He thought of and approved the attack on Khan’s stronghold.
- J. Carrol Naish as Grand Vizier.
- James Dime.
Paramount originally planned to produce the film in 1931 and sent cinematographers Ernest B. Schoedsack and Rex Wimpy to India to film location shots such as a tiger hunt. However, much of the film stock deteriorated in the hot sun while on location, so when the film was eventually made, much of the production took place in the hills surrounding Los Angeles, where Northern Paiute people were used as extras.
Among the filming locations were Lone Pine, Calif., Buffalo Flats in Malibu, Calif., the Paramount Ranch in Agoura, Calif., and the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, Calif. For the climactic half-hour battle sequence at the end of the film, an elaborate set was built in the Iverson Gorge, part of the Iverson Movie Ranch, to depict Mogala, the mountain stronghold of Mohammed Khan.
The film was released in American cinemas in January 1935. It was a big success at the box office and kicked off a cycle of Imperial adventure tales, including The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Another Dawn (1937), Gunga Din (1939), The Four Feathers (1939), and The Real Glory (1939).
The film grossed $1.5 million worldwide (equivalent to $28 million in the 2020s). It was the second most popular film at the British box office in 1935-36. The film was released on the eleventh of January 1935 and by the end of the year was the eleventh highest grossing film of 1935 nationally. However, it was the highest grossing film in the western states of Nebraska, Montana, Idaho and Utah and was the second highest grossing film in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. Mutiny on the Bounty came in first place nationally as well as in the aforementioned twelve states.
The film The Lives of a Bengal Lancer shares nothing with the source book, except the setting. Reid noted in Award-Winning Films of the 1930s that “none of the characters in the book appear in the screenplay, not even Yeats-Brown himself. The plot of the film is also entirely different.”
The Paramount picture was distributed to home media on VHS on 01 March 1992 and on DVD on 31 May 2005. It has since been released in multiple languages and is included in several multi-film collections.
- The film was so successful that it led to Gary Cooper being booked to star in a number of films of similar plots that were also set in “exotic” locales, including Beau Geste, The Real Glory, North West Mounted Police and Distant Drums.
- The film’s release was met with positive reviews and good box office results.
- It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning Assistant Director, with other nominations including Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture.
- The film grossed $1.5 million (equivalent to $28 million in 2020) at the box office.
- Writer John Howard Reid has described the film as “one of the greatest adventure films of all time.”
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Henry Hathaway.
- Producer(s): Louis D. Lighton.
- William Slavens McNutt.
- Grover Jones.
- Waldemar Young.
- John L. Balderston.
- Achmed Abdullah.
- Laurence Stallings (offscreen credit).
- Herman Hand.
- John Leipold.
- Milan Roder.
- Heinz Roemheld.
- Cinematography: Charles Lang.
- Editor(s): Ellsworth Hoagland.
- Production: Paramount Pictures.
- Distributor(s): Paramount Pictures.
- Release Date: 11 January 1935 (US).
- Running Time: 109 minutes.
- Rating: U.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.