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The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (film)

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The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
Bengal lancer movieposter.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Produced by Louis D. Lighton
Written by William Slavens McNutt
Grover Jones
Waldemar Young
John L. Balderston
Achmed Abdullah
Starring Gary Cooper
Franchot Tone
Richard Cromwell
Guy Standing
Music by Herman Hand
John Leipold
Milan Roder
Heinz Roemheld
Cinematography Charles Lang
Edited by Ellsworth Hoagland
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date
  • January 11, 1935 (1935-01-11) (United States)
Running time
109 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $49 million (2008 equivalent of $1.5 million in the 1930s)

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a 1935 American epic-adventure-drama film loosely adapted from the 1930 autobiography of the same name by British author Francis Yeats-Brown. The film is a Paramount picture directed by Henry Hathaway and written by Grover Jones, William Slavens McNutt, Waldemar Young, John L. Balderston and Achmed Abdullah.

The plot of the film, which bears little resemblance to Brown's book, tells 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."[1][2][3]

Production and planning of the film began in 1931 and Paramount expected the film to be released that same year. However, due to a film stock crisis in which most of the location footage deteriorated due to the high temperatures, the project was delayed for four years. The motion picture was released in American cinemas in January 1935.

The film's release was met with positive reviews and good box office results. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning Assistant Director, with other nominations including Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. It grossed $49 million (2008 equivalent of $1.5 million in the 1930s) at the box office. Historian John Reid has described the film as "one of the greatest adventure films of all time".


Stone (left) and McGregor (right) hunting wild boars during a training exercise in preparation for a desert assault.

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 volunteered to serve on the Indian front solely in the belief that his father specifically sent for him, while Lieutenant Forsythe, an experienced cavalrymen and somewhat of a teasing character, is simply sent off as a replacement for an officer who recently died. After the formal introduction, Lieutenant Stone realizes his father never actually sent for him during a heated argument, a discovery that breaks his heart. In attempt to show impartiality, the colonel treats his son very coldly, which is misinterpreted and causes frustration and resentment in the young officer.

Lieutenant Barrett (Colin Tapley) has been disguised as a native rebel in order to spy on Mohammed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille), and reports that Khan has been preparing an uprising against the British and is planning to intercept and steal a future military transport of two million rounds of ammunition. When Khan discovers the British regiment knows of his plan, he orders his beautiful slave to seduce and then kidnap Lieutenant Stone, in an attempt to extract sensitive information about the ammunition caravan from him. When the colonel refuses to attempt his 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 common natives trying to sell blankets, they are recognized by the beautiful slave, who has met the two men before at a civil event, and are captured. During a seemingly friendly interrogation, Khan says "we have ways of making men talk" and proceeds to have the prisoners tortured; their nails are ripped off and the sensitive skin underneath is burned. While McGregor and Forsythe, despite the agonizing pain, refuse to speak, Stone cracks and reveals what he knows. As a result, the ammunition is captured.

After receiving news about the stolen ammunition, Colonel Stone prepares his regiment for battle. From their cell, the captives see the outmatched Bengal Lancers deployed to assault Khan's fortress. They manage to escape and ultimately destroy the ammunition tower, and young Stone redeems himself by killing Khan with a dagger. With their ammunition gone and headquarters in ruins as a result of the battle, the remaining rebels surrender. However, McGregor, who was mainly responsible for the destruction of the ammunition tower, is killed in the assault. To recognize their battlefield bravery and military effort, Forsythe and Lieutenant Stone are awarded the Distinguished Service Order and McGregor posthumously receives the prestigious Victoria Cross, with McGregor's horse awarded the medal on his behalf.


  • Gary Cooper as Lieutenant Alan McGregor, a highly experienced officer in his mid-thirties, who has spent a long time with the regiment. McGregor is portrayed as a charming, open character who befriends most officers, but is repeatedly refused promotion and a say in military matters because of disregard for his superiors.[4]
  • Franchot Tone as Lieutenant John Forsythe, an educated cavalryman in his mid-twenties from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Forsythe is presented as the funny guy of the main characters, and becomes notable for his Sandhurst-style in military exercise, something that earns him countless compliments from his superiors.[4]
McGregor (left) and Forsythe (right) lighting a cigeratte with their heavily burned fingers during captivity.
  • Richard Cromwell as Lieutenant Donald Stone, a recent graduate and 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.[4]
  • Guy Standing as Colonel Tom Stone, a long-serving colonel who left his home in Britain for the Indian front, 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 diehard by-the-book colonel who suppresses his feelings and never does anything without orders.[4]
  • C. Aubrey Smith as Major Hamilton, an old, but very experienced major who serves as Colonel Stone's right-hand man and Lieutenant Stone's second father and friend. He, along with his chief, planned and coordinated the big assault on the Muhammad Khan's fortress.[4]
  • Kathleen Burke as Tania Volkanskaya, a beautiful and seductive young woman who is Khan's slave. She is used as Khan's secret ace, who seduces young men and tricks them into capture when needed. It was her who, with considerable ease, outwitted first Stone and then McGregor and Forsythe.[4]
  • Douglass Dumbrille as Mohammed Khan, a well-known and wealthy prince of the region, but also the secret rebel leader who fights for Bengal independence against the British. He is portrayed as the film's villain and is responsible for the death and torture of many people.[4]
  • 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.[4]
  • Lumsden Hare as Major General Woodley, the man in over-all command of the whole regiment. He is disliked by most of the regiment's officers, especially McGregor, because his orders usually involve training exercises with pigs. He thought of, and approved, the attack on Khan's stronghold.[4]


Stock crisis[edit]

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.[5][6] 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 Paiute Native Americans were used as extras.[5][6]


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.[5] 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.[5]


Box office[edit]

The film was released in American cinemas in January 1935.[4][7] 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).[8] The film grossed $49 million worldwide (2008 equivalent of $1.5 million in the 1930s).[8]

Critical reception and influence[edit]

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer promotion poster from 1935 showcasing Gary Cooper.

Laura Elston from the magazine Canada wrote that The Lives of a Bengal Lancer did "more glory to the British traditions than the British would dare to do for themselves."[8] In response to the film success, Frederick Herron of the Motion Picture Association of America wrote "Hollywood is doing a very good work in selling the British Empire to the world."[8] Historian John Reid noted in his book Award-Winning Films of the 1930s that the film is considered "one of the greatest adventure films of all time" and highly praised Hathaway's work by saying "the film really made his reputation."[9] It also received a praised review in Boys' Life magazine, starting off the review with the words "You will be immensely pleased with The Lives of a Bengal lancer" and went on to compare the style and class of the three main characters to that of The Three Musketeers.[10] The film holds an overall approval rating of 100% on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 9 reviews, with a rating average of 8 out of 10.[11]

German dictator Adolf Hitler told British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax in 1937 that one of his favorite films was The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which he had seen three times.[12] "I like this film because it depicted a handful of Britons holding a continent in thrall. That is how a superior race must behave and the film is a compulsory viewing for the SS."[12][13] Besides Hitler's enthusiasm, the film also became popular in Nazi Germany where all forms of entertainment were censored.[14] The Nazis are believed to have liked the rule-Britannia, pro-imperialist adventure film because it embraced the "leader principle" which mirrored the "Führer principle".[14] In his book The Collaboration, Ben Urwand wrote about the film's impact in Germany:

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer had drawn in massive crowds, but it had not emphasized the present need for fascism — it had hearkened back to an earlier era. The next Hollywood film that delivered a National Socialist message would be both popular and contemporary, and as a result, it would set a new standard for future German production. The film was called Our Daily Bread.[14]

Plot discrepancies[edit]

The film plot of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer bear little resemblance to the plot of the book.[15] 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."[15]

Home media[edit]

The Paramount picture was distributed to home media on VHS on March 1, 1992 and on DVD on May 31, 2005.[6][16] It has since been released in multiple languages and is included in several multi-film collections.[17]


The film was nominated for the following Academy Awards, winning in one category:[6][18]

Award Nominee Result
Best Picture Louis D. Lighton Nominated
Best Art Direction Hans Dreier
Roland Anderson
Best Assistant Director Clem Beauchamp
Paul Wing
Best Directing Henry Hathaway Nominated
Best Film Editing Ellsworth Hoagland Nominated
Best Outstanding Production Louis D. Lighton Nominated
Best Sound Recording Franklin B. Hansen Nominated
Adapted Screenplay William Slavens McNutt
Grover Jones
Waldemar Young
John L. Balderston
Achmed Abdullah

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Deis, Robert (11 January 2015). "The Origin of the Movie Cliché "We Have Ways of Making You Talk!"". This Day in Quotes. Retrieved 4 April 2016. 
  2. ^ Knowles 1999, p. 196.
  3. ^ "Top 15 Film Misquotes" (October 18, 2007). Listverse. Retrieved July 13, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" (January 12, 1935). The New York Times. Retrieved September 13, 2014.
  5. ^ a b c d Richards 1973, pp. 120–123.
  6. ^ a b c d "Review: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" (December 31, 1934). Variety. Retrieved January 10, 2014.
  7. ^ "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved September 15, 2014.
  8. ^ a b c d Welky 2008, pp. 88–89.
  9. ^ Reid 2004, pp. 118–119.
  10. ^ Mathiews 1935.
  11. ^ "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved September 13, 2014.
  12. ^ a b Kirkpatrick 1959, p. 97.
  13. ^ "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer". Cliomuse. Retrieved September 15, 2014.
  14. ^ a b c "How Could Harvard Have Published Ben Urwand's "The Collaboration"?" (September 23, 2013). The New Yorker. Retrieved December 4, 2014.
  15. ^ a b Reid 2004, p. 120.
  16. ^ "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (VHS)". Amazon. Retrieved December 4, 2014.
  17. ^ "The Oscars 30' Collection – 5 DVD Set". Amazon. Retrieved December 4, 2014.
  18. ^ "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer – Film by Hathaway (1935)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 13, 2015.


External links[edit]