By Christopher Langley, Eastern California Film Historian
Often the Cavalry rides to the rescue in local western actioners. In this case, all it takes is a few British military men to subdue rebellious natives on the northwest frontier of India in “The Lives of the Bengal Lancers.” The Cavalry are the Bengal Lancers played by Gary Cooper (Lt. Alan MacGregor), Franchot Tone (Lt. John Forsythe), and Richard Cromwell (Lt. Donald Stone). The bad guy Douglas Dumbrille (Mohammed Khan) is a leader who wants to free his people from British colonialism. While if he had been playing George Washington instead, Dumbrille would have been the hero.
Of course, Khan being Muslim does practice torture by sticking sticks under the nails of Cooper, Tone and Cromwell and then lighting them on fire. In these films the “other,” read the Muslim villains, practice torture while the good guys endure it. (Ever heard of waterboarding?) Well, actually Cromwell tells what Khan wants to know and avoids this mistreatment. Cromwell happens also to be the son of Colonel Stone, played with a very stiff upper lip by Sir Guy Standing. The British military life is examined in some detail, while the freedom fighters are there just to be a foil for the good guys. They are mere cardboard characters spouting lines like “We have ways of making men talk,” the most famous line from the film.
We do learn that all the British have to do is threaten to put a rebel in the skin of a pig to get them to spill the beans because we all know in Semitic religions (Islam and Judaism) pigs are forbidden dirty animals. That is about the level of understanding of the “other’s” religion in this otherwise exciting and very successful film of 1935. The reviewer for the “New York Times” when the picture opened wrote, “In its exciting and somewhat blood-chilling account of the gallant band of fighting men who guard the Northern frontier of England’s empire in India, the work is in the vigorously romantic tradition of Kipling and Talbot Mundy. While it usually manages to avoid Kipling’s fatally objectionable preoccupation with the white man’s burden, it is so sympathetic in its discussion of England’s colonial management that it ought to prove a great blessing to Downing Street.”
The picture is based on Francis Yeats-Brown’s true-life account of his life with the Bengal Lancers, but the film calls the book a novel. It doesn’t matter much because there are few similarities between the two. Unfortunately the author became sympathetic Fascist cause at the time, and Adolph Hitler told the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax in 1937 that it was one of his favorite films. According the Fuhrer, it showed a “handful of Britons holding a continent in thrall. That is how a superior race must behave and the film was compulsory viewing for the S.S.” Talk about a marketing disaster, but in its day the film was widely praised and a great financial success, even earning eight Academy Award nominations.
The history of the making of the film is interesting. Four years before they came to Lone Pine, Paramount commenced pre-production when they sent Ernest Schoedsack to India for exteriors and atmosphere. Variety reports, “Some of Schoedsack’s stuff is still in, but in those four years original plans were kicked around until lost.” The Alabama Hills brought its own romantic view of the area around the Khyber Pass as it would for so many other films we will be discussing. The delay by the way was caused by a shortage of film stock, not the usual studio politics and decision-making. In the July 13, 1934 Inyo Independent announced Sid Street had been here and if things went well, the rest of the cast and crew would be here “next” week. It also stated that Russell Spainhower, G.W. Dow, and R.H. Henderson assisted him. It wasn’t until September of the same year that the company of 150 arrived according to the same paper.
The Dow was their headquarters, but because of the size of the company, thirty people were staying at the Winnedumah in Independence. The paper also announced that between thirty and forty extras would be employed locally. By the next week the number of employees working on the film had risen to 274 and since they were somewhat behind schedule they would film for another week. “Lone Pine gives the appearance of a portion of Hollywood with screen stars and extras promenading the streets, Paramount trucks and equipment busy keeping the company at work, riding horses being driven from location to location, and large buses carrying members of the company and extras to the Alabama Hills site and return.”
The column of the paper “Off the Beaten Path” reported lots of gossipy news bits. “Lone Pine has gone Hollywood with a vengeance…. Actors stroll up and down the street, and its an old thrill now for the young ‘uns to rub elbows with Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, Guy Standing and Monte Blue.” The writer continued, “Members of the company are thoroly [sic] enjoying themselves. They have made themselves at home and appreciate the western hospitality typical of Lone Pine.” The paper said that Cooper and Blue had been here before and appreciated it every time they came on location. Franchot Tone is a “millionaire in his own right, and his salary from the motion pictures is just a little play money. He admits motion picture work gives one the chance to run the gamut of all manner of conditions.
Finally the writer explains the use of matte paintings in the making of films. When the director Hathaway wants a beautiful Indian castle sitting atop of one of the 14,000 foot peaks, “he merely has the camera adjusted, places a black silhouette of the castle outline in front of the camera, and then the film is taken to Hollywood, where it is doctored and painted. You’ll never know the difference. Hollywood had its tricks, and uses them.”
The film is not easy to find only now released to DVD in a Gary Cooper box set