Tuesday, September 05, 2006
They Went Hathaway
By Edward Copeland
As one of the lesser-known but still solid directors in Hollywood history, Henry Hathaway was best known for his work in Westerns such as How the West Was Won, The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit, but his filmography was much more eclectic than that including the stiff Prince Valiant and Kiss of Death, the film that introduced the world to Richard Widmark and his Oscar-nominated cackling killer Tommy Udo. Hathaway only received one Oscar nomination for directing in his career and I finally caught up recently with that 1935 film, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and more than 70 years later, it still holds up.
Bengal Lancer, which also received an Oscar nomination for best picture, tells the story of three British soldiers serving with the 41st Bengal Lancers in India, not that any of the soldiers (played by Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone and Richard Cromwell) actually sound British. Cooper is, well, Cooper, though in this movie he goes by the name of Lt. Alan McGregor. In some ways, Cooper reminds me of Kevin Costner with more talent. When he gets really good material to work with as in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or High Noon, he rises to the occasion. Bengal Lancer is good, but this isn't an actor's movie so not much is demanded of Cooper. Tone, who was nominated the same year for his role in Mutiny on the Bounty and always struck me as a stiff most of the time, gives one of his best performances as the smug Lt. Forsythe. Of the Tone performances I've seen, I think this stands with Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo as his best work. Cromwell does what he can, but he's saddled with the role of the shallow Lt. Donald Stone, son of the regiment's commanding colonel. He's forced to play brash and naive, often turning between the two at a moment's notice and he doesn't quite pull that off.
Sir Guy Standing plays Colonel Stone and he gets some of the film's best moments, actingwise. The scene where he discusses his son with Cooper exhibits damn good acting.
However, what makes The Lives of a Bengal Lancer hold up is not the acting but the action. The Lancers are trying to hold off Muslim invaders and when one of them is captured, they defy orders to try to rescue him and are captured and tortured.
An interesting side note: Inflation must affect Islam as well. When one Muslim is sentenced to death and taunted with a pig, it's mentioned that he wants to stay pure so he can get his "48 maidens from Allah." I guess 24 extra virgins 60-some years later isn't that steep a rise in the cost of dying.
The movie manages to build some nice suspense in several sequences, especially as the Lancers scheme to escape the fortress of Mohammed Khan (Douglas Dumbrille) where they find themselves detained. The film also does something rarely seen in action films made these days — it dares not to let all of its heroes survive.
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer definitely deserves a look if you've got some spare time. For a 71-year-old actioner, it's stood the test of time well.