Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

“DEVIL AND THE DEEP” (1932) Review

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“DEVIL AND THE DEEP” (1932) Review

I am not one of those movie lovers who seemed to limit my selection of films to one particular genre or period in filmaking. Nor do I regard films from one particular era to be superior to another. I either enjoy an individual film or I do not.

Recently, I watched the 1932 melodrama called “DEVIL AND THE DEEP”. The movie featured the screen debut of Charles Laughton as a submarine commander who expresses jealousy toward any man who pays attention to his long suffering wife. It also starred Tallulah Bankhead as the long suffering wife and the commander’s new executive officer, who harbors feelings for the wife.

The movie begins with Commander Charles Sturm harboring jealous suspicions of a romance between his wife Diana and Lieutenant Jaeckel, a young officer aboard his submarine. Sturm’s suspicions are baseless, since Jaeckel’s only interest in Diana is to offer her friendship. But Sturm has him transferred with a mark on his record. After Sturm indulges in a fit of jealous rage, Diana hits the streets of a North African port city during a festival and encounters another officer, who turns out to be Lieutenant Sempter, Jaeckel’s replacement. Without bothering to tell Sempter her true identity, Diana drifts into a one night stand with him. The following day, Sempter pays a call to his new commander and discovers that the latter’s wife is the same woman with whom he had a sexual tryst. Worse, Sturm immediately becomes aware that the pair knows each other . . . and plot revenge against them.

I have only been able to find a mere handful of reviews for the movie, including one written by The New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall. I was surprised by the reviews I had written. Or perhaps I should have just tolerated it. After all, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion about any work of art. The thing is . . . I do not agree with those reviews I have read. Well . . . I did come across one review that came close to how I felt. In my opinion, “DEVIL AND THE DEEP” is a piece of shit. I believe it is truly awful and one of the worst movies I have seen from the Pre-Code era.

Before I dump any further negative adjectives in this review, I will reveal what I liked about “DEVIL AND THE DEEP”. I liked Charles Lang’s cinematography, which contributed a great deal to the movie’s slightly exotic atmosphere. This was especially apparent in the street scene in which Diana and Sempter first met. Bernard Herzbrun’s art direction also added to the film’s look. I also found Travis Benton’s costume designs for Tallulah Bankhead very attractive . . . especially her evening gowns. The movie benefited from one last virtue – namely Cary Grant’s performance. The Bristol-born actor first arrived in Hollywood in 1931. He made his first eight films in the year 1932. “DEVIL AND THE DEEP” proved to be his fifth film. Fortunately, he managed to give a natural, yet subtle performance as the young naval officer determined to befriend Diana Sturm, before his character is permanently shuffled off screen.

But Cary Grant, Travis Benton, Charles Land and Bernard Herzbrun were not able to save this film for me. “DEVIL AND THE DEEP” was based upon Maurice Larrouy’s novel, “Sirenes et Tritons”. In the hands of a first-rate screenwriter and director, it could have been an interesting character drama. Unfortunately, Paramount Studios put this film into the hands of screenwriter Benn Levy and director Marion Gering, the movie proved to be melodramatic drivel.

One of the problems with “DEVIL AND THE DEEP” was the writing. The movie never indicated for which country Commander Sturm and Lieutenants Sempter and Jaeckel served. One could assumed they all served the Royal Navy, but due to the mixture of accents – including a French one belonging to a crewman standing guard on the quay – I am at a loss. And is it really possible for the commanding officer’s wife to board his ship without his knowledge or permission? I find that hard to believe . . . even for 1932. And how on earth did Sturm find out about the Arab street vendor who sold a bottle of perfume to Diana, while she was with Sempter? I am also at a loss as to why Diana had failed to tell anyone – including her husband and the naval review court – that she had conducted her brief affair with Sempter without revealing her identity to him? The worst aspect of this story proved to be the final action sequence in which Commander Sturm finally seeks revenge against Diana and Sempter. It was bad enough that Diana managed to board her husband’s submarine without permission or an invitation. But Sturm’s revenge involved sabotaging the submarine in order to kill Diana, Sempter, the crew and himself. The whole sequence was one of the most idiotic action scenes I have viewed on a movie or television screen. If such a scene had ended in modern-day film, the director would have been laughed out of the movie industry. It was so incredibly stupid.

The other aspect of “DEVIL AND THE DEEP” that I found hard to swallow were the performances of the leading cast members. Cary Grant was lucky. He was able to escape in time to preserve his performance. On the other hand, Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper and Charles Laughton were not so lucky. Cooper’s portrayal of Lieutenant Sempter veered between natural and wooden acting. Bankhead’s performance veered between natural and hammy acting that included excessive mannerisms that would have made Bette Davis embarrassed. And Laughton was simply all over the map. I have never been subjected to such hammy acting in my life. There were moments it seemed as if he had forgotten that he was acting in front of a camera, instead of on the stage. Now, these are three actors who managed to give excellent performances over the years. What happened in this film? I blame director Marion Gering, who seemed incapable of handling his cast or bringing out the best in them. I suspect that Cary Grant was able to make his escape before Gering could ruin his performance.

What else can I say about “DEVIL AND THE DEEP”? Nothing . . . really. What else is there to say? I disliked it. Intensely. It proved to be one of the worst movies from the 1930s I have ever seen. Director Marion Gering and screenwriter Benn W. Levy took a first-rate cast and a potentially good story and generally made a mess from it. Pity.

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

 

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

For years, I could never understand Hollywood’s penchant for making so many films about the British Empire during the first half of the 20th century. The film industry had released films about imperial outposts under the control of other countries – like France, Spain and even the United States. But why did they film so many about British Imperialism? One of those films is the 1935 feature,“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”.

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” is based upon the 1930 memoirs of a former British Army officer named Francis Yeats-Brown. But if you are expecting the movie to be a clear adaptation of Yeats-Brown’s book, you are in for a big disappointment. I suspect Paramount Pictures and producer Louis D. Lighton simply used the book’s title and setting – Imperial India – to create their own movie. The movie’s screenwriters, who included Waldemar Young and John L. Balderston, wrote a story about the experiences of three British Army officers serving with the 41st Bengal Lancers on the Northwest Frontier of India. The Scots-Canadian Alan McGregor welcomes two replacements to the 41st Bengal Lancers, the well-born Lieutenant Forsythe and Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), who happens to be the son of the regimental commander, Colonel Tom Stone. McGregor is regarded as some kind of North American savage, who needs to reign in his aggression. Forsythe, who comes from an upper-class family, takes pleasure in mocking McGregor’s Scots-Canadian ancestry. And Stone grows to resent his father, who is determined to treat him coldly in order not to show any partiality.

The three officers, who find themselves sharing the same quarters, slowly develop a grudging friendship. However, when word reaches the regiment from intelligence officer Lieutenant Barrett that a local chieftain named Mohammed Khan might be preparing an uprising against the ruling British, Colonel Stone and his senior officers respond with a display of both friendship and power to the chieftain. Unfortunately, Khan kidnaps Lieutenant Stone, using his mysterious “associate” Tania Volkanskaya (portrayed by a rather unexceptional Kathleen Burke) as bait. While Khan tries to extract vital information about a British ammunition caravan from Lieutenant Stone, the latter’s father refuses to make any attempt to rescue him. Outrage, McGregor and Forsythe go after their younger colleague without orders.

As I had stated earlier, I never could understand Hollywood’s penchant for Imperial British adventures for many years. Until now. I read in a few articles that “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first of its kind in this genre. Well . . . not really. The previous year – 1934 – saw the release of John Ford’s World War I adventure, “THE LOST PATROL”. And the silent era produced such films as 1929’s “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. But it was the box office and critical success of “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” that kicked off a major influx of British Empire movies that clogged the theaters up to the end of the 1930s.

How do I feel about “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”? Well . . . I certainly do not view it as a bad movie. I thought it was pretty decent. There were aspects of it that I found unoriginal – namely the “bromance” between the three major characters and the conflict involving a rebellious chieftain. How can I put this? I have encountered both scenarios before in other British Empire movies. The three buddies? Hmmm . . . the friendship between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone strongly reminded of a similar friendship between the three protagonists in 1939’s “GUNGA DIN”. One could accuse the 1939 film of plagiarizing the 1935 film, since it was released four years later. But the friendship featured in “GUNGA DIN” was based upon Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories called “Soldiers Three”. Who is to say that the movie’s screenwriters used Kipling’s stories as inspiration for the “bromance” in “THE LIVES OF THE BENGAL LANCER”?

Speaking of the movie’s trio, why did Paramount cast three American-born actors in the leading roles? Was there really a serious shortage of British actors? As I recall, Ray Milland was under contract with Paramount around that time. The writers made excuses for Gary Cooper and Richard Cromwell’s characters by portraying the former as a Canadian and the latter as an Anglo-American raised in the U.S. Franchot Tone is another matter. He portrayed the upper-class Englishman, Lieutenant Forsythe. Mind you, I have no problems with the actors’ performances. But I had a difficult time watching a movie set in British India . . . and starring three American actors.

I realize “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first movie to really utilize the whole “local chieftain rebels against British Imperial authorities” into its plot. This was also used in subsequent movies like “GUNGA DIN”, “THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”, and “WEE WILLIE WINKIE”. The problem is that I have seen these movies before I saw the 1935 film. And if I must be brutally honest, the screenwriters and director Henry Hathaway’s use of this trope rather dry and bloodless. Hell, even the torture that Richard Cromwell’s character underwent was handled off screen.

After viewing “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, it occurred to me that the movie’s character studies impressed me a lot more than the “action-filled” subplot. The interactions between the characters – especially between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone – struck me as a lot more interesting and complex. First of all, the screenwriters and Hathaway did an excellent job in portraying the problems (or lack of them) that the three major characters had with the film’s other supporting characters – especially their fellow British officers. I was especially impressed by the film’s portrayal of the officers’ low regard for McGregor’s so-called North American aggression, and with the younger Stone’s cool relationship with his estranged father. I was also impressed by how the three disparate leading characters developed into a strong friendship by the movie’s last act. But the screenwriters and Hathaway are not the only ones who deserve the praise. The movie’s strong characterization would have never worked without the first-rate performances from the cast – especially Gary Cooper as McGregor, Franchot Tone as Forstythe and Richard Cromwell as the younger Stone. The three actors were ably supported by solid performances from Guy Standing, C. Aubrey Smith and Douglass Dumbrille.

Do not get me wrong. I do not dislike “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”. I think it is a pretty solid film. But I find it difficult to believe or accept that it received a total of seven Academy Award nominations. Despite the movie’s strong characterizations and excellent performances, I did not find it particularly exceptional. A part of me believes simply believes it would have been better off as a character study (with a shorter running time) than an epic British Imperial adventure.