“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.

Advertisements

“CAPTAIN BLOOD” (1935) Review

“CAPTAIN BLOOD” (1935) Review

Based upon the 1922 novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini, the story of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” centered around an Irish-born physician living in an English town, who finds himself in trouble with the Court of King James II after aiding a wounded friend who had participated in the Mounmouth Rebellion of 1685. The 1935 film, released by Warner Brothers and First National Pictures, featured the first collaboration between stars Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland, and director Michael Curtiz. 

When Jack Warner and studio production chief, first made plans to film Sabatini’s novel, they had planned for British actor, Robert Donat to portray the Irish-born doctor turned slave and pirate. But Donat proved to be unavailable and the then unknown Flynn ended up with the role. As everyone knows, not only did ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” prove to be a hit, the movie made instant stars out of Flynn and De Havilland.

Many years have passed since I last saw ”CAPTAIN BLOOD”. Which would explain why I have never developed any strong feelings for this particular film, in compare to certain other Errol Flynn movies. After watching it recently, my opinion of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” has improved. Somewhat. Basically, I feel that it is a first-rate story filled with excellent characterizations, a strong narrative and some decent action. But I do not know if I can say that I love ”CAPTAIN BLOOD”. The movie is not exactly Flynn, De Havilland and Curtiz at their best.

Once Peter Blood finds himself a slave in Jamaica, he plots with his fellow prisoners to escape the island via a ship. Before he can make his escape, Blood falls in love with his owner – Arabella Bishop, the niece of the planter he and his fellow slave work on. An attack by a Spanish pirate ship allows Blood and his friends to finally make their escape. They form a crew to become one of the most formidable group of pirates in the Caribbean. Blood eventually befriends a French pirate name Levasseur and the two become partners – an act that the Irishman comes to regret. The two eventually come to blows over Arabella, who has been captured by Levasseur. Accompanying Arabella is a royal courtier name Lord Willoughby with some interesting news for Blood.

One problem I have with the film is the lack of balance between the dramatic scenes and the action. Quite frankly,”CAPTAIN BLOOD” came off as a bit too heavy on conversation for a swashbuckler. I realize that screenwriter Casey Robinson was trying to stay faithful to Sabatini’s novel. But I suspect that this attempt may have slightly reduced the movie’s pacing – to its detriment. And most of the action sequences did not strike me as that impressive. Mind you, the sword duel between Blood and a French pirate named Captain Levasseur (portrayed by the always competent Basil Rathbone) over Arabella Bishop, Blood’s owner, struck me as impressive. Well . . . somewhat. Actually, I have seen better swordfights – especially those featured in 1938’s ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” and 1940’s ”THE SEA HAWK”. The most impressive action sequence in the movie featured Blood’s sea battle against two French ships attacking Port Royal in the movie’s finale. I have to give kudos to Curtiz for directing an action sequence that struck me as surprisingly realistic.

Another problem I had with “CAPTAIN BLOOD” was its portrayal of slavery in 17th century Jamaica. I found it amazing that most of the slaves in Port Royal were white. I am well aware that white slaves – or indentured servants – existed throughout the British Empire during that period. And I am also aware that those rebels convicted of treason against King James II during the Monmouth Rebellion, ended up as slaves in the Caribbean. But what happened to the black slaves in this movie? Jamaica and other British controlled islands in the Caribbean had received more African slaves than any other part of the Empire during the late 17th and 18th centures. I did managed to spot one or two amongst the slaves on Colonel Bishop’s estate. And he did have house slaves that were black. But at least one of them spoke with an American South dialect, prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries. I realize that “CAPTAIN BLOOD” is a Hollywood film. But since most of the movie managed to either be historically correct . . . or at least close to being accurate, why did it fall short in its portrayal of Caribbean slavery?

On the other hand, ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” featured some excellent dramatic scenes. And the best of the bunch featured Flynn. I was especially impressed by the scene that featured Blood and his fellow prisoners being sentenced to slavery in Jamaica by a very hostile judge, Blood’s hostile reaction to being purchased by Arabella, his discovery of the body of his friend Jeremy Pitt, the fallout between Blood and Lavasseur, the revelation by a royal courtier that the hated James II had been replaced by his daughter and son-in-law – Mary and William of Orange, and especially the last fight between him and Arabella before she is sent ashore to Port Royal near the end of the film. And Flynn was ably assisted in these scenes by De Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Ross Alexander and Henry Stephenson.

Speaking of the film’s performances, ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” possessed a number of good, solid performances by a supporting cast that included Guy Kibbee, Forrester Harvey, Frank McGlynn Sr. and Robert Barrat, who portrayed members of Blood’s crew. Also portraying a member of Blood’s crew was Ross Alexander. Many critics have claimed that if Alexander had not comitted suicide over a year following the movie’s release, he might have become an acclaimed screen actor. Quite frankly, I do not know. Alexander’s performance in “CAPTAIN BLOOD” seemed personable and competent, but I never really saw the magic. Although the cast members portraying Blood’s crew had their moments of humor, the prize for the funniest performance belonged to – in my opinion – George Steed as Jamaica’s Governor Steed, who suffered from a gouty foot.

Basil Rathbone only appeared in a handful of scenes in “CAPTAIN BLOOD” and was clearly not the main villain. But his performance as the lusty and avaricious Captain Levasseur was extremely memorable. More importantly, his Levasseur struck me as more human than his roles in both “ROBIN HOOD” and “THE MARK OF ZORRO”. I wish I could say the same about Lionel Atwill. Mind you, his performance as the brutal Colonel Bishop was solid, but there were times when it came across as unoriginal.

Olivia DeHavilland was superb in her first leading role as Arabella, the brutal Colonel Bishop’s niece and Peter Blood’s owner. Her character did not have a great impact upon the plot – aside from her capture by Levasseur leading to a duel between him and Blood. But her Arabella was no limpid damsel-in-distress, whose only role was to be the object of Blood’s desire. DeHavilland projected a great deal of energy, fire and wit into her performance. No wonder she and Flynn had such a strong screen chemistry.

But no matter how good the cast was, the real star behind “CAPTAIN BLOOD” was the Tasmanian born Errol Flynn. Jack Warner and Hal Wallis took a great chance in casting him in the lead, considering that he was a virtual unknown. And that gamble paid off tenfold. This is the fifth Flynn movie I have watched in great detail. To this day, I do not understand the old prevailing view that he was not much of an actor. Peter Blood was his first major role as a film actor and if I may be frank, Flynn gave one hell of a performance. Aside from a hammy moment when Blood finally declare his love for Arabella, Flynn’s acting was very natural. And like DeHavilland, he portrayed his character with a great deal of fire, energy and more importantly, anger. Flynn’s portrayal of the hot-headed Peter Blood is probably one of the better debut performances in Hollywood films.

Other reviewers of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” have commented favorably on Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Honestly? I did not find it that memorable. In fact, I cannot remember anything about it. Just a lot of horns and strings. I am not carelessly putting down Korngold’s talent, because I was very impressed by his “ROBIN HOOD”score of three years later. I simply cannot say the same about his “CAPTAIN BLOOD” score. However, I was very impressed by the movie’s cinematography shot by Warner Brothers’ own Ernest Haller and Hal Mohr. I have mixed feelings about Anton Grot’s art direction. Granted, I was impressed by the sets for the Port Royal sequences. But the art design for the English sequences resembled fake set designs for a play and the sets for Blood’s ship lacked the claustrophobic feel of a real ship.

Granted, “CAPTAIN BLOOD” is not perfect. It has flaws that include an uneven pacing, questionable action sequences and an unmemorable score – at least for me. In fact, I have seen better blockbusters that starred Errol Flynn during that period. But I must admit that it is still a first-rate movie, even after 75 years. And it made for a dazzling debut for the Australian actor.