Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

In 1937, Adolf Hitler told British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax that his favorite movie was Henry Hathaway’s Lives of a Bengal Lancer, an American film that romanticized the British Empire in India.

“I like this film because it depicted a handful of Britons holding a continent in thrall,” he supposedly said. “That is how a superior race must behave and the film is a compulsory viewing for the SS.”

I have not checked into the authenticity of the quote, and for all I know it could be as spurious as all of the fake Lincoln and Jefferson quotes that pollute social media. Just because a fascist dictator speaks positively of a Hollywood movie doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a fascist movie. The only thing that really matters is whether or not the movie itself promotes a reactionary and racist ideology.

So is Lives of a Bengal Lancer a fascist movie?

Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a full throated defence of British Imperialism, probably the closest thing you can get to a Rudyard Kipling story in a Hollywood movie. It’s also an important cultural bridge between the British and the American Empire, at times even playing like a first draft for John Ford’s later film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. It’s no accident that Hathaway cast the American actors Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, and Richard Cromwell as junior officers in their 20s and 30s and the British actors C. Aubrey Smith and Guy Standing as senior officers approaching their retirement. The upstart Germans should have taken note. The film celebrates the passing of the imperial torch from the United Kingdom to the United States, not to the Third Reich.

British imperialism, however, and German fascism are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary. They’re first cousins, as the recent discovery of photos of King Edward VII teaching the 7-year-old Queen Elizabeth the Nazi salute demonstrates. Lives of a Bengal Lancer is shockingly up front in its embrace, not only of white supremacy, but of Anglo Saxon supremacy. Since Adolf Hitler’s long-term goal was to take Eastern Europe away from the “inferior Slavic subhumans” as “living space” for the “Aryan race,” the 19th Century “Great Game” between the British and Russian empire easily translates into Nazi propaganda. The “racial other” in Lives of a Bengal Lancer is not a subhuman brute, the way he is in Birth of a Nation. Rather, he is devious, cunning, slippery. His identity is fluid, difficult to pin down. Hathaway’s Anglo Saxon supermen, by contrast, are simple, one-dimensional, honorable soldiers. Their loyalties are never in doubt. Lieutenant Donald Stone, the only “weak link” in the 41st Bengal Lancers Regiment, the son of their commanding officer, fails precisely when he lets personal resentment over being rejected by his harsh, disciplinarian father get the best of him, when his youth and lack of a fully mature identity as an officer of the crown put a target on his back.

Lives of a Bengal Lancer begins on northwest frontier of India during the British Raj, what today we would call “the tribal areas of Pakistan.” Lieutenant Alan McGregor, Gary Cooper, and his commanding officer Colonel Hendrickson are leading a patrol through the mountains. Even though they are getting sniped at from the surrounding ridges, Hendrickson has strict orders from Colonel Stone not to return fire for they are, in fact, bait, the objective being to lure the rebel leader Mohammed Khan out into the open. After Hendrickson is killed, however, McGregor leads a frontal attack, which puts the snipers to flight. Colonel Stone appoints McGregor to take Hendrickson’s place.

“You didn’t know about my orders,” he says.

“But I did know about your orders,” McGregor responds.

Stone is angry, but McGregor still gets his promotion. In one deft stroke, Hathaway has established McGregor’s character. He’s a real man, up front, aggressive, forthright. When he disobeys an order, he doesn’t pussyfoot around. He comes right out and says it. Shortly after his promotion, McGregor is ordered to pick up two new replacement soldiers from Delhi at the frontier’s train station, Lieutenant Forsythe, a cocky young dandy played by the American movie idol Franchot Tone, the Ryan Gosling of the 1930s, and the above mentioned Lieutenant Donald Stone, a 21-year-old greenhorn straight out of military school played by Richard Cromwell. John Ford fans take note. Forsythe and Stone bear such a striking resemblance to Lieutenant Flint Cohill and Lieutenant Ross Pennell from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that it almost makes me want to dig up his corpse and sue it for plagiarism.

In spite of their initial hostility, Forsythe and McGregor eventually hit it off, two fun loving frat bros together on the northwest frontier of the British Raj. Stone is more problematic. His very obvious American accent indicatea that he was brought up, neither on in the British Raj, nor in England itself. His father Colonel Stone and his American mother were divorced when he was a child, and he and the Colonel barely know each other. Supposedly he graduated from Sandhurst but there’s nothing of the spit and polished young British officer about him. On the contrary, he’s an American preppy, Lieutenant Ross Pennell from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Donald Stone, in fact, might best be thought of as an allegorical representation of the United States as seen by the British Empire. He’s a young pup who needs to step up and learn how to run an empire.

Next we are introduced to the film’s two main villains, the above-mentioned Mohammed Khan, and Tania Volkanskaya, a Russian spy in Khan’s service, a white woman who’s crossed the color line, the “orientalized” Russian of the Nazi, and Anglo Saxon supremacist imagination. Khan, an Oxbridge educated member of the Indian, Muslim elite, effortlessly slips in and out of both a western, and eastern identity. You might say he’s the film’s Osama Bin Laden, but he’s a lot more fun at parties, enjoying the company, and rivalry of Colonel Stone and Lieutenant McGregor. Not incidentally, he’s played by Douglass Dumbrille, a white, not an Indian actor. Tania Volkanskaya, in turn, is played by Kathleen Burke, an Anglo American, not a Russian actress. As evidenced by the way Forsythe and McGregor infiltrate Khan’s fortress by donning black face, or, to be more specific, brown face, the Anglo Saxon elite is allowed to impersonate Indian Muslims for the good of the empire. An Indian Muslim, on the other hand, or a Russian, who can pass as an Anglo Saxon is a mortal threat who must be destroyed. If Lives of a Bengal Lancer was popular in Nazi Germany, then it’s probably because Anglo Saxon anxiety over being diluted by Indian or Russian blood translated so easily into Nazi anxiety about “the eternal Jew.” A threat to the purity of the ruling class is a threat to the empire itself.

Mohammed Khan’s plan is to lure the 41st Bengal Lancers up into the frontier near his stronghold, where he’s stockpiled 2 million rounds of ammunition and a cache of heavy weapons. Colonel Stone’s son is key. Tania Volkanskaya has already sounded out the young man’s weaknesses on the train from Delhi. Khan knows about his American mother, his quarrel with his father, and his lack of a firm identity or commitment to the empire. On a hunting expedition on Khan’s estates — Colonel Stone is trying to play Khan even while Khan is trying to play him — Tania Volkanskaya seduces Lieutenant Stone and facilitates his kidnapping. Donald Stone is knocked out, tied up, and brought to Khan’s mountain fortress, but his father is not only too smart to take the bait. He’s too “hard.” Colonel Stone, like any good British imperialist — or any Nazi — puts the state above his own blood. If Donald Stone has to die in excruciating pain for the good of the British Empire, so be it. If a few hundred thousand young Germans have to die to take Stalingrad, so be it.

But while Colonel Stone might be proto-fascist, Lives of a Bengal Lancer is not. The North American Lieutenant McGregor, has other plans. He and Forsythe infiltrate Khan’s mountain stronghold in an attempt to rescue the Colonel’s son. Colonel Stone, of course, half suspects they will. Otherwise, he would have thrown McGregor in the brig rather than put him under the custody of the 20-something Forthsythe, already McGregor’s best friend, and cocky mannerism notwithstanding, thoroughly in awe of the rugged older man. You can guess the ending. Forthsythe and McGregor are captured. They’re tortured, but they not only take it like men, they take it like gentlemen, with Forsythe reciting poetry from memory in the jail cell after they’ve both had bamboo shoots jammed up their finger nails and set on fire. Stone cracks under torture — he’s still the weak link — but it doesn’t matter. Forthsythe and McGregor, torture or no torture, are up to the job, breaking out of their cell with a clever trick, setting Khan’s ammo dump on fire, and shooting it out with half the rebel Muslim army. McGregor goes down in a blaze of glory, inspiring young Donald Stone, at last, to be a real man.

Lieutenant Stone kills the villainous Mohammed Khan with his bare hands. The Muslim tribesman, now without a leader, immediately surrender. I suppose Hitler was too clueless to see the implicit critique of his own “fuhrer principle.” In any event, while Lives of a Bengal Lancer may be racist, imperialist propaganda, it’s not really fascist propaganda. It’s close but no cigar. It’s also a well-made, entertaining movie, far better than Rambo, American Sniper, or any of its later Hollywood imitators. Just how derivative Stallone’s First Blood is becomes clear when Gary Cooper picks up a heavy Vickers machine gun off its tripod and carries it through Mohammed Khan’s camp with his bare hands, the Anglo American imperial superman in all his muscle bound glory. Bradley Cooper couldn’t hold Gary Cooper’s ammunition belt.

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