Sunday 19 May 2013

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

Gary Cooper, considered quite the dish of the day
I was recommended this film by my grandmother Mopsy, who saw it shortly after it came out.  It clearly had a fairly broad appeal, as it was also enjoyed by Adolf Hitler, who apparently saw it thrice, and who was in most important respects unlike Mopsy in character.  I fear its merits have fallen away somewhat as the years went by.  Moustaches and European domination of ostensibly lesser countries have both gone out of fashion, and talking pictures have increased their scope and flair.

It has the flavour of a war film, though I'm fairly sure we weren't actually at war with India in the 1930s.  Our handsome and moustached hero (the very famous Gary Cooper, who I always thought was a dancer, but apparently wasn't) and his comrades have to fight the handsome and moustached villain, Mohammed Khan, whose name alone will tell you why this film is unlikely to be remade.

The villainous Mohammed Khan
In my last update, 'Metropolis' (1927), the silent film reached its full extent, a vast, visual feast, a story told in pictures; it's rather distressing to find out the state of cinema these eight years later.  Now that money and time are poured into audio recording, the visuals seem to matter far less, and long, static dialogues take place in plain offices.  Perhaps it's just that 'Metropolis' was highly stylised, while this is much more naturalistic, but that too is probably a consequence of sound-recording, as something so extreme as 'Metropolis' with dialogue would seem bizarre, even comic.  Either way, on all fronts, 'The Lives of a Bengal Lancer' seems a far less impressive, less cinematic way of telling a story.

Oh, the talking scenes are intercut with charges and skirmishes, some high-quality explosions and an extremely dated scene in which the characters have great fun sticking pigs with spears, an effect achieved simply, by having the actors really go out and stab pigs with spears.  This all seemed rather uncharming.  The spectacle is there, but the story, and the drama, is all in the talking.

The playing of a pungi summons a snake, with hillarious consequences
The film isn't without merits, but at each level I find myself thinking it could be better.  The lively banter and camaraderie of the main characters could be even more fun, and the film would be more engaging if it was.  The slight tragedy of the ending could have been richer, less of a footnote.  Far more could have been wrung out of the central conflict: Lieutenant Stone tries in vain to gain some affection from his father, a Colonel, who doesn't wish to show favouritism - a thread with no real resolution.

All in all, a bit disappointing.  I was left a little concerned for the fate of the talking pictures, wondering whether the move toward dialogue would present a string of wordy disappointments.  Thankfully the three films I watched thereafter, from the forties, fifties and sixties respectively, were all excellent, and have together restored my faith in the talkies.  Unless calamity befalls me, they'll be the next three posts.

I can't truly recommend this film, but as a Briton neither can I fail to advertise a chance to spend your money with a multinational corporation.

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