The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)



Director:     Henry Hathaway.

Starring:     Gary Cooper (MacGregor), Franchot Tone, Richard Cromwell, Sir Guy Standing, C. Aubrey Smith, Monte Blue, Kathleen Burke, Noble Johnson, Lumsden Hare, Akim Tamiroff, J. Carrol Naish, Douglass Dumbrille, Myrna Loy (as a native Pathan temptress).


This is a swashbuckler.  Two soldier buddies in the 41st Lancers aid a son struggling with his domineering father, who happens to be the commander of the outfit.  The movie plays out against frontier battles in northwest India between Britain's Bengal Lancers and Afghan guerrillas.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Army headquarters.  Northwest Frontier.  The British army says they in India protecting 300 million Indians.  The 41st Bengal Lancers are stationed at the "pass".  They have been chasing Mohammed Khan for fifteen years and are still trying to draw him down from the hills. Colonel Stone, the commanding officer, has given strict orders not to return fire.  But the Scottish-Canadian MacGregor decides on his own to fight back when the rifle fire of Khan's men kills the officer on horse-back next to him.  His men are able to push through the lines of Khan and sent the enemy fleeing.  Of course, the rebellious MacGregor gets a dressing down from the overly-strict Col. Stone. 

MacGregor heads down to the train station to welcome two new officer replacements: Lt. Forsythe from another unit and the brand new Lt. Stone from Sandhurst military college.  Lt. Stone is the son of the colonel, but his all-business father has taken the stance that he will show no favoritism to his son.  This makes it appear as if the father does not even care for his own son.  Lt. Forsythe is a very cocky soldier with a wry sense of humor and he loves to tease MacGregor.

MacGregor and Forsythe and their men cross the border where they run into Barrett in disguise who has infiltrated Khan's forces.  Barrett tells MacGregor that Khan is trying to stir up all the border tribes and get them to unite against the British.  Lt. Stone had to stay behind because he of his combat inexperience.  This makes the young lieutenant very angry and he speaks with his father about it.  The lieutenant finds out quickly that it was not his father who sent for him, but Major Hamilton.  The young man leaves very angry at his tight-lipped father.

The Emir of Gopal wants two million rounds of ammunition from the British. The lancers head up to Gopal to talk with the Emir.  They are suspicious that the Emir may be cooperating with Khan, hence the demand for so much ammunition.  Not surprisingly, the Khan is already visiting the Emir.  The lancers are worried that Khan will hijack the ammunition headed for Gopal. 

The lovely Tania talks with Lt. Stone. (She later sends him a note saying that she would love to see him later.)  When the lieutenant meets with her, he is taken captive by Khan's men.  Barrett has also been taken captive and executed.  Khan sends Barrett's dead body tied upright onto a horse into the camp of the lancers.  Lt. Stone is then taken to Mogala to Khan's fortress.  Col. Stone takes the stern attitude that he will not let anyone from his unit try to save his son.  He tells his officers that Khan is deliberately trying to draw the lancers away from their current position.  When MacGregor tells the Colonel that he is going to rescue Lt. Stone anyway, the Colonel charges him with insubordination and has him confined to quarters under the slightly watchful eye of Lt. Forsythe. 

But MacGregor is not going to listen to the Colonel.  He decides to head out and Lt. Forsythe decides to accompany him.  Major Hamilton learns that the two officers have left camp and he informs the Colonel.  MacGregor and Forsythe darken their faces, put on the clothes of Muslim merchants, gain entrance into the fortress and set up their goods to sell.  Tania stops in front of them for a moment and the two lancers worry about whether or not she recognized them.  The men soon find out.  They are taken prisoner and thrown in the cell holding Lt. Stone. 

Khan wants the officers to tell him by what route the ammunition is being taken to Gopal.  To get the information, Khan tortures MacGregor first and then Forsythe, but they refuse to talk and are thrown back into their cell.  Then Lt. Stone comes into the cell standing upright and not look bad at all.  He tells his comrades that he doesn't want to talk about it.  It is apparent that the young lieutenant told Khan what he wanted to know.  When he admits that he told, Stones asks his buddies why should he be tortured to save his father who does not even care for him. 

Khan's men bring in boxes and boxes of ammunition along with machine guns, obviously taken from the supply caravan.  Shortly afterwards, the lancers approach the fortress.  The three captives decide that they have to get out of their cell and help their comrades.  Lt. Forsythe is able to take some bullets from one of the guards and they use the gun powder from the shells to blow the lock on their cell door.  MacGregor grabs a machine gun and provides covering fire for Forsythe.  Then MacGregor takes a torch and throws it onto the ammunition dump even though he is shot in the process.  The ammunition explodes and the adjacent tower comes down on MacGregor and Forsythe.  Lt. Stone gets Forsythe out of the rubble, but MacGregor is already dead.  The damage the officers inflicted, however, helps the lancers enter the fortress and force the surrender of Khan's men. Khan himself tries to escape, but Lt. Stone is able to stab the rebel leader in the back, killing him. 

Back at the lancer camp, Lts. Forsythe and Stone are both given the Distinguished Service Order medal.  MacGregor is posthumously presented with the Victoria Cross. 


A good action flick.  Not that much history here, but it is an entertaining, old-fashioned action movie.  Gary Cooper as MacGregor is his usually a-little-stiff self, but still does a good job.    

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

Britain, from its base in India, fought the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) to extend its rule into Afghanistan.  It also wanted to oppose Russian influence there. (The second war, 1878-80, was a Pyrrhic victory for the British and the third war, 1919, led to Afghan independence.)


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