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“Devotion and duty come first”

Escapism and some much needed Christian wisdom can be found in a hit movie—from 1935 and starring Gary Cooper.

Detail from a poster for the 1935 hit movie "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" (Image: Screenshot)

Newspapers in June 1931 carried an announcement from cinematographer Ernest Schoedsack, who is best known today for his work on King Kong. He was about to sail to India to film location footage for the Paramount production of Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which was inspired by the memoirs of British cavalry officer Francis Yeats-Brown. The celebrated “camera-explorer” announced he’d received “bales of applications for membership in the expedition” and “a steady stream of letters from adventurous souls over the country.” They were ready to haul cargo, fetch luggage, do anything to be included. “Some,” Schoedsack noted, “offer to work for nothing.”

No wonder. In June 1931 the U.S. was mired in the Great Depression. Countless Americans loved the idea: take ship for exotic shores.

Sail away: easy to sympathize with those “adventurous souls” of ’31. After everything our nation’s been through lately—political polarization at home, war and the threat of war abroad, a pandemic that wore us down, a general feeling that what we hold precious is under threat—a quick escape to distant realms sounds mighty good. Bengal Lancer fills this longing even today—but it also does much more. Director Henry Hathaway offers guidance, in this film from long ago, for how we just might rise to the challenge of this 21st century of ours.

The action opens on British India’s northwest frontier, where the 41st Bengal Lancer regiment guards the empire against uprisings by Afridi tribesmen along the Afghan-Indian border. 2nd Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), fresh out of Sandhurst military college, has just arrived for his first deployment. He’s resentful of his father the regimental commander (played with suitable hauteur by Sir Guy Standing), a by-the-book martinet who treats his son coldly to avoid what the colonel calls “any sign of favoritism.” Young Lieutenant Stone sulks and gets drunk.

Attempting to mentor the youthful newcomer is 1st Lieutenant Alan McGregor (Gary Cooper). A good-hearted veteran of countless frontier skirmishes, McGregor clashes frequently with the regimental hierarchy because of his blunt impulsive temperament. Avowedly unintellectual, he declares, “I came into this outfit to get some action.” He lacks patience for orders unless they propel him into a fight.

McGregor feuds with tentmate 2nd Lieutenant John Forsythe (Franchot Tone). Urbane, witty, a champagne-sophisticate of cosmopolitan tastes, Forsythe expends considerable energy mocking McGregor. (Watch for a gag-gone-wrong involving a flute and a king cobra.)

In fact, we come to realize early in the story, all three of our heroes have a lot to learn. Stone, barely out of his teens, loses sight of duty and discipline. McGregor keeps quarreling with his superior officers when he can’t have what he wants. And Forsythe, rather than help his squad-mates, at first simply looks on with a detached and superior smile. The three compete and get in each other’s way, at polo practice, a boar-hunt (“pigsticking”), even the washtub (who gets to go first after a long dusty day in the sun).

Things get serious when the inexperienced Stone attends a diplomatic reception and is romantically smitten by the dazzling Tania Volkanskaya (Kathleen Burke). Turns out she’s a Russian spy in league with the film’s villain, the emir Mohammed Khan (Douglas Dumbrille). Defying regimental prohibitions against leaving the safety of the camp, Stone slips away for a midnight tryst.

Instead of kisses, a kidnapping. The youthful lieutenant is trussed by tribesmen, then spirited to captivity in Mohammed Khan’s fortress far beyond the reach of the Raj. The emir hopes Stone’s father will dispatch the regiment to rescue his son, thereby exposing a vital ammunition convoy to attack. The stern colonel won’t budge. He has his orders—guard the convoy—and he obeys them.

Outraged at the commander’s apparent lack of concern for his own son, the always-impulsive McGregor confronts regimental adjutant Major Hamilton (C. Aubrey Smith, a stalwart of imperial-era films like The Four Feathers and China Seas). Hamilton tries to explain how the commander sees things. Colonel Stone loves his son but duty and devotion to the regiment come first. “It’s men like him,” declares Hamilton with fierce pride, “that have made British India.”

Too angry to listen, McGregor decides on an unauthorized solo rescue mission. Forsythe dislikes the scheme but tags along. Disguised as turbaned Afghan merchants, they join a camel caravan traversing the Khyber Pass.

The disguised lancers reach the fortress and talk their way into the emir’s audience chamber. Things seem promising. They bob and bow, display their rugs, improvise in passable Urdu a sales pitch: Yeh syrf panj sau rupiyah. Mecca se hai, Mecca—“Only five hundred rupees. These are from Mecca. Mecca!” Mohammed Khan listens smiling, then says in English: “Come, come, gentlemen. It’s not every day two British officers prostrate themselves before a poor border chieftain.” Before guards drag away the unmasked duo, Forsythe mutters a querulous complaint to his partner: “I told you this Mardi Gras would be a washout.”

The pair are reunited with young Stone in the emir’s prison. Subjected to interrogation and torture, they spend days crammed in a dank cell. For lack of other distractions they watch the meanderings of a couple of noxious insects they name Mohammed Khan and Tania. “A few more days of this,” observes Forsythe, witty as ever, “and we’ll be going around in circles like those cockroaches.”

Captivity wears them down. Stone complains about his dad. Restless McGregor slugs him and tells him to shut up. Forsythe mocks McGregor.

But the film pivots in its mood when Forsythe begins to recite poetry, first just to himself, then with greater volume and confidence. The verses are by Victorian patriot-poet William Ernest Henley:

Ever the faith endures,
England, my England—
Take and break us: we are yours,
England, my own!…
Death is death; but we shall die
To the song on your bugles blown,
To the stars on your bugles blown!

Suddenly their squabbling seems small. They cease their bickering, plot an escape, stage a crash-out from their cell.

Gunfire; explosions. With death close at hand—a risk they face gallantly—McGregor recalls bits of Major Hamilton’s speech: “Devotion and duty come first.” It’s enough to see them through.

Yet at a cost. The three defeat the emir’s schemes and retrieve the unit’s honor. But one of the trio (I won’t say who, so as not to spoil it for you) sacrifices his life to save his friends, the regiment, and the Empire.

During the long lockdowns of COVID, many of us faced isolation and lack of community. This movie reminds us how to break out of the loneliness of self-absorption: self-giving for the sake of something larger than oneself; quelling personal desires and personal complaints for the sake of a common good.

“Take and break us: we are yours,” Lieutenant Forsythe says. And so should every Catholic pray, in the presence of Christ at Mass—Christ, Son of God, whose body was broken for us in the Eucharist of the Cross.

Without ever referring explicitly to dogma, this movie succeeds in portraying what Christian life can look like. The next time you’re searching for a family film, try Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

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About David Pinault 5 Articles
David Pinault is emeritus professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University. His publications include The Crucifix on Mecca's Front Porch: A Christian's Companion for the Study of Islam (2018) and the novel Providence Blue: A Fantasy Quest (2021), both published by Ignatius Press.


  1. As a soldier of 28 years, this is one of my favorites. As for Covid? No one was ever “locked down”, we were all free to travel, visit, enjoy our great land. We were locked out instead, locked out of schools, churches and other important places. But we were not locked out of big box stores. So to compare honor discovered, maturity in thoughts and action learned, and pride in being a soldier to COVID’s cowardly and politically correct reactions is a weak and bitter embrace..

    • I too thought the Covid analogy was weird at best. Small businessmen suffered economic ruin because of the pointless lockdowns. Many sick and elderly died alone, instead of with family. No one else suffered anything. Where I live, in rural Ohio, we ignored the mandates completely.

  2. Thank you for that clear and enjoyable review of a movie oldie. It was much more readable than the ridiculous reviews by Steven G.
    It surprises me now that “it” is over how many people are claiming they never succumbed to the virus hysteria. My wife and I were shunned by many, cancelled by others and even thrown out of stores but stuck it out to remain mRNA free to this day. Compared to combat, well, there’s no comparison. For our nation, the Church and the world, it was not our finest hour.

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  1. Escapism—and Much-Needed Christian Wisdom—in a Movie from 1935: Watching Lives of a Bengal Lancer. – Via Nova

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