HENRY HATHAWAY FOR THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935)
The competition (Cliff: 4 for 4!)
John Ford for The Informer
Michael Curtiz for Captain Blood (write-in)
Frank Lloyd for Mutiny on the Bounty
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Henry Hathaway’s nomination for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a textbook case of one of the Academy’s major weaknesses: the prizing of satisfying, middle-of-the-road filmmaking over distinctive stylistic statements. Fitting neatly into the colonial adventure mode of Beau Geste and Gunga Din (knowing what it is, the film calls out Rudyard Kipling by name in the first few minutes), the film lacks the operatic stakes and the rowdy energy, respectively, of its two most direct companions. Indeed, Hathaway tones down many of the characteristics that distinguish the best-remembered directors of the genre striking a middle path between excesses of characterization (Hawks), action (Curtiz) and design (DeMille) and leaving a solid if unexceptional action adventure movie.
The trade-off, though, is that this conservative approach paid off lavishly in terms of the film’s Oscar success. With eight nominations in total*, tying it with Best Picture winner Mutiny on the Bounty for the lead, Bengal Lancer is most accomplished entry in a group that usually only flirted with a craft nomination or two. It’s also one of only two such films, alongside the same year’s Captain Blood (if you count writ-in nominations), to score in the Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay categories. In a way, Hathaway’s Bengal Lancer is official mirror-image of Curtiz’s pulpier and more entertaining Blood, countering Warner Bros.’ economical filmmaking with the thoroughly elaborate production value of a premium Paramount release. Ironically, it’s also the reliable studio hand’s only film to receive major Oscar attention, though a few years later Spawn of the North would net the first regularly issued Academy Award for Special Effects and eventually True Grit would earn John Wayne a Best Actor award in probably one of the most breathlessly anticipated (at least according to the telecast’s ratings) Oscar wins in history.
I don’t want to give the impression, however, that there is no there there in Hathaway’s filmmaking. Somewhat unfortunately, Hathaway’s directing prowess shines through in the context of the film’s most problematic aspect. As with most of classic Hollywood’s tales of adventure in foreign lands, the narrative is replete with orientalism, brownface (both as a casting choice and a plot point) and casual Western values. “Why do they have to speak so many languages in India?” one of the main characters complains, though of course the villainous Indian ruler is Oxford-educated and his daughter, the obligatory feint at a love interest, speaks perfectly Americanized English. (Cooper’s similarly colloquial American-ness, flimsily accommodated by the explanation that he’s from Montreal, manages to condescend toward the British as well). Visually, however, Hathaway channels British India’s array of distinctive iconography for effective storytelling throughout the film. In fact, some of the film’s most eloquent, if problematic, imagery comments on the dynamic of British colonial rule. The film opens with a routine expository map of the Indian subcontinent, which dissolves into the same map, a floor-length wall hanging in the background of British colonial headquarters. Later, in shot worthy of Satyajit Ray for its poetic pithiness, we behold a diminutive Taj Mahal in the distance, framed underneath the supports of a modern bridge with a locomotive chugging imperiously overhead. The climactic action scene (and its swift denouement back at the base), an impressive and concisely edited (by Ellsworth Hoagland) expression of monolithic British strength versus a chaotic Indian resistance, is a logistical triumph of quality filmmaking that clinches Clem Beauchamp and Paul Wing’s victory for Best Assistant Director (the film’s sole win).
Beyond his visual acumen, Hathaway manages a solidly produced feature. The sound design throughout the film, courtesy of Franklin Hansen, is surprisingly textured with fitting ambient sounds, while Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson evoke a mingling of the uniform regimentation of the British Service with markers of the film’s specifically Indian setting. Hathaway runs a tight ship tonally, Hathaway wrings some decent comedy early on and affecting drama later from the three main performances, anchored by a typically laconic Cooper and supported by a fresh-faced Richard Cromwell and a jocular Franchot Tone (a departure from the dramatic turn in the same year’s Mutiny on the Bounty, which earned him a Best Actor nomination). Hathaway lets Cooper be Cooper (especially in a funny bit of shadowplay lampooning his superior officer), gets Tone to mug for the camera very well in a snake charming scene, and thoughtfully depicts pretty boy Cromwell’s disturbing disintegration after a truly haunting ordeal. All this despite the fact that the three characters aren’t inherently very colorful or memorable; Achmed Abdullah, Waldemar Young, et al’s nod for Best Screenplay is the one nomination I find truly suspect, though the triangular camaraderie makes a lot of sense for this kind of narrative—it likely borrows from the original Beau Geste and pretty clearly serves as the template for Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s expansion of Rudyard Kipling’s original poem for Gunga Din. Overall, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a crisp and competent quasi-genre film, if not the most remarkable—a clear candidate for the Oscars if ever there was one.
1935 was the last year of the Academy’s four-year experiment in a smaller field before reverting permanently to the five-nominee field. The award went to all-time Best Director champion John Ford, earning the first of four career victories for his stunningly Expressionist rendition of The Informer (also Marty’s rivalfor the most Spartan production value among winners). Hathaway’s nomination, however, had much more in common with the two other unsuccessful nominees, Frank Lloyd for the Best Picture-winning Mutiny on the Bounty and write-in candidate Michael Curtiz for the aforementioned Captain Blood. Hathaway’s work contains elements of both his fellow nominees’ films, balancing a bit of the wall-to-wall swashbuckling in Curtiz’s film with a whiff of Lloyd’s intense study of the British military’s notoriously disciplinarian mentality. Consequently, his directorial style stands about midway between Curtiz’s brisk muscularity and Lloyd’s intense restraint. I think this is overall quite a worthy slate of nominees, though if they’d jumped to five nominees a year earlier, I’d enjoy seeing George Stevens for Alice Adams or Mark Sandrich for Top Hat (or, in a really perfect world, James Whale for Bride of Frankenstein) join the list. My vote goes to Curtiz for his ripping yarn—truly one of the most pleasing movies to watch ,and an exemplar of the kind of unabashedly talented genre filmmaking that I wish the Academy, then as now, would recognize more often.
*seven, depending on how you count Assistant Director