Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The British Raj: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

The Movie
   Back to the realm of pith helmetsThe Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935, directed by Henry Hathaway) stars Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, Richard Cromwell, C. Aubrey Smith and Mischa Auer in an adventure tale set in India when still considered part of the British Empire.  Gary Cooper is the lead to the three main players, a brotherhood formed during duty in Bengal.  In the course of duty they confront mortal danger and conflicts of love and duty.
   While this movie is an excellent adventure movie that does more witty exploration of the internal conflicts of soldiers than most of the time, it represents the colonialist perspective of the Empire and has a few strikes against it when viewed from a modern angle.  Reputedly Adolph Hitler's favorite film (I guess one film had to have that unfortunate distinction).  Shot in California, not India. Native Americans were hired from the nearby rez as extras to act as the tribesmen.  Stiff British actors as Arabic chieftans.  But still!  A grand adventure story of its times that has something to say about hard choices and loyalty, when one of the three main characters (whose father happens to be the regimental commander) is taken hostage.

The British Raj
   The protectorate of India under the British Empire (officially the British Indian Empire) began in 1858.  Civil unrest during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 after an extended period under the control of the British East Indies Company led to the takeover of the region by the British Crown.  The Rebellion had several causes; the main cited cause was discontent within the mixed-caste Indian Army.  Also, Maharani Lakshmi Bai, a major leader in the Rebellion, had lost her throne because of British policies.  British reaction to the rebellion, once initiated, was harsh.
Maharani Laxmi Bai
   Under Queen Victoria, the new Empire instituted a system of collaborative rule with local viceroys and leaders.  The governance of India, a large area far from the seat of government of the colonial power, was administered in two modes:    1. British India, where the Queen directly governed the states through her Governor-General, and 2. the Princely States, states ruled with a certain degree by local leaders, but whose foreign, military and selected other affairs were subject to British control.  This second type of government is known as suzerainty, and power was exercised over these 500+ states through Viceroy or the Governor-General.
   The road to the independence of India was a long one.  Mahatma Gandhi began his calling as an agitator for civil and social rights in 1911; India would not gain independence from Britain until 1947 after many failed attempts and tiny steps forward.  Self-rule was finally granted to the region, and it was divided into India and Pakistan.  Burma was also originally a part of the Empire but became independent in 1937.

The Khyber Region
   In Lives, major action takes place in the region referred to as Mogala, 'far north of the Khyber', possibly a reference to the Mughal Empire that previously encompassed Afghanistan.  The Durand line separated Afghanistan from Raj-controlled India (now Pakistan) at the time this movie was made, and was drawn in part through the Khyber region.  This area has been home for many hundreds of years to the Pashtun tribe.
gratuitous Cooper pic
   Prior to the establishment of the British Raj, the British had attempted incursions into the Khyber, but they were repulsed each time.  In the late 1800s, the Durand Line, denoting sphere of influence of each nation, was finally drawn.  Despite the presence of the line, which had been drawn up with both Pashtun and British input, skirmishes continued as one party or the other made mischief in the other's territory.  Border skirmishes and anti-colonialist sentiment form the backdrop of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

Links and Sources
West Bengal, Official Site 
From Empire to Independence, BBC
Durand Line, Wikipedia
British Raj, Wikipedia
Indian Rebellion of 1857, Wikipedia
Jhansi Tourism

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