The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

Dir. Henry Hathaway, 1935

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is exactly the kind of conventional film that falls through the cracks of history. Does it deserve to be better known? Probably not.

Gary Cooper stars as Alan McGregor, an officer of the British army stationed in the Raj, near the border with Afghanistan. After being held responsible for the death of a fellow officer, he is put in charge of two replacement troops, one of which (Richard Cromwell) is the neglected son of the Lancers’ commander (Guy Standing). The tension between McGregor, his subordinates, and his commander draws them into a cross-border conflict with a dangerous Afghan chieftain.

It’s most notable for what it doesn’t do. This film was made in the very first days of the Hays Code, a system of censorship designed to appeal to a more virtuous sense of humanity. The Hays Code is indirectly responsible for almost all of the tropes we associate with Hollywood’s Golden Age, but in 1935 not all of those tropes had developed. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer features no romance subplot, which was unusual then but would have been unthinkable a couple of years later. And the film eschews the typical “happily ever after” conclusion, ending instead with a heroic sacrifice.

The biggest elephant in the room is the brownface. At a certain point, some soldiers disguise themselves as Afghans by darkening their faces, and it’s pretty bad, but considering the time period, it could have been worse. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer isn’t bad, but it’s not particularly good either. Even if you can get past the blatant imperialism, racial insensitivity, and Hollywood unreality, the action is pretty good for the time, but it’s not particularly memorable. There’s nothing really striking about the film itself, and the characters and situations have all been done better than they are here. C

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The Master (2012)

The Master

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012

First of all, whatever you may have heard, this movie has nothing to do with Scientology, so get that out of your head before watching it.

Second, a confession: Before The Master, the only Paul Thomas Anderson films I’d seen were Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, so I don’t know if his two other films have the same problems that I’m going to complain about here, but up to this point I really enjoyed his work. Even when it’s dark and gruesome, Anderson is great at establishing atmosphere and characters, but The Master doesn’t seem to understand what it’s getting at.

The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix at his most unintelligible as Freddie Quell, a reticent Second World War veteran whose talent for making toxic chemical cocktails gets him in enough trouble to cause him to stow away on a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a similarly broken cult leader. Over an uncertain amount of time, Freddie and Dodd build each other up until they no longer need each other.

I really liked Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dodd. One scene that particularly stood out to me was when he makes his “second revelation” in Arizona, and tells his congregation that the visions he had previously called “past lives” were really in their heads. Dodd isn’t just a huckster, he’s an artist who’s become dissatisfied with his creation. It’s an familiar scene for creatives of all stripes.

But I didn’t like Freddie. I like Phoenix, but Anderson’s choices in the portrayal of Freddie are too perplexing to make any sense of. In one scene, Freddie imagines all the women in the congregation naked, but it’s without any context; the guy speaks so little, and upon speaking is so hard to understand, that he’s impossible to relate to or comprehend. Hell, I felt kinda gross after seeing it. This is a beautiful film, mind you, but most of the praise I’ve read for it is based on the substance of the story, not the look or style, so clearly there’s something I’m not getting. C

Paranoid Park (2008)

Paranoid Park

Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2008

One of Gus Van Sant’s smaller films, Paranoid Park is a textbook example of the Instant Period Piece, a work that so perfectly and meticulously captures the era in which it was made that its datedness becomes part of its enjoyability. The bad skater hair, the girls dressed as ring-tailed lemurs, the little brother reciting lines from Napoleon Dynamite– everything about the movie screams “2000s,” and the sooner you realize that, the more enjoyable the film becomes.

The plot is paper-thin, but still incredibly dark. Based on a novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park tells the story of Alex (Gabe Nevins), a reticent teen skater who ventures alone to a dangerous underground skate park and is implicated in a gruesome murder.

There are parts of this film that echo the lower echelons of art cinema. A sex scene recalls a more restrained Larry Clark, while there are long, pointless silences and audio experiments that bring back traumatic memories of Gus Van Sant’s earlier film Gerry. But if you can get past those things, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this movie. It’s not the best thing in the world, but I really liked what it ended up doing. B-