Images from The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
Mohammed Khan utters the threat, "We have ways of making men talk."
Colonel Tom Stone commands the Lancers with uncompromising rigidity.
Lieutenants McGregor and Forsythe sneak into Mohammed Khan's stronghold disguised as rug merchants, but are soon recognized and taken captive.
Tania Volkanskaya entices the Lancers, preparing for Lieutenant Donald Stone's abduction.
Guards restrain McGregor in preparation for torture.
Two Lancers (McGregor and Forsythe) hunt wild pigs with spears, an aspect of the film's stabbing motif.
Donald Stone is disgraced after he divulges military secrets under torture.
Gary Cooper brings erotic vulnerability to his role as McGregor, who is softly lit and sprawled on the floor of his cell after enduring torture.
Donald Stone kills Mohammed Khan by stabbing him in the back.
Colonel Stone and his son Donald are reconciled after Mohammed Khan's defeat. Their stoic bearing and firm handshake represent the solidity of the British Empire they defend.
The sinister line "We have ways of making men talk" was first spoken on film by the Afghan warlord Mohammed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille) addressing his three British captives in the 1935 Hollywood film The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. And he certainly does have ways, including inserting wooden slivers under their fingernails and lighting the slivers on fire. This scenario—a Muslim captor threatening his non-Muslim captives—belongs to a long literary and film tradition of constructing a menacing Islamic world. For centuries, European writers projected illicit behaviors onto the East, creating tantalizing stories while upholding the notion of Western decency. Their tales fit the agenda of colonialist expansion, as Britain and France sought to persuade the world that their growing empires were bringing enlightenment to barbaric regions of the world. Edward Saïd writes in his analysis of Orientalism that the West constructed an image of a universal Arab associated with "lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty" who "appears as an oversexed degenerate, capable, it is true, of cleverly devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low" (286-287). The U.S. film industry appropriated these stereotypes with gusto and applied them not only to Arabs but to Muslims in general.
Hollywood's longstanding association of Islamic cultures with sadism and torture contributed to the U.S. public's disbelief at revelations in 2004 that the U.S. had abducted and tortured detainees in its war on terror; movies had taught us that "they" abduct and torture, not "us." No matter that torture figures prominently in U.S. history, as Chuck Kleinhans explains:
However, access to information about U.S. use of torture had previously been restricted, so that "never before have we seen the dissemination of images from the torture chamber on such a scale as the Abu Ghraib case" (Goldberg 10). Photographs from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison reversed the terms of Orientalist imagery and provoked a reexamination of long-held Western beliefs about who tortures whom. The photos of chained, naked, bloody, and terrified Iraqi prisoners mocked by their U.S. captors evoke long-established film depictions of Muslim captors threatening and torturing their Western captives, images that have become so commonplace as to constitute clichés.
An early example of Hollywood's foray into the Islamic world, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, is archetypal in its vilification of Muslims and the central place it gives kidnapping and torture. Its colonialist ideology serves as a perfect contrast to a film that critiques Orientalist stereotypes, Prisoner of the Mountains, a Russian film from 1996 directed by Sergei Bodrov. Prisoner of the Mountains superficially resembles conventional films about non-Muslims encountering Muslims; it has a captivity narrative and the threat of torture, and spectators are positioned as outsiders to a Muslim culture. But the film marshals these tropes only to discount their relevance and reject Orientalist assumptions.
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer sets the stage for Bodrov's alternative vision. The film is about the adventures of the 41st Bengal Lancers, a British cavalry unit stationed near Afghanistan on the northwest border of India, which was still a British colony when the film was made in 1935, produced by Paramount Pictures and directed by Henry Hathaway. Its rousing support of English rule in India supports the view that the most enthusiastic promoter of the British Empire has always been Hollywood. In a pattern seen frequently in U.S. films, the film's narrative is propelled by a family conflict. Having to join forces against a Muslim enemy brings the Western family members together and motivates their individual growth and respect for each other. A recent example of this pattern is the film True Lies, directed by James Cameron in 1994.
In The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, the dysfunctional family involves the Lancers' no-nonsense commander, Colonel Tom Stone (Guy Standing), and his estranged son, Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), who has just joined the regiment. The Colonel, who abandoned his family years ago to devote himself to military service, resents his son's presence and confines him to menial, humiliating tasks with an iciness typical of his cold-blooded leadership style. When young Donald Stone is taken captive by Mohammed Khan and carried to a mountain fortress in Afghanistan, the Colonel refuses to send rescue forces, even for his own son, because it would endanger the regiment. Lieutenant Alan McGregor (Gary Cooper) is shocked by the Colonel's callousness and sneaks out of camp with another lieutenant, Forsythe (Franchot Tone). Together, disguised as rug merchants, they enter Khan's stronghold where they are recognized, taken captive and, along with Donald Stone, tortured.
There is a gradual build-up to the torture scene. Mohammed Khan, who was educated at Oxford, speaks flawless English and has impeccable manners, first treats his three captives to a sumptuous meal and refers to them as his guests. Khan's cultured British façade is consistent with Orientalist depictions of Eastern deviousness—he passes as "civilized" to lure unsuspecting victims. Khan's duplicity is shared by his slinky Russian accomplice, Tania Volkanskaya (Kathleen Burke), whose seductive enticements were used to draw Donald Stone out of the Lancers' camp. She and a group of women who perform a sultry dance for the Lancers introduce a motif of dangerous sexuality that culminates in the soldiers' torture.
In Khan's relationship with his prisoners, there is a sexual subtext of domination and submission, consistent with the "fear of unrepressed sexuality" and "primal fear of physical danger" typical of captivity narratives, according to film scholar Barbara Mortimer (4). Khan initially dominates his captives courteously as he tries to persuade them over dinner to reveal the information he seeks, but the lieutenants resist by verbally sparring with him. The dynamics change when they enter the torture chamber, for here Khan resorts to coercion and personally inserts the burning slivers under McGregor's fingernails. It is a sexualized form of torture involving penetration and violation, and McGregor must endure not only pain but also the humiliation of this implied rape, which joins a motif of stabbing in the film—the British are lancers, after all—seen earlier when Colonel Stone led his soldiers in hunting wild pigs with spears. McGregor and Forsythe withstand their torture without revealing what Khan wants to know, but immature young Donald Stone returns to their cell and admits that he talked. His torture and confession take place offscreen, perhaps in deference to the Production Code but also because the film chooses to impress upon us the image of a loyal British soldier withstanding excruciating pain rather than the sight of a weak-willed new recruit buckling under and disclosing valuable information.
Hollywood's linkage of torture and forbidden sex is apparent in the film's treatment of Lieutenant McGregor, whose torture is the catalyst for a series of shots that invite viewers to respond with equal parts pleasure and horror. Although McGregor is stoic during the brief torture sequence, the film lets us know that he has suffered by cutting to his cell, where Khan's men drag and toss his slumped tortured body. He tumbles down a short flight of steps and lies sprawled on his back on the ground. Gary Cooper's iconic good looks momentarily halt the narrative flow for a moment of spectacle, and the image recalls tortured Biblical saints transported by agony and rapture in Renaissance paintings. An association with post-coital fatigue is reinforced by his provocatively unbuttoned white shirt, the glow illuminating him from his cell's single window, his lanky but weakened body, followed by a close-up of his exhausted face. Cooper fuses the erotic vulnerability of this scene with his already-established battle-ready toughness. This duality defines Gary Cooper's unique screen persona, as Jeffrey A. Brown points out when he writes that from early in his career, Cooper was cast in parts that conveyed "powerful masculinity" and a "softened, more questioning, more vulnerable persona created by simultaneously filming him as a sexually desirable object" (201). Cooper, writes Brown, "was not exempt from lingering, voyeuristic shots that focused on the attractiveness of his body" ( 202).
The scene underscores the fraught nature of representing torture and its victims, for representation imposes its own dictates. Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg argues in her book on human rights, gender, and narrative that
As a 1930s Hollywood war film, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer uses torture as a plot device to establish individual heroism in the face of a hostile enemy. Torture's place in the narrative is therefore not just ideological—projecting heinous qualities onto the Islamic world—but also a generic convention, one that is heightened by the casting of Gary Cooper who was "both the ideal pin-up and the ideal rugged man" (Brown 209).
At the film's conclusion, Donald Stone has redeemed himself by killing Mohammed Khan, he has been reconciled with his father, and Britain has retained control over the region. The film's personal and political stories converge. By the end it is clear that the saga of the Stone family is a microcosm for the larger British national family, which must be unified to defeat its enemies. Khan had been trying to forge a "hostile coalition" of tribes to drive the British out of India, and his defeat signals the triumph of British power and the reestablishment of the colonial hierarchy. Khan's symbolic emasculation of the three lieutenants is undone, and thanks in part to Lieutenant McGregor's sacrificial death in battle, Britannia rules again as the film insists it should.
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer takes the position that Indian people have no claim to India because of their uncivilized ways, recalling the English settlers' conviction in North America that Native Americans had no right to the land because they were "savages" (Mortimer 13). Colonel Stone, the film tell us admiringly, has the responsibility of ensuring that "a handful of men" can continue to control "300 million people." Ironically, though, the British engage in the same kinds of strategies as the "barbaric" Khan; they too use disguises, and they twice threaten captives with torture. Both times the prisoners confess before the threats are carried out, and both times the British soldiers find the threats amusing. How can the film propose that actions undertaken by Muslims are barbarous while claiming that similar actions are benign when engaged in by the British? On the one hand, the film shirks the question by having the British avoid the need to follow through on their threats. But on the other hand, the film maintains that, unlike the rebellious Muslims, the British have admirable motives, thereby justifying any actions they take, however unsavory. For the film, the legitimacy of the British Empire is unassailable and in that context even torture is considered justified.
Several recent U.S. films have raised questions about conventional representations of captivity and torture in encounters between Muslims and non-Muslims, most notably Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999) and Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005), both of which provide historical and political contexts for understanding relations between the West and East. Neither of these films, however, is as effective as Prisoner of the Mountains in systematically overturning the basic dichotomy between "us" and "them," and neither of them succeeds in so thoroughly repudiating clichéd torture imagery and the idea of military glory.