2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 53, summer 2011
Taken by Muslims: captivity narratives
in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and
Prisoner of the Mountains
by Claudia Springer
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:
“Torture is as American as the colonial New England witch trials which used deliberate drowning (17th century waterboarding) to reveal the Devil’s helpers. The United States has a long history of using torture against some enemy combatants and force, including torture and murder, against civilian populations in a war zone. The history of Native Americans, U.S. intervention and occupation in Central America and the Caribbean, and the colonization of the Philippines provide many examples.”
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
"representations of torture in the realist mode may actually do further violence to their material referents, the bodies who have suffered torture or execution, by spectacularizing them according to the requirements of genre or plot device" (15-16).
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.
Prisoner of the Mountains was inspired by a story written by Leo Tolstoy, who was stationed in the Chechen Caucasus Mountains as a young soldier during the Crimean War of the 1850s, a period in his life characterized by contradictions. He sought military glory but also felt horror at the carnage and futility of war, and his pleasure-seeking—he racked up gambling debts and liaisons with women—was combined with lacerating self-recrimination (Simmons). He grew to admire several Chechens, in particular a gambling friend, despite his military mission to put down Chechnya's resistance, and Chechen culture made a lasting impression on him (Simmons 11). His story, titled "A Prisoner in the Caucasus," was published in 1870 and is still widely read in Russia and often taught in Russian schools. The film adaptation is updated and set in contemporary Chechnya during the ongoing war between Russia and Islamic Chechen separatists. [open endnotes in new window] Unlike The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Prisoner of the Mountains evokes military occupation with bitter irony. The Commander of the Russian forces occupying this particular Chechen region, whose name is Maslov (Aleksei Zharkov), is a glutton with a taste for good caviar and a disregard for justice and human life. He symbolizes the Russian war machine spreading death through a land the Russians have never understood—a point also made by Tolstoy's story. When he gorges on caviar, his greed is a metaphor for Russia's refusal to grant independence to Chechnya because its land is rich in valuable oil. He believes firmly in his superiority over Chechen Muslims, whom he dismisses as brutal and untrustworthy, evoking Orientalist essentialism. "You can't trust anyone," he says, "not even the children."
This characterization is what the new young recruit Vanya (Sergei Bodrov, Jr., the director's son) learns to reject during the course of the film after his unit is ambushed by Chechen rebels and he is taken captive along with a seasoned soldier named Sacha (Oleg Menshikov). Sacha, as cynical as Vanya is gullible, tells his fellow captive that without a doubt his balls will be cut off and he will be killed, evoking the fear of emasculation displayed in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. But Vanya learns that the truth is more complicated and does not involve torture. It hinges on family, and the film gives the captivity narrative's emphasis on family a new twist. In Prisoner of the Mountains, it is not the captives who seek to unify their families, but Abdoul-Mourat (Jemal Sikharulidze), the elderly Chechen man who holds Vanya and Sacha prisoner in his barn. And it is the Russian army that stands in the way.
Abdoul-Mourat wants to use his captives to bargain for the release of his son from a Russian prison in a nearby town. His determination to bring his son home is fierce, and he assumes that the Russians will be as fiercely committed to regaining the two captive soldiers. When the Russian Commander fails to comply (because he thinks that Chechens do not take prisoners, they only kill), Abdoul-Mourat shifts his hopes to the young men's families. He instructs his captives to write home and tell their parents to travel to Chechnya and pressure the Commander to participate in a prisoner exchange, a plan that fails because Sacha is an orphan, and Vanya's mother (Valentina Fedotova) is unable to persuade the Russian Commander to swap prisoners. During a failed escape attempt, Sacha is killed by Chechens in retaliation for his having killed a shepherd.
When news arrives that Abdoul-Mourat's son has also been killed while trying to escape from the Russian prison, Abdoul-Mourat announces that he must in turn kill Vanya, his sole remaining captive. He marches Vanya into the mountains at gunpoint, and then, in an act of compassion, fires into the air and tells him to keep walking. As he walks to freedom, however, Vanya sees Russian helicopters on their way to attack the village. He tries desperately and in vain to stop them because he no longer fears the Chechens and in fact empathizes with them, most notably with Abdoul-Mourat's 12-year-old daughter Dina (Susanna Mekhraliyeva). She had initially hated him, saying that her father's captives had pigs' blood, but he and she slowly learned to trust each other. She surreptitiously brought Vanya food and he built a wooden bird for her. Later she released him with a stolen key and urged him to run to safety. Her acquisition of sympathy was matched by his, for he refused to flee because her father would never forgive her.
In a voice-over postscript, Vanya tells us that he was reunited with his mother, but the new family he says he had grown to love—the Chechen villagers—are gone, and he tells us that although he wants to see them in his dreams, they do not come to him. They were, he implies, annihilated by the Russian military assault. This ending dramatically transforms the typical Muslim captivity narrative, for Vanya has ceased to think in "us" versus "them" terms. He values his captors' lives, as Abdoul-Mourat apparently valued Vanya's when he let him go.
Prisoner of the Mountains does not simply reverse the terms of typical Muslim captivity narratives and naively assert that all Russians are destructive and all Chechens are kindhearted. Quite the contrary: there are trigger-happy Chechens eager to kill the two captive soldiers, and a Chechen man shoots his own son for the offense of working for the Russian police. Their violence, though, is shown in the context of their motivations, not as resulting from sadistic impulses. On the Russian side, even the Commander seems to have a change of heart and indicates that he may be ready to trade Abdoul-Mourat's son, an event that is foiled when the son tries to escape and is shot. Rather than paint a simplistic picture, the film suggests that empathy becomes possible when people learn about the realities of others' lives.
In Vanya's friendship with Dina, we see the film reject Orientalist divisiveness and replace it with what philosopher Martin Buber calls an "I and thou" relationship based on nonjudgmental respect. Vanya and Dina overcome inherited cultural myths that would make them enemies and learn to perceive each other as individuals, not symbols. This is the type of connection called for by Czech theorist Vilém Flusser, who critiques the insularity of people who identify too strongly with their homelands—their heimats—to the point that they reject foreigners and anyone with unfamiliar customs. Flusser offers as a solution to intolerance the condition of the migrant, a person who is not anchored to any one place and who "carries in his unconscious bits and pieces of the mysteries of all the heimats through which he has wandered" (14). The migrant, Flusser writes, works on "the mystery of living together with others" and poses the following challenge to all of us:
"how can I overcome the prejudices of the bits and pieces of mysteries that reside within me, and how can I break through the prejudices that are anchored in the mysteries of others, so that together with them we may create something beautiful out of something that is ugly?" (15).
Prisoner of the Mountains gives us a glimpse of two people—Vanya and Dina—who break through prejudices and briefly create something beautiful. Their friendship develops awkwardly and tentatively, initiated by curiosity and followed by small acts of generosity, leading up to her secret visits to the deep pit within which Vanya is chained after his failed attempt to escape with Sacha. In addition to lowering bread and water to him on a rope, Dina informs him of his fate, standing above him at the edge of the pit: "My brother is dead. You have one more night to live." Her elevation indicates her power over him, but their conversation reveals mutual respect, she by acknowledging that he has a right to know what lies ahead, and he by responding patiently. Their cultural differences are apparent, because her idea of being helpful originates in her beliefs about the afterlife, which are meaningless to him, but his responses, while indicating his despair, avoid undermining her. She says, "Usually they throw the enemies' bodies to the jackals. But I will bury yours." He asks her to bring the key to release him. She says, "No. I will dig a wide grave for you. And you will see the Angel of Death. I'll put my necklace in the grave as your wedding gift. Maybe your soul will find a bride in heaven." He responds with a gentle smile: "I don't think so."
Later, she does bring him the key to his leg shackle after finding it hidden in a box while the film crosscuts to her father returning to the village with his son's body in the back of a truck. Before she throws the key to Vanya, she says to him, "Don't kill any more people, promise?" Her request represents a significant shift away from her former acculturated hatred for Russians as well as an attempt to break the cycle of revenge that has trapped both sides in the conflict. She has learned through her friendship with Vanya to respect life—everyone's life. Vanya responds in kind when he refuses to leave in order to protect her from punishment. Her father, Abdoul-Mourat, finds the two of them together at the edge of the pit and sends her home after scolding her for being more concerned about Vanya than about her own dead brother. But even Abdoul-Mourat—perhaps following his daughter's example—rejects vengeance when he lets Vanya go after marching him into the mountains.
Vanya's respect for Dina extends to the film's refusal to eroticize her. Even when she dances for him, she is not objectified; her dance is grave and earnest and shot from a respectful distance. She wears a headscarf and boots and an ankle-length red dress with a dark jacket. Her dance is accompanied by wailing diegetic music from a funeral procession winding its way through the village. She and the other Chechen women—most of them weather-beaten and wearing headscarves—are frequently seen at work. It is their labor, not their sexuality, that defines them. Dina is seen working with donkeys, preparing food, cleaning up, knitting—preparing for life as a village woman—and she calmly explains her future to Vanya before she dances for him. He asks her, "Did you get married yet?" She replies, "No." He says, "I would marry you." She says, "We cannot get married. I can get married next year. We marry early here." Later, when she returns to the pit to tell Vanya that he has one more night to live, she is dressed entirely in black to show that she is in mourning for her brother but also suggesting that she is preparing to mourn for Vanya, taking on the role of his widow although they have never even exchanged a kiss. She stands above him in her black robe, embodying the Angel of Death as well as the bride she speculates he might find in the afterlife. Their union is symbolic, impossible in the world they inhabit but indicative of the connection they have made.
The film also treats the Chechen landscape, customs, and music, all initially strange and unfamiliar to the Russian captives, with respect. Perched on rocky cliffs, the village is both precarious and solid, built of stone to withstand the ferocious winds. A song sung by the village children tells of the longevity of the Chechen culture and the inability of visitors to tolerate the wind. The film was shot on location in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, neighboring Chechnya, just twenty miles from where fighting was taking place at the time. (Ironically and sadly, the region's harsh conditions proved fatal for the actor Sergei Bodrov Jr. a few years later when he returned to direct a film and was killed by an avalanche.) The music, cinematography, and editing combine to emphasize endurance. But it is all obliterated at the end with the offscreen Russian assault. Vanya's inability to conjure up the villagers in his dreams symbolizes the military attack's total erasure of their existence, eliminating their history along with their future. Instead of exalting military might—as does The Lives of a Bengal Lancer—the film raises questions about the morality of bombing raids on civilian targets as a military strategy.
The final crucial element that sets this film apart is its slow, deliberate pacing, counteracting the speed with which the Bengal Lancers engage in their adventures. Unhurried panning shots linger over the mountains and valleys and the village's worn cobblestone streets. It takes time to overcome enmity, and Prisoner of the Mountains measures time very slowly. Its choices provide a cinematic model for relinquishing Hollywood's tired anti-Muslim clichés.
2. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Mortimer (1960-2006).
Brown, Jeffrey A. "'Putting on the Ritz': Masculinity and the Young Gary Cooper." Screen 36.3 (Autumn 1995): 193-213. Print.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou. 1923. New York: Touchstone, 1970. Print.
Flusser, Vilém. The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism. 1994. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Print.
Goldberg, Elizabeth Swanson. Beyond Terror: Gender, Narrative, Human Rights. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007. Print.
Kleinhans, Chuck. "Imagining Torture." Jump Cut 51 (spring 2009). http://www.ejumpcut.org
Mortimer, Barbara. Hollywood's Frontier Captives. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000. Print.
Saïd, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print
Simmons, Ernest J. "L. N. Tolstoi: A Cadet in the Caucasus." The Slavonic Year-Book 20 (December 1941): 1-27. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo. "A Prisoner in the Caucasus." 1870. Tolstoy also wrote a novella Hádji Murád, about a Chechen tribal leader, first published in 1904. Both the story and the novella are available online at The Literature Network, http://www.online-literature.com.
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