January 11, 2013

The origin of the movie cliché: “We have ways of making you talk!”

Nowadays, it’s a cliché usually said for comedic effect, often with a German accent as if said by an evil Nazi, and delivered as a personalized threat: “Ve haf vays of making you talk!”

As classic film buffs know, the origin of this comedic line can be traced back to an old Gary Cooper movie and, with or without the German accent, “We have ways of making you talk” is actually a misquote of the original line in that movie.

The film, titled The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, is based on the 1930 book by the British Army officer and author Francis Yeats-Brown (1886–1944).

It premiered in New York City on January 11, 1935.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a Rudyard Kipling-style tale, set in India in the days when it was still a British colony. The heroes of the saga are three British officers in the famed Bengal Lancers, Lieutenant McGregor, Lieutenant Forsythe and Lieutenant Stone, played by Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone and Richard Cromwell.

The plot deals with their efforts to thwart a revolt by an Indian version of Osama bin Laden named Mohammed Khan, played by the great character actor Douglas Dumbrille.

At one point, the three officers are captured by Mohammed Khan. Over a deceptively cordial dinner, Mohammed Khan says he will let them go if they give him some information he wants. When Franchot Tone flippantly refuses, he makes his ominous threat — in perfectly good English, with no silly accent.

Mohammed Khan: “You have only to answer two very simple questions. By what route is the ammunition train coming? And, just where does the regiment plan to meet it for convoy?"

Lieutenant Forsythe: “Well, when the furry little animal jumped out of the bag he really jumped, didn’t he?”

Mohammed Khan: “Well, gentlemen? We have ways to make men talk.

Getting no information by asking nicely, Mohammed Khan applies his “ways” of encouraging conversation.

Starting with Gary Cooper, the three soldiers have sharp slivers of bamboo inserted under their fingernails. Then the bamboo slivers are set on fire.

Somehow, over the decades Mohammed Khan’s sinister line from The Lives of a Bengal Lancer morphed into a comedic cliché, usually in a misquoted form. And, today, most people are unaware of its origin.

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