Major Francis Yeats-Brown was the author of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, a hugely successful book based on his career as a cavalry officer in India. It was made into a film by Paramount, starring Gary Cooper as the ‘Yeats-Brown’ character, Lieutenant Alan McGregor. Trivia specialists will know that Mohammed Khan, played by Douglas Dumbrille, was the first to utter the line that has since been adapted or misquoted in many other films since: “We have ways of making men talk…”.
It is less widely known that The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was Adolf Hitler’s favourite film – there were many private screenings in his flat in Munich and at his retreat in Berchtesgaden. This film, thought Hitler, exemplified all that was good about England, sterling qualities that in his view the British shared with the Germans. When one looks at some snatches of dialogue it is easy to see why it appealed to him. Here is Major Hamilton extolling the stiff upper lip, defending Colonel Stone’s refusal to disobey orders and attempt to rescue his captured son: “Man, you are blind! Have you never thought how, for generation after generation here, a handful of men have ordered the lives of 300 million people? It’s because he’s here, and a few more like him! Men of his breed have made British India. Men who put their jobs above everything. He wouldn’t let death move him from it. He won’t let love move him from it. When his breed of man dies out – that’s the end. And it’s a better breed of man than any of us will ever make…”
The clip below, of the official trailer, spells it out very clearly. Here, in Major Hamilton, we see a character in tune not only with the aspirations of the Third Reich (a “handful of men ordering the lives of 300 million people”) but also recalling sentiments that pre-date Hitler and hark back to the archetypal German hero sung by Ernst Jungers in the wake of Bismarck’s imperial ascendancy – the merciless, death-dealing type with Stahlnaturen (a steely nature), the ‘gorgeous bird of prey’ who sweeps all considerations of love and death aside.
The film was well reviewed in Das Schwarze Korps, the official newspaper of the SS: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer “displays throughout the spirit and conduct which is shared in our new Germany by the entire Volk”. However, praise was balanced by aggressive accusations of hypocrisy levelled at British critics of the Reich: “They abuse our new Germany abroad, making it out to be one large garrison where drill – and to use their own idiotic terms – ‘mindless obedience’ suppress and extinguish all humanity; and then from that same world beyond our borders a film reaches us: a scene from the life of a great and powerful nation. A film glorifying precisely that which those vile tongues seek to criticize in us…”
Yeats-Brown became progressively involved in right-wing politics throughout the Thirties. His views are set out in his book European Jungle, a sort of whistle-stop tour of the Continent in which he airs his thoughts and prejudices, reserving a special chapter for Jews who, he says, are a talented and industrious nation who would do well if they were to be settled in their own land. His most striking utterance was made in July 1939, in an article he wrote for the New Pioneer entitled “Listen, Tommy!”, addressed to British troops. It contained a mish-mash of pro-Arab sentiment mixed with glowing references to anti-Jewish measures in Germany, ending with the banner headline “Not another British life for Judah”. This was the latest angle on Jews: why should Tommy Atkins fight their war for them?