Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #100

The actor: Peter McRobbie
The character: George Pendleton
The film: Lincoln
The line: “How dare you!”

One of the most shattering grammatical moments of my life came when I was watching some ancient episode of QI on YouTube, and Stephen Fry said to the panel, “Believe it or don’t.” Of course that’s what it ought to be grammatically, I thought. “Believe it or not believe it” is obviously wrong; “believe it or don’t believe it” is obviously right. Whatever the old-timey linguistic urge is to refuse the word “do” in favor of some snappier statement can be found in a movie much more seen than Lincoln. In The Return of the King, Aragorn faces the oathbreakers and challenges them: “I am Isildur’s heir. Fight for me and I will hold your oaths fulfilled. What say you?” Normal people would choose “What do you say?” as opposed to “What say you?” Yet “How dare you” has never taken on a more colloquial, modern form in our language. Angry parents or teachers say, “How dare you!” as opposed to “How do you dare” or, perhaps even more tongue-twistingly, “How do you dare to?” It’s the kind of thing people say when they are so outraged that their own rancor is not enough. They must plumb the ire of their ancestors and their old ways of speaking in order to express their own anger.

If you have never seen Lincoln, or were not cheerfully skimming the Internet around 2012-2013, then maybe you don’t have this particular line reading in your head. If that’s the case, you may be thinking about how you say it, or how you’ve heard it said to you, or how it’s said in other movies. The emphasis is usually on “dare,” all the spittle and venom flying out, that one syllable “how” teeing up a trochee. If you have seen Lincoln, then Peter McRobbie has changed it for you forever. It’s not “How DARE you!” but “Hoooow daaaaare yoooooou.” Like the times that the NFL Network puts up for the 40-yard dashes, these are unofficial, but I clock McRobbie’s “How” at .53 seconds and his “dare” and “you” both at .59 seconds. It’s less than two seconds, only three syllables, just ten letters, and Peter McRobbie makes a hilarious eternity out of them.

What makes this even better is the context of this line, which comes in one of the wordiest segments of an incredibly wordy movie. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens as Tommy Lee Jones is up there in his wig and his craggiest face, firing off disrespect couched in the language of the Founding Fathers that is way more insulting than anything Lin-Manuel Miranda cooked up for Hamilton:

How can I hold that all men are created equal, when here before me stands stinking the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their Maker with dim wits impermeable to reason with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood! You are more reptile than man, George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you!

In response, all Pendleton can muster up is that briefest of replies stretched to its limit, like pulling apart a mozzarella stick fresh out of the fryer.

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