On June 26, I was on the SP Romney show on AM 630 KTKK, where I gave a tentative review of The Lone Ranger. During the broadcast, the conversation shifted toward the entertainment industry as a whole, and one caller asked why Hollywood films no longer assigned specific nationalities to villains, opting instead for other-worldly or paramilitary forces for our heroes to contend with.
I initially answered that this was the result of the international film market becoming more lucrative over the past few years, as such casting certain nations in a villainous role wouldn’t make sense from a business standpoint.
As I thought more about this issue after the broadcast, I found that this is something inherent to the culture of the United States, as the villains of a film greatly reflect the time period and cultural climate of the year it was released. On top of that, it also stands as an example of history being written by the winners.
In all storytelling mediums, various elements of the story often reflect the storyteller’s personal views on various topics—whether s/he realizes it or not. Novels like Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde acknowledged fears of man’s more primal urges, especially lust. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged depicted a world where coerced altruism led to the downfall of society. Most famously, George Orwell’s 1984 depicted a dystopian future where big government controls all aspects of life.
The same thing can be observed in cinema as the elements the audience was supposed to react negatively toward could be directly correlated to what society, for all intents and purposes, feared and disdained.
In D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, newly-freed African Americans were cast as the villains, as the novel the film was based on depicted a society where the nation was overrun by African-Americans as a result of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. While the war had been over for many years when the film came out, it reflected lingering fears and suspicions that were held by the Caucasian majority at the time.
While the film got the negative backlash that it ultimately deserved, this practice would not go away entirely. This was primarily galvanized during the years in which the nation was at war with other nations, particularly during World War II when the U.S. entered the war.
Here we get various serials and films where the villains reflected the nationalities of the same nations we were fighting, such as Germany and Japan, and then later Russia as we headed into the Cold War.
When the films weren’t depicting the front-lines, the “easy out” at the time was the use of spies, saboteurs and turncoats. Not only did it cut production costs, it also played on the public’s fear of war finding its way to their doorstep.
As we look to the ’80s and beyond, we begin to see a trend where films begin focusing on more domestic villains such as drug dealers and serial killers or more other-worldly villains such as ghosts, zombies and aliens.
In the case of the domestic villains, many were depicted as Latin-American overlords with private islands and an army of cronies at their beck-and-call or as psychologically tortured Caucasians who were forced into their situation by the cruel whims of fate.
While there were various conflicts such as Desert Storm, international hostage negotiations, as well as the erroneously-named War on Terror, we haven’t really seen full-scale wars on the same level as our forefathers. As such, there hasn’t been a need or purpose to demonize any nation.
Moreover, people have become more vocal about their views against war and would probably argue that such demonization would put diplomatic relations at risk of turning sour.
This, in addition to the lucrative nature of the foreign box office, has effectively limited the practice to nations that don’t actively consume American goods such as North Korea. Even then, it’s not the most politically correct practice in the world.
At the end of the day, whether for cultural or financial reasons, it’s ultimately easier to have a villain who operates outside of any jurisdiction, since no one cares if such a villain is committing villainy for the sake of villainy. No one gets offended, and the studio is able to make its money in several places: a win-win scenario.