Elliot Mandel and James Furbush surveyed the last 60 years in American movie villain history. Here’s what they found.
Early in Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith’s ode to comic books, there’s a scene where a black writer named Hooper X is discussing the blackness of Darth Vader as a cultural reflection. It’s hilarious because it’s so over the top and absurd. What? You mean George Lucas was really saying that all black people wanted to be white deep down inside?
As ridiculous as that scene was, the larger truth is that America’s collective unconscious has always been reflected and amplified by the portrayal of Hollywood villains. If you want to understand the big picture broad strokes of America, there’s no better place to look than Hollywood’s action genre fare.
That’s the case starting with Birth of Nation, which is considered by many to be the first modern cinematic masterpiece. That 1915 movie by D.W. Griffith, also known as The Clansman, featured an uncontrollable ex-slave, who’s essentially portrayed as an animal on the prowl for a piece of white female flesh.
Strangely, it is the Ku Klux Klan that are the heroes of that picture. But culturally speaking, was there ever a group of people who scared the country in 1915 more than the sons and grandkids of ex-slaves? As much as America has progressed in the last 100 years, it hasn’t always been the most accepting place to live if you were an African-American or foreigner, obviously. But making the Ku Klux Klan the heroes of a movie is a worse sin than Al Jolsen going blackface in The Jazz Singer.
So our research team took a look at more than 100 popular action films from the past 60+ years in an attempt to figure out what kind of person is suited to be a great bad guy and what that villain represents. The results are interesting: America went Superhero after 9/11, so Arab/Middle Eastern villains are few and far between; maybe Jews really do run Hollywood, as evidenced by the lack of Bar Mitzvah’d Bad Guys; and Soviets and Germans really knew how to scare the crap out of a post-World War II America heading straight into the Cold War. Our findings, along with a detailed spreadsheet, follow…
The Rise of the Russians (and Germans)
Skipping ahead to the 1950s film noir genre, which coincides with the beginning of the Cold War and McCarthy-era paranoia in America, films shifted away from the fanciful adventures of Errol Flynn or the slaptick comedy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and began to tackle series themes like the failings of government and the dangers of Communism. There was an element of realism to Hollywood productions, digging down into the seedy, dark side of life.
And with that, came the rise of Hollywood’s longstanding fixation with a certain country as the ultimate bad guy.
Russians, and even Germans, get the nod for most used ethnic backgrounds in action movies, since most movies need a dastardly clever villain who possesses legions of unnamed henchmen.
Need a mastermind criminal? Go with a Soviet evil scientist — he’ll give your protagonist a run for his money. Literally for five decades, the go-to baddie has essentially been a Soviet, Russian or German criminal who could be inserted into a movie in a pinch.
That’s not entirely surprising, given America’s fascination with their frenemy from the end of World War II until the early 1990s. No other country loomed as large a fear in America’s psyche as Russia did.
This didn’t change much throughout the 1960s even as James Bond’s Dr. No ushered in an era of fantastical spy films routed in gadgets and beautiful women. The bad guys were a combination of Russian or Germans due to the remnants of World War II, but also because that decade was crouched in the fears of nuclear war abroad and domestic upheaval at home.
There are still lingering fears about Nazism and what it means to be German. This leads into the first Bond movie, Dr. No, where the main baddie is a man with the name, surprise surprise, Dr. No. He is half-German half-Chinese with an unmatched scientific brilliance. Oh, and metallic hands.
But as the U.S.’s confrontation with Russia escalated during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hollywood took note and escalated the use of Russians as the main evil-doers. You see this mostly play out in the James Bond movies, where Germans were reduced to the sidekick role and Russian Ernst Blofeld, the leader of SPECTRE, stepped in as the iconic spy’s nemesis.
Russians featured heavily in the Bond-parody Our Man Flint and the thriller Ice Station Zebra, which featured Boris Vaslov as the turncoat traitor who claims to have defected while still being a double agent for the U.S.S.R.
The underlying theme: What would happen if the Soviet Union got the best of America. What if they pulled another Sputnik in the space race, what if they spread Communism to the rest of the world?
The decade in movies, however, leaned heavily on psychological horror — notably from Alfred Hitchcock — or movies like The Manchurian Candidate, where Russia would secretly invade America. Perhaps no movie encapsulated the decade like the dark satire from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Still, the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, and the classic Hollywood sword and sandal pictures, were also en vogue. It was, in short, a decade of transition for Hollywood from the old studio system that built the industry to the one where directors and actors essentially call the shots.
It was the 1970s that changed everything.
The Fear of Urban Decay
In the 1970s, movies largely tapped into the American fear of urban decay and governmental agency corruption, which was a big social issue of the time. The change in villains — migrating from shadowy Russian/German international baddies to the gritty realism of corrupt cops, faulty government institutions and urban gangs — is best exemplified in the difference between James Bond’s Dr. No and Live and Let Die. In Live and Let Die, the baddie was African-American Dr. Kananga in NYC. Sure, he was of Haitian descent, but still, watching Live and Let Die seems like an anachronistic Bond film because of the changes made to the series structure — notably that the villain was a diabolically brilliant heroin dealer.
Though it would later become the butt of a Leslie Nielson joke, Airport kicked off the decade by featuring a complex bomb plot at a fictional Chicago airport and a Generic White Guy villain. He also happened to be a disturbed, bankrupted building contractor who was unhappy with the way things were going.
The trend of domestic criminals that local police have to deal with continued throughout the decade in films like Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, The French Connection, Bullitt, White Lightening, and Taxi Driver. Hell, even The Godfather films were about villains exploiting failing urban institutions on a certain level.
The ’70s were the golden age of the cop drama.
In 1973, both White Lightning and Magnum Force were action movies where the bad guy was actually a member of the police, secretly being the antagonist while still pretending to be “good.”
Steve McQueen’s definitive movie, Bullitt, was the quintessential ’70s movie. He played a cop trying to protect a federal witness about to testify against the mob. But, the witness ends up on death’s door as a result of some corrupt cops. Frank Bullitt has to then protect the witness for trial and track down the people responsible for the attempted assassination. Throw in cinema’s greatest car chase scene, corrupt politicians and police, and well, yeah this is easily one of the best movies of all-time. It has everything you’d want in a great genre flick. Granted, Bullitt came out in 1968, and as such, it’s more of a precursor to what the decade of ’70s movies would entail.
The Return of the Russians and the War on Drugs
When movies progressed into the 1980s, the decade can largely been seen in two halves — what we’d call the return to normalcy in the first half (Russians, vague ethnic baddies), and then there was an overwhelming preoccupation with the famed War on Drugs, made popular by Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
The election of Reagan in 1980 seemed to return a semblance of pride and comfort to American citizens burned out by a decade of rising gas prices, hostage crisis situations, a tarnished presidency and failing urban institutions capped by white flight to the suburbs.
Early 1980s were a grab-bag of villain ethnicity, thanks to the introduction of the Indiana Jones and Rambo movie franchises. The Bond franchise featured the return of Blofeld and introduced both Greek and Afghan villains, too. The movies here alternate between the return of the Russians primarily, with a sprinkling of other ethnicities and a hodgepodge of motivations.
But in 1985, things started to get interesting. This was when America started churning out action movie franchises like a butter mill churns out…butter. There seems to be some sort of consensus that this half of the 1980s was to only be reserved for certain ethnicities. Russian/Soviet, German, and American. It’s like Hollywood felt bad for the satellite Soviet nations and Germans who hadn’t gotten enough screen time as bad guys.
Look at the villains in films such as Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, Tango & Cash, Red Heat, To Live & Die in L.A., Beverly Hills Cop and Raw Deal. Most of those films were big hits at the time, and drug dealers were the main antagonists. The buddy cop formula became deeply entrenched at this time, and more often than not, the duo was charged with stopping an urban drug dealer with profit as his main motivation.
Given how Reagan amped up the War on Drugs, and how crack cocaine was billed as the greatest threat to culture in history, this is entirely apropos.
Sometimes it’s not just who the villain is, but what their motivation is, as well. Sure, lots of bad guys were still vaguely Russian, like in the Rambo franchise, but many more of them were preoccupied with getting drugs into the mouths of American citizens.
Even James Bond got in on the drug dealing action, with 1988′s Timothy Dalton entry, License to Kill, which featured Franz Sanchez, a South American drug lord, as the main villain.
After the end of the Cold War, when Reagan implored Gorbachev to tear down that wall, it would seem that Hollywood would be freed from the over-use of Russian communists as the metaphor for the country’s overwhelming collective fears. That, well, sorta happened.
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—Photo lord enfield/Flickr