Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2018
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Tally ho, Caped Crusader!

Allow me to expand on a point I made in my customarily brief review of the movie Batman Begins. I suggested that this movie falls into a long line of films evoking quintessentially American myths but which, seemingly paradoxically, were made by filmmakers who weren’t actually born in America. This includes both foreigners and foreign-born immigrants to America.

For example, Austrian-born Billy Wilder gave us our best look at an American hero like Charles Lindbergh (The Spirit of St. Louis) and at the myth-making of Hollywood (Sunset Boulevard). And what is more American than the stories of individuals—played by the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper—triumphing over the forces of evil in society, as told by Frank Capra who, as it happens, was born in Sicily? And what movies are more evocative of a mythical past that the United States may or may not have really had than the rugged westerns of the Roman Sergio Leone?

And while Leone may have made westerns in Spain instead of Utah, he knew better to put a European face and voice on his mythic cowboys. He hired people like Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda. Still, there are a long line of non-American actors who have played American archetypes. Who can think of the Old South without conjuring up Scarlett O’Hara or the object of her affection Ashley Wilkes (played by English actors Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard)? Or the man most associated with playing Abraham Lincoln, Raymond Massey, who was actually a Canadian?

Now, I’m not sure if I can argue that Batman is an American mythic figure on the same scale as Abraham Lincoln or Scarlett O’Hara, but he (and a select few other comic book heroes, like Superman) certainly belong in the pantheon at some level or other. So, given all the observations above, maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise that the director of the latest and best Batman movie (Christopher Nolan) is from England (born in London) or that the star, Christian Bale, is likewise British (born in Wales, raised in England, Portugal and California). In fact, six of the actors’ names above the title of this movie are not American, although in fairness, two (Michael Caine and Liam Neeson) play characters who are not American. (I don’t recall from my youthful comic book reading whether Alfred the butler was meant to be American or not, but he is definitely English in this movie. Whether this was so that Michael Caine would not have to bother using an accent other than his own I can’t say. Come to think of it, have we ever heard Michael Caine use an accent other than his own?) Only Morgan Freeman (from Memphis, Tennessee) and the prospective next Mrs. Tom Cruise herself (Katie Holmes, from Toledo, Ohio) are representing us Yanks among the big-name stars. Rounding out the top slots is London-born Gary Oldman as the future Commissioner Gordon.

Other prominent actors in the film include such Europeans as Leeds man Tom Wilkinson, seemingly playing Frank Sinatra playing a mob boss; Cork man Cillian Murphy, playing a villain; Dutchman Rutger Hauer, playing the greedy, condescending chairman of Wayne Enterprises; and Manchester man Linus Roache as Bruce Wayne’s father. The use of non-American actors to play American characters is nothing new for director Nolan. He did, after all, cast Australian Guy Pearce as the protagonist of Memento, just as Curtis Hanson cast Pearce as a Yank in L.A. Confidential along with fellow Aussie Russell Crowe, who has played his fair share of American characters, notably John Nash in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. It goes on and on.

I find it fascinating that Americans have no trouble accepting actors, who are technically foreign, playing Americans, and in fact, I suspect, in many cases aren’t even aware of the nationality of the actors they are watching. This must be due to the immense size of the United States and the world commercial dominance of its film industry. It certainly isn’t the case in other countries. In Ireland (to pick a country at random, where I just happen to be living) people are extremely aware when a non-Irish actor plays an Irish character in a movie, and they tend not to be too amused by it either. Of course, the Irish have had many years to see Brits and Americans playing Irish, since the rise of a sizeable home-grown film industry in Ireland is a relatively recent development. And, for major movies, Irish characters are still frequently played by Brits and Yanks because studios tend to see them as more bankable. Since I have been spending time here, I have seen every major (non-Irish) actor from Meryl Streep (Dancing at Lughnasa) to Cate Blanchett (Veronica Guerin) raked over the coals for their vowels and their speech inflections. People can be downright sensitive about foreigners playing characters of their own nationality.

Sometimes, hairs get split even finer than that. I was particularly intrigued when the Irish director Neil Jordan made his major film about a key moment in modern Irish history, Michael Collins. There was the predictable grumping over the casting of Julia Roberts as the female lead character, Kitty Kiernan (although the Kiernan family seemed happy enough with her portrayal), and less so over the casting of second-generation Irish-American Aidan Quinn in the second banana part (Harry Boland). But who could argue with the casting of Liam Neeson in the title role? Not only is he an authentic Irishman but he is the spitting image of the “big fella.” Still, I read some columnists grousing over the “Northern hue” of the casting, which featured Antrim men Neeson and Stephen Rea in prominent roles. Collins, after all, was a Cork man, hailing from the extreme other end of the island. (At least they had a bona fide Cork man do Collins in. In his second screen appearance, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers played his assassin.) On the other hand, people couldn’t really quibble over the fine English actor Alan Rickman playing the father of the modern Irish nation, Eamon de Valera. De Valera, who was a bit of a fanatic about Irish nationalism and restoring Gaelic culture, was actually born in New York City to an Irish mother and a Spanish father—a technicality that saved him from execution when he and his colleagues were arrested after the 1916 Easter Rising.

Having said all that, some non-Irish actors can get away with playing Irish. Nobody seemed to mind English-born Daniel Day-Lewis playing Irish in films like My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and The Boxer. Maybe because he does a really good job at it. And, in any event, Day-Lewis is now technically Irish, since he resides here and has taken Irish citizenship. This may be because he loves the country, or it may have to do with the generous income tax break Ireland gives to artists.

But I digress. Anyway, I like the idea that American audiences are so accepting of non-Americans playing Americans in the movies—even if a lot of it has to do with the fact that much of the country cannot tell the difference between a New England accent and a Yorkshire accent. And they can’t be expected to spot a Canadian, no matter how many “eh’s” they throw in at the end of their sentences. (Canadians, on the other end, tend to have an interesting habit, as I once heard parodied on one of those humor shows on my local public radio station, of reflexively and instantly saying, “He’s Canadian” when you happen to mention any name from William Shatner to Leslie Nielsen to Michael J. Fox.) Personally, I think any actor should be able to play any character as long as they can be convincing at it. And, yes, it helps to create a better illusion if it’s not glaringly obvious that the actor is not really from the place where the character is supposed to be from. Actors like Christian Bale and Gary Oldman can clearly do this. And what’s more, directors like Christopher Nolan sometimes understand the American psyche as well or better than many of us native born Yanks do.

-S.L., 23 June 2005

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