Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The bad guys

In case anyone has been wondering how the Munchkin and I are getting along with our nightly readings of the Harry Potter books, I am chagrined to report that I have been booted from the project. Much as I was looking forward to finally reading all the novels in the celebrated J.K. Rowling series, herself decided that I was going too slow. She sped ahead on her own, without me. After a mere six weeks, my seven-year-old prodigy has raced through nearly four of the Potter books. If I am lucky, I get occasional updates on what is happening, as well as the odd request for clarification on matters that I barely recall from having seen the films.

I do get to watch the movies with her, as she finishes each book. So far, we have seen the first two together. And, as I expected, there is a ton of detail in the movies that is apparent to someone who has read the books but which tends to go right past those who haven’t. As with The Lord of the Rings, these are movies that are watch-able enough on their own but which truly come to life when the source novels have been read first. (Feel free to file this information under D for “duh!”)

What is very satisfying about these fantasy epics is not only the very dramatic element of conflict, but especially the clear-cut nature of that conflict. There is little gray area in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings about who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Nothing is more engaging, as literature, than a good fight. And no fight is more compelling than one in which the reader can have an unambiguous rooting interest. Of course, the problem with these fantasies is that (if you are an avid, adolescent fantasy fan, you should probably stop reading now) the characters aren’t real. Sure, it is easy to hate Lord Voldemort and Sauron, but these are creations from someone’s imagination and, at that, thinly disguised variations on old literary demons, like Satan.

The Lord of the Rings especially is just an update to valiant warrior stories that have been told as long as stories have been told. This kind of cosmic battle between forces of light and dark goes back to ancient myths, was continued in legends like the Knights of the Round Table and on into the modern day. In American culture, the valiant warrior through much of the early and middle 20th century was the cowboy. In the 1960s he morphed into the secret agent. Sometimes he was a superhero, lifted from the pages of comic books. And, at various times, he was a military soldier, fighting in whatever war against whatever enemy was consuming the country at the time. And against whom were these various incarnations of the valiant warrior fighting? Certainly not the likes of Lord Voldemort or Sauron. Just as these mythic updates were based on prototypes in the real world, so their adversaries were likewise drawn from real life.

We tend to remember the old cowboy heroes fighting against savage Native Americans, and a lot of old cowboy movies did make the “injuns,” or at least certain tribes, the villains. But when I dust off an old cowboy movie, I am often surprised how often the bad guys were greedy white men. A standard plot in the westerns (cf. Cattle Queen of Montana, The Sons of Katie Elder), the villain was a land baron, using intimidation or outright violence to grow his empire by pushing some honest, hardworking settler off his rightfully owned land. Or sometimes it was the railroad company, using nefarious tactics to keep the train tracks proceeding across the continent in as straight a line as possible. In reprising this theme for his masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West, Italian director Sergio Leone acknowledged that he was bringing a European Marxist sensibility to the quintessential American myth.

In war movies, especially ones made in the heat of patriotic fervor during or soon after the wars in question, the villains were obviously the soldiers on the other side. Or, if not exactly the foot soldiers following orders, then their officers. Or their political leaders. In the world of the secret agent, which for most of the 20th century involved a cold rather than hot war, things were less clear-cut. In the James Bond movies, Western and Soviet spies were often seen to be morally equivalent, both fighting against a third (wholly made up) enemy: a secret, worldwide conspiracy intent on bringing down both superpowers, like SPECTRE. Presciently or no, these imagined organizations eerily foreshadowed the Al Qaeda network of today. So it’s a no-brainer that Al Qaeda, or a creation based on it, would make a logical villain for today’s valiant warriors. But, so far, it hasn’t really worked out that way.

By that, I don’t mean to say that terrorism, as a phenomenon, has been ignored by Hollywood. Far from it, as I have documented not once, not twice, but three times on these pages. But how many of these movies have actually been about our mythic valiant warrior fighting against the terrorists as bad guys? As far as I can see, not as many as you would think. And if you take Tom Clancy and Bruce Willis out of the equation, well, the number nearly gets negligible. But let’s focus just on the past six years, when there has actually been a declared War on Terror. Would we expect to see gung-ho movies about fighting Al Qaeda, the way we saw morale-building movies about fighting the Axis during World War II? Go ahead and name any.

I am drawn back to a comparison I made a few weeks ago, when writing about the recent summer’s secret agent variant of the valiant warrior movie, The Bourne Ultimatum. I noted that the third Bourne film and the fourth Die Hard flick were basically the same movie. Both involved loner individualist heroes, more or less single-handedly, taking on a major threat from a rogue element spawned by the U.S. government, with occasional minimal help from a hapless bystander, who gets dragged along for part of the chase. Both movies make attempts at political relevance and topicality by including elements ripped, as they say, from the headlines. And both are infused with what must be known as a post-9/11 sensibility. And are either Matt Damon or Bruce Willis fighting Middle Eastern terrorists? Of course, not. The villains in both movies are American white males in suits. (Note: worse spoilers follow.)

Now, there is a long history of such villains in Hollywood action movies. Especially during the 1970s, the villains in thrillers were likely to be rogue elements within the U.S. government, if not the entire government itself. Or else vast conspiratorial corporations, whose power dwarfs the government. These usually featured valiant warriors better known for their good looks than for their onscreen fighting prowess. Think 1974’s The Parallax View or 1975’s Three Days of the Condor.

Interestingly, our two recent summer movies more or less revive this tradition but do it from opposite sides of the political spectrum. The villain in the Die Hard movie is not actually the government, but the government is nearly complicit in the way it spawned him and is totally ill-equipped to stop him. The villain is a former security consultant/adviser (think Richard Clarke), who has been hounded and defamed by the current administration (think Joseph Wilson). Instead of terrorists attacking the country, it is the terrorist expert, demonstrating how easy it would be for terrorists to attacking—and becoming unimaginably wealthy in the process. In the case of the Bourne movie, the chief villain is a deputy director of the CIA. As far as the movie shows us, this official’s operation has not picked up any actual terrorists, but only hapless innocents who look like they might be terrorists, who are then summarily tortured. But the bulk of his time seems to be taken up with tracking down and terminating his own agents who have gone off the reservation. It is not clear how widely his activities are known and approved throughout the government, but the CIA director seems to be in on it and is quite actively involved in setting up the one good operative the agency has (think Valerie Plame) as a scapegoat.

So why so few movies to date showing Al Qaeda types as villains? Theoretically, the idea shouldn’t be too controversial. There is passionate dissent over the war in Iraq, but few people claim that Al Qaeda is not a threat, as demonstrated six years ago. Is the recently released The Kingdom the exception that proves the rule or the start of a trend? My personal belief is that, while Hollywood has never been a stranger to ethnic stereotypes, there is some real concern about stereotyping Moslems in general as terrorists. But while the chief villains in the Die Hard and Bourne movies were white Americans, it is interesting to note the apparent ethnicity of their respective henchmen. Timothy Olyphant’s goons in the Die Hard flick seem to be French, or at least French-speaking. Was that meant as some sort of neo-con joke? And the hit men sent out by David Strathairn in Bourne, while working for the U.S., seem to be straight out of central casting to look like, well, Middle Eastern terrorists.

But those are just the foot soldiers. If there is a subliminal political message here, it is that the threat is not the people doing the fighting on the ground. It is the guys in suits calling the shots. And, if big-budget Hollywood summer movies are telling us anything about what is going on in the country, these two flicks at least are telling us that people on either side of the political divide see the main threat to the country as being not so much the terrorists but, rather, their own fellow citizens on the other side of the political divide.

-S.L., 4 October 2007

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