With their clipped accents and ‘special relationship’ with the US, it’s always been convenient for Brits to play Hollywood’s villains.
Just plain evil! Downright dastardly, no good swine. Since the dawn of Hollywood, the Brit has always been able to earn a paycheque as long as they’re good at playing bad. If you look back at some of the iconic evil characters in films through almost any time period, you’ll notice a distinct contingent of British actors smattered throughout. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Terence Stamp as Zod, Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman. In fact, there’s a whole denizen of renowned Brits who’ve made an entire career out of being a bit of a bad egg. Look at Sir Christopher Lee, Alan Rickman, Charles Dance, Jeremy Irons…the list goes on. Heck, in the original Star Wars trilogy (you know, the good one), almost every member of the evil Empire is British.
The imperial history of Britain makes it easy to paint them as power hungry tyrants who take things that don’t belong to them
Hollywood, for all its foibles, is incredibly good at tapping into the zeitgeist. What this means is that it can produce something that is perfectly of its age almost without rival. Take the post-war period, and the war films where the brave Americans saved the day from those troublesome Nazis. For a while, every questionable character was of Germanic origin, right through until the Cold War – then it was all about the Russians. Nowadays your standard villain tends to be a bit, well, Middle Eastern in a very generic and undefined sense. But even through all of this, the Brit actor has been a mainstay. James Mason as Vandamm in North by Northwest, Steven Berkoff as the Russian General Orlov in Octopussy, and Sir Ben Kingsley as the generic Eastern foreigner (presumably Chinese) Mandarin in Iron Man 3.
You could point to America’s own history and say that, because of the unreserved patriotism that swells in the chest of every proud American, the British are subconsciously associated with evil acts because of the War of Independence. The imperial history of Britain makes it easy to paint them as power hungry tyrants who like to take things that don’t belong to them, and the rest of the world tends to nod along in agreement. There’s also the accent, the clipped vowels and strained tones linked with an inherent snobbishness. It’s this link that is heavily played on – the general public like to see the downfall of the supercilious, and it may also go some way to explaining the Brit villain phenomenon.
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British actors speak English, obviously, as do Americans, and so the finding of a British actor who speaks the language is a darn sight easier than say, finding an Uzbek actor who speaks the language. Now, said British actor may not be able to do a convincing Uzbek accent, but his accent is definitely not American, and so the audience can still identify him as a shifty foreigner type rather than an upstanding citizen of the United States. And yet, Brits have been fighting back against this typecasting as the sneaky cads who like to ruin everyone’s fun by becoming more heroic. By introducing the American audience to the bumbling Brit (see Hugh Grant and Colin Firth), they’ve managed to lower the expectations of evil and build on it from there.
The UK is never going to get up and cry racism just because we’re seen taking over the world again. In fact, we kind of like it
Sneaking into more grandiose roles has gradually built the Brit up as a far sturdier, more honour-bound creature, and all those years of having to master other foreign accents has finally paid off, as the Brits have started nicking American roles. There is nothing more defiantly American than the comic book superhero yet, in recent years, the big three have been taken on by British actors. Spider-Man sees Andrew Garfield swinging across the New York skyline, whilst the Dark Knight films heralded a grislier, but still heroic Batman for Christian Bale to get his teeth into. The real killer blow was when Henry Cavill landed the role of the all-American Superman. The Brits have turned the tables and are now saving the day as well.
Maybe the real point here is that there is an enduring connection between the US and UK that can see America cast the British as evil without too much problem. Although there may be the occasional Anglo sigh at seeing another bad guy Brit in films, the United Kingdom is never going to get up and cry racism just because we’re seen taking over the world again. In fact, we kind of like it – we’ve even taken to embracing it, as the latest advert for a certain British car manufacturer pointed out.
Featured image: Orion
Inset image: Warner