A popular movie often provides a decent snapshot of the society responsible for producing it, and the shifting values of the people in that society. Comparing those snapshots over time can prove a fruitful tool in tracking changes in that society, its people, their concerns, hopes, anxieties etc. Certainly there’s a good deal to be learned from the heroes of yesterday and today. While a pretty sizable gender, race and income gap remains among today’s protagonists, strides are being taken away from the trend of white, middle class-to-rich men that dominated the silver screen almost exclusively from film’s inception to the 1960s-‘70s. And regardless of time frame, skin tone, chromosomal structure or account balance heroes tend generally toward the same characteristics- they’re forthright, attractive, fight for what’s right and ultimately succeed despite bad odds.
Villains, however, function as much more interesting barometer for those aforementioned societal mores, concerns, anxieties and broader trends. Westerns are considered the one uniquely American film genre and one can often be correspondingly representative of American culture. It’s become a sociological cliché to point out, but until American Indian pride movements and more comprehensive awareness of American Indian issues, Indians were basically always cast as either faceless, painted savages endangering honest settler-folk or empty caricatures of “good Indians”, the Noble Savage. Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s helpful, Pidgin-speaking sidekick, is a good example. In one of the first episodes Tonto tells the Ranger, “Here hat. Me wash in stream. Dry in sun. Make whiter.”
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1939, movies (and every other media) featured open and vehement anti-Japanese racism. The overt racism lasted for decades to come; watch Mickey Rooney’s horrifying portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) if you doubt it. Thankfully, not so long after ’61, that sort of prejudice was soon considered verboten and the Japanese were generally cinematically ignored until the 1980s. In another case of patent bigotry giving way to a more subtle xenophobia, the scheming, inscrutable, lecherous, treacherous Japanese threat to American safety became the financially-scheming, ruthless, inscrutable, looming Japanese threat to American finances.
Those that came up after the ‘80s probably have no idea how distressed the US population was by the idea of a single-minded Japanese business behemoth buying our country out from underneath us. European investment in the US far outstripped that of Japan in the ‘80s, with Germany alone snapping up far more American holdings than Japan did then or does now (same story with the Dutch and British). However, the Japanese Investor was a perennial bugbear for the average American. Movies that directly or indirectly contribute to and reflect that anxiety are way, way too numerous to list but include Die Hard, Black Rain, Empire of the Sun, Back to the Future (II), Gung Ho, Rising Sun, etc.
After the Munich Olympics Israeli Team’s massacre in 1972, the Iranian Hostage Crisis 1979-81, the Iran-Contra scandal, wars in Israel throughout the ‘60s-‘70s, Anwar Sadat’s assassination, the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the reaction to Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses” and an upswing in global Islamic terrorism, Muslims (Arabs in particular) often won roles as violent, backwards, fanatical killers. That paradigm continues to this day.
Of course, the consummate, preeminent 80s boogeyman was The Russians. In fact, they were probably the most popular American ethnic foe from 1946-1991. However, when the Cold War cooled out completely with the Soviet Union’s collapse, Hollywood found themselves without believable Slavic baddies for years. That is until they discovered the Russian Communist menace could be replaced by the Russian Capitalist menace- gangsters. It’s another dynamic that’s gotten much mileage in Tinsel Town. Many a foreign horde’s invasion of the big screen (certainly the Japanese and Chinese) has been revitalized by a career in crime. Nowadays, it’s unlikely you could throw a rock in a video store (if such a thing even exists anymore) without hitting a new release being terrorized by a Mexican drug cartel.
Villains have been changed (and arguably improved) by societal evolution as well. For instance, Psycho was one of the first movies to (overtly, at least) attribute violent criminal behavior to mental illness rather than greed or vague, general badness. Looking back, the diagnosis and explanation of psychopathy given by the psychiatrist at the end of Hitchcock’s horror godfathering film is a strange amalgam of violent psychosis, dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities), some hybrid of schizophrenia and sociopathy. Nevertheless, it was a step toward a more nuanced understanding of criminality.
Now that mental illness is better understood, to some degree the stigma regarding the afflictions of a mental illness has eased off. The result’s been its inclusion as a more common motivator for the villainous. As is often the case with the ethnic, social, gender-inequality of heroes and villains in Hollywood history, a step forward can prove a step back as well. Answering to Hollywood as they do, filmmakers are characteristically more interested in the effect of villainy (and its subsequent smashing by good guys) than its cause. So evil madmen are often just mad.
Movies don’t have much commitment to differentiation between the sorts of disturbances that actually can make people more prone to committing acts of violence, like antisocial personality disorders, anger disorders, narcissistic personalities, etc. Oftentimes, like in Psycho, these madmen have mix-and-match “craziness”, a condition that’s enough to account for their badness. Because of that (and selective news reporting) the rate at which the public mistakenly believes that people suffering from some form of psychosis (usually schizophrenia) are much more prone to violent has doubled since the 1950s.
Happily, I happen to be a societal optimist and as such I’m convinced that we are moving forward as a people regarding race, class, gender, sexuality, mental illness and the like. There will be future setbacks and irresponsible villainization or typecasting of population groups (like Jar Jar Binks and many of the other seeming purposefully racial-stereotype-conforming aliens in The Phantom Menace), but it’s my hope and belief that those growing pains will eventually yield us a more open, accepting and inclusive world.
Zack Mandell is a movie enthusiast, writer of movie reviews, and owner of www.movieroomreviews.com which has great information on actors such as Aaron Eckhart and films like Top Gun. He writes extensively about the movie industry for sites like Gossip Center, Yahoo, NowPublic, and Helium.