Hollywood’s rules about foreign villains have never really changed. The studios choose bad guys from countries where they have no economic stake… or from Britain. They go to extraordinary lengths not to compromise the commercial prospects of their movies by offending audiences in the countries where they are being shown. Their sensitivity has never extended to the Brits. They realise that we will go and see their films regardless, even if an Alan Rickman or a Basil Rathbone, a Claude Rains, a George Sanders or a Jeremy Irons is cast as the latest version of the devil incarnate.
We Brits remain hardy perennials in Hollywood’s hit parade of torturers, bombers, kidnappers and general all-round troublemakers but the nationality of the other villains of choice is in a constant state of flux. The Germans had the top villainous spot for obvious reasons in the middle part of the last century. Russians in the Cold War were a reliable source of antagonists. The French – “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” as they were demonised during the dark days of George W Bush – have flitted in and out of focus. The Japanese were bad guys in the Second World War and then again in the 1980s and 1990s, when their car and electronics manufacturers were drubbing their American competitors.
With the US studios desperate to establish a foothold in the fast growing Chinese market, it is clearly a very bad idea to have too many films with heroic Rambo types taking on Red Army soldiers, opium smugglers or cyber hackers. The same applies to the Middle Eastern and North African market. India (through the Reliance Group) is already helping bankroll big American movies.
By a natural process of elimination, all this leads to North Korea’s current status as Hollywood’s favourite source of bad guys. In the new remake of 1984 Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen movie Red Dawn (objectionable enough in its own right), the residents in a typical American town in Washington State wake up one morning to see North Korean paratroopers dropping from the sky. Chris Hemsworth and various other rugged and square-jawed young patriots fight back against the alien invaders.
Audiences watching the film probably won’t be aware that the North Koreans are themselves the fall guys in this instance. Those diabolic paratroopers were originally supposed to be Chinese but the film was digitally re-edited because of Hollywood’s new-found hyper-sensitivity about compromising its chances in what is rapidly becoming its most important market.
Another new action film, Olympus Has Fallen, sees North Koreans taking over the White House.
The flippancy with which Hollywood switches villains is profoundly depressing. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been very aggressive in his anti-US rhetoric and threats to unleash missiles. Nonetheless, US action movies aren’t interested in the nuances of geo-politics or in trying to understand the psychology or problems of“ the enemy.” These films could have been made with Martians or zombies without making the slightest difference to their narrative sweep. After all, all their producers want is somebody for their heroes to shoot at.