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Issue #8

They Only Wanted to Rule the World: A Celebration of Cinematic Villainy, Part VII Buy now from Movies Unlimited! 

M. Christian

“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

In literature, a “straw man” is an adversary that exists only to provide the hero with an excuse to be heroic, but nothing more. Straw men are shallow, more a force than fully realized, multi-dimensional characters. While villains traditionally are contrary to their protagonists in complex ways, straw men are more two-dimensional. While a more finely crafted adversary might evoke understanding or even sympathy, straw men make dramatic gestures that serve no purpose other than to add fuel to the fire. While straw men occasionally serve their purpose, their appearance in films usually suggests a writer’s lack of talent rather than a deliberate move away from sympathetic villainy. Too often, it is as though the author suddenly realized that the audience might not understand whom they should be rooting for. They resort to white hats for the good guys, black for the villains.

While the straw man may be fashioned in an interesting or even stylish way, there remains an emptiness to the character. Except in some rare instances, we don’t know why they act the way they do, their motivations, the way they came to be the way they are. They have nothing to tie them to our sympathies or understanding—only our fear. These characters are not formed as an avenue to examine their lives and choices—or for that matter allow the audience to do the same—but to provide the protagonists with something to react to, a focal point for fulfilling their heroic destinies.

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Much has been written about George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977)—from hyperbole-laced praise to venom-dripping criticism—but few would argue that for such a simple (and relatively cheap) film, it is pretty much singularly responsible for redefining cinematic science fiction for all time: for audiences, certainly, but more importantly for the entertainment industry. A quick look at the history of science fiction post- and pre- Star Wars shows its influence. There were certainly great science fiction films before Star Wars, but few were accessible to the general public and even fewer were financial successes for the studios. After Star Wars, however, science fiction meant less science and more fiction, as well as many more explosions and the possibility of a much greater profit margin.

Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope when it appeared that Lucas might actually be able to complete his vision of a film saga) altered the way science fiction was presented cinematographically. From the first scene, Star Wars is bright, loud, and different. Full of humor, awe-inspiring visuals, true-blue heroes and too-black villains, the firm embraces the old classics while winking at a jaded, modern audience. It’s hard to call the film well directed because the style is so broad and forced—but then that was the intention. Subtlety has never been the hallmark of a swashbuckler. The same could be said of the acting: while some scenes are fun, memorable performances are few and far between. The script wasn’t written to be considered brilliant storytelling, but rather a road map between hopefully memorable moments of action, bracketed by humor.

It would be lax in a history of cinema villainy to not discuss Darth Vader. Vader is a visually striking character, a black-on-black-on-black, glossy-helmeted, leather-gloved poster child for villainy. Yet it’s unfortunate that such a groundbreaking film, especially one that redefined science fiction movies and re-introduced audiences to the idea of Saturday matinee extravaganzas should feature such a flat and uninteresting villain.

Vader is a classic two-dimensional threat, a villain without depth or humanity. Even his first appearance—with dramatic music, asthmatic breathing, billowing smoke, nasty-looking stormtroopers, and an act of pointless cruelty—serves no other purpose but to introduce him as a symbol of fear. After capturing Princess Leia Organa’s (Carrie Fisher) rebel ship and her Laurel and Hardy ’droids, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), Vader’s flunkies swarm the corridors. After the way’s been paved by the stormtroopers, Vader appears on stage. Vader’s first appearance is still memorable, though more for his classic design than true substance as a character: a gleaming black engine striding through smoke over the bodies of the dead, heavy breathing his only commentary. Almost immediately, the cliché of good guys in white and bad guys in black is obvious—having the storm troopers in similar dark clothing would lessen the visual impact of Vader’s darkness.

It would be unfair to not mention Vader’s wonderful voice, supplied by the originally unaccredited James Earl Jones (who, it is rumored, originally didn’t want to be listed in the credits because his role “wasn’t big enough”). What irony that David Prowse, who carried the sole credit for Vader for a long time, is nothing but bulk without Jones’s thunderous tones.

At the dinner table, a bit of Skywalker’s history slips out in an attempt to add some complexity to both Vader and Skywalker. Responding to the impetuous youth’s chaffing to join the academy, the Skywalker’s Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) comments “He has too much of his father in him,” to which his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) responds “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Vader (vader being Dutch for “father”) is, of course, Skywalker’s father, even though this is not stated conclusively until the second film, Star Wars: Episode V#151;The Empire Strikes Back (1980), directed by Irvin Kershner. While this could have been a statement of how the son does not have to become the father, or how the father’s goodness may be pulled out by the son (and is, in Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi), Lucas simply isn’t good enough a writer or director to fully utilize the potential. After all, how can one feel anything for a character whose face is never seen, whose gestures are nothing but violent or brutal, and who is never seen to have any worldly human desires or real emotions? While the hints are there in Star Wars, they are lost because Vader is never a fully-realized character, just the shadow of one. If we knew more about Vader, if he were something more than just a scary straw man, then his relationship with Skywalker (both in the first film as well as the following ones) might have been more meaningful.

Other hints as to Vader’s past come when Skywalker sets out in pursuit of the wayward ’droid, an act which then gets them introduced to Obi-Wan Kenobi. (How unfortunate that Guinness should be remembered by so many only for this small role—a role said to be largely despised by Guinness himself. Still, the film would have been watchable if not for the professional sacrifices of both Guinness as well as Peter Cushing. Viewed over twenty-five years later, Star Wars is a painfully amateur production—especially seeing how many of the actors have grown as performers since. Cushing and Guinness, without seemingly any effort, add a much needed air of refinement and professionalism to the film.)

Kenobi gives pretty much a complete background to Skywalker, plying layer upon layer of exposition—fertile ground for the three-prequel films that followed. Kenobi also lies to Skywalker, telling him with only a touch of deception that Vader killed Skywalker’s father. The lie is disturbing, especially since the writing is so clumsy. It would have been perhaps more obvious (though not as obvious as naming the character “Vader”) for Kenobi to have said that Vader had destroyed all that Skywalker’s father stood for. Such a statement would still leave room for his revelation that that destruction had been a turnabout, a betrayal rather than murder. In fact, there are myriad better ways the scene could have been handled without Kenobi lying to Skywalker, though fans of the films have pointed out that Kenobi was just trying to make the separation of son from dark father more certain, with less chance of Skywalker following his father to the “dark side.”

At this point, Kenobi also explains the religious aspect of the film, the idea of “the Force.” Viewed cynically, the Force could be considered a single, cheap trick on the part of Lucas. Viewed more broadly, the Force is a spiritual path, one that offers a fork in the road. While there is some idea of choice, there is also the Judeo-Christian idea of spiritual ’seduction’—that the dark side of the Force is powerful and attractive, a snare for the unwary. It also tells us who we should be rooting for. Vader is not just single-minded and cruel, he’s also a puppet for something darker and even nastier. We therefore can hate not only one faceless bad guy—Vader—but also this “darkness” that not only threatens the universe but also consumed Skywalker’s father. The Force also raises the stakes—no longer is the battle between stalwart rebels and the Nazi-esque Empire, but a battle between archetypal warrior knights, one black and one (off-)white.

After Kenobi’s exposition, the film shifts to the Death Star, the planet-sized battle station referenced in the opening of the film, and the plans that provide the heroes’ main motivation. During a sit-down with the officers of the station, Vader exhibits more of his clumsy characterization. When one Imperial puffs out his chest over the destruction of their grossly-oversized world, Vader sneers—or at least he could be sneering, if we could see his face—and says “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” The line is clumsy and ridiculous, especially since this supposedly awesome power Vader fawns over is next used to strangle the impetuous officer from across the room: a feat hardly comparable to the dramatic device of a world-sized space station. The scene is a grand attempt to show the “frightening” power of Vader and his heavy-handed menace.

In an attempt to get Leia to talk, Tarkin again exhibits his true villainy—and shows Vader’s ignorance—when he suggests an “alternative form of persuasion.” Vader replies, in the role of the menacing flunky. “What do you mean?” He is now reduced to setting up someone else’s line. Vader’s villainous worth is even further diminished when Leia greets Tarkin with “I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash,” implying that Vader is nothing but a thug to Tarkin’s villainy. Tarkin orders the princess’s homeworld destroyed in an attempt to get her to talk. If this scene had featured Vader rather than Tarkin it would have done much to raise Vader from weapon to actual villain, as the lines are actually quite good—superb, in fact for a villain: demanding Leia choose to either sacrifice the secret rebel base or her own peaceful home world. Up against such a choice, Leia caves in and names the rebel base, to which Tarkin neatly thanks her, further insults Vader (“See, Lord Vader, she can be reasonable”), and still destroys her home as punishment for her clumsy lie. During this most villainous scene, Vader is simply left in the background, apparently twiddling his thumbs without the courage or permission to even refute these insults.

Emerging from hyperspace, amid the rocky remains of the world, the crew of the Falcon meanwhile is neatly snatched up by the station. The rest of the film is an open homage to classic serials, right down to the rescue of the princess, impending death by crushing walls, a swing across a chasm, tension relieving moments of humor—all that’s missing is a landslide, a fight on top of a moving train, and a heroine threatened by buzz saw. In regard to Vader, the sequence has some opportunities to reveal some saving graces and the expected battle between good Force and bad Force. One of the better Vader moments is when it’s implied that he’s the brains behind the plan to not execute the princess but instead allow her to escape and so lead the Empire to the real rebel base.

Another good moment is when Vader detects Ben Kenobi and expresses his need to face him alone. The line is interesting because it further redeems Vader from black-on-black terror object to fallen knight who feels he has to face his old comrade and teacher in an “honorable” duel. If Vader had any kind of depth, there might have been some question as to the outcome, a hint of possible redemption, a suggestion that his past and Luke’s may have been intertwined, then the final battle would have had more meaning. As it is, Vader’s spontaneous discovery of his “honor” does nothing but put the two characters together for a final showdown.

The conclusion of Star Wars continues true to formula, with a few interesting moments of merit. Despite the acknowledgement that their escape from the Death Star had been too easy, Leia still takes the heroes to the secret base. Another validation of Vader’s intelligence comes when Tarkin gives him a hard time for pinning their hopes on a tracker on their ship and allowing the princess to escape. Vader also gives the last good villainous line as the station approaches the rebel planet: “This will be a day long remembered. It’s seen the end of Kenobi and will soon see the end of the rebellion.” It’s a good gloat, mainly because it brings Vader up from the background into the foreground—and hints that he might be giddy at having killed Kenobi, even though Vader saw his old master vanish before his eyes.

Skywalker gets his chance to be the great pilot he was foreshadowed to be. Solo shows himself to be a real hero, saving the day and incidentally sending the nasty, heavy-breathing Vader spinning off into space, no doubt to haunt our victorious characters again at some time in the future.

Star Wars changed a lot of things: it heralded the rediscovery of the Saturday matinee and the serial, it altered forever the face of science fiction (for better or for worse), it made the studios listen to a new generation of eager young directors, and reintroduced audiences to the idea that it’s actually okay to hate, without qualm, the guys in back and root, without shame, for the guys in white. How profoundly disappointing that the film couldn’t have created a villain more memorable for his character than his interesting costume.

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While there continues a lively debate over the artistic merits of Star Wars, there is little surrounding The Black Hole (1979) that followed it two years later. Everyone, it would seem, hates it.

The reasons are multifold, too many to comprehensively list here. The hackneyed script (Jeb Rosebrook and Bob Barbash provided the story, Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Davis contributed the screenplay), clumsy direction (Gary Nelson), unimaginative set design, mediocre acting, embarrassingly dated topic (although black holes were the science fiction element of the moment in 1977): the list goes on. It also stands out as having one of the worst villains of the period—particularly frustrating as Disney films have had (and continue to have) some of the most interesting villains in film.

Obviously using 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a basis (and failing miserably to measure up to either that film or James Mason’s superb villain, Captain Nemo), The Black Hole tries to bring science fiction back to classic themes (true-blue heroes, mad scientists, etc.)—and, like Star Wars, it feels transparent.

The film opens with our dauntless crew—heroic Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), impetuously youthful Lieutenant Charles “Charley” Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), blinded scientist Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), token female Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), crusty pragmatist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) and V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (voiced by Roddy McDowall), the comic relief and action figure robot—discovering the long-lost U. S. S. Cygnus hanging on the edge of “the most powerful destructive force in the universe,” a black hole. Before we even meet the villain of the film, we’re told several important pieces of information: Durant (Perkins) is an over-educated fool (he calls Reinhardt a “legend” with obvious awe in his voice); Harry (Borgnine) (who says that Reinhardt was arrogant and belligerent) is a down-to-earth engineer, the “everyman” voice of reason.

After a quick, manufactured crisis that serves no other function than to satisfy the audience’s ’thrill-quotient’ and lay some ample foreshadowing, the crew is finally on board the gothic monstrosity, the Cygnus. They are brought first to the thug robot, Maximillian, and then to the plainly mad Reinhardt who sets himself right into the mold described by Harry when he insults the party. The cute-to-formula robot, Vincent reinforces this notion: “Now, now, Maximillian, don’t pick on small people.” The line is painfully obvious, as is the entire scene.

To be fair, Schell tries his best with the role, obviously struggling with the cardboard character to give it a depth, or at least amusement, not reflected in the childish script. Working within a wolfman’s head of frizzy hair and vast streaked beard, Schell’s performance is an example of a classic uphill battle between performer and a claustrophobic role: he seems with every line, every glance, every gesture to be struggling to escape the simplicity of Reinhardt. Unfortunately, his interpretation seems to be that only a madman would spout such obvious clichés, and so his Reinhardt seems to be less the driven, obsessed genius and more the hysteric madman.

Reinhardt is so transparent the film becomes nothing but an excuse for a series of set pieces highlighting Cygnus as a creepy castle and Reinhardt as the mad scientist in residence. To drive home the point, even Frankenstein is evoked, completing the sad inventory of monsters to which this film aspires but fails to reach.

Reinhardt gets some time to wring his hands and drool with evil intent when the crew is invited to dinner (a cheap villain’s favorite venue). If there was ever any question as to what Reinhardt intends to do to the cleft-jawed bunch it’s answered in a particularly clumsy moment of threat when Reinhardt toasts the crew as “The only earth people to know of my existence.” Further into the production, Schell turns to chewing the scenery, repeating cliché after cliché, so deeply cementing Reinhardt’s cardboard villainy that the film only becomes interesting to see how many more clichés the writer and director can pile on.

The only really noteworthy moment in the film is when the odd (to put it mildly) Frankenstein and monster relationship between Reinhardt and Maximillian is touched on. Now afraid of his own creation, Reinhardt pathetically implores “Protect me from Maximillian,” after the robot kills Durant. The remainder of the film is not worth noting, save for students of special effects or bad film-making. The Cygnus is destroyed, our crew escapes by flying through the mysterious black hole, and all is well.

Reinhardt, crushed by a view screen, pleads for help from his robot and the crew he lobotomized but his pathetic cries go unanswered. This element is not that bad, considering, but that it goes ignored and unexplored only adds one more missed opportunity to the film.

The last scene is what most people point to when they talk about the failure of the film, an image that reflects on the creation of Reinhardt and how the production would have us view him. A potentially complex villain is completely tossed away for the sake of clumsy Christian imagery, the worst kind of cheap shot one can give a bad guy. The audience sees, without any subtlety whatsoever, that judgement was done and that, in the end, Reinhardt is trapped within the shell of his surrogate son, Maximillian, to suffer for all eternity in a Walt Disney vision of hell.

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A well-created villain not only gives a protagonist something respectable to battle and defeat; they also reflect on the difference between good and evil. They can reveal, for instance, that the two sides of the coin are not so disparate as we might think.

Filmmakers too often resort to villains who are simply there to scare, to serve only as targets to be knocked down. Characters like Darth Vader and Dr. Hans Reinhardt might look bad and do bad things, but because they are so poorly drawn they do not show us anything about the heroes they oppose, about how they came to be what they are, or about ourselves for despising or fearing them. If they show us anything, these straw men reveal more about the shortcuts the filmmakers have taken than anything honest and deep about the human nature or what can make a truly memorable black-hearted villain.

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M. Christian is the author of over 100 short stories, editor of seven anthologies, columnist and, in general, a really busy guy. His first collection of short stories, Dirty Words, is out now from Alyson Books—with a second volume, Speaking Parts, coming out next year (also from Alyson Books). For more information, check out his website.

Copyright © 2002 by the author. All rights reserved.