Though the fall of the Berlin wall ended the Cold War at the close of the 1980s, it left Hollywood a villain short. America had vanquished (or ideologically absorbed) its most powerful nemesis, whilst the terrorist threat from the middle-east wouldn’t truly come into focus for another decade. Hollywood needed a bad guy, and it picked us Brits. Or more specifically, we English. We didn’t even need subtitles, since we – obviously – all spoke like Prince Charles (up until the recent fad for the ‘dropped aitch’ in US Brit-villains).
It’s hard to tell where the ‘psychopaths from Surrey’, as coined in one article on the then-emerging ‘Brit-villain’ phenomenon, really came from. Certainly there were British (and once again, almost always English) villains in Hollywood films before the nineties, but the frequency ramped up to absurd levels thereafter.
Arguably Alan Rickman’s icy portrayal of Hans Gruber in 1987’s Die Hard was a key influence in the augmentation of the average Hollywood Brit from ‘ineffective twit’ to ‘total batshit pervo psychopath’. The character may have been German but the malevolent glee and sadistic flair were definitely from the (imaginary) caning rooms of Eton. American actors were prone to worry that playing really nasty types would hurt their public image – could it be that those theatre-trained British thesps were less chary…? Once Rickman consolidated his screen-nasty status with the scenery-guzzling Sheriff Of Nottingham (see #2) in 1991, the trend was inexorable.
There are often, of course, practical motives for casting British. Equity, Britain’s acting union, has strict rules about the number of US actors a production team can import to a UK film set, often obliging the casting director to interview practically every ex-pat US actor in the UK before even considering the American first-choices of the producers (as in the pre-production of Aliens, for instance). Many villainous roles fell therefore to ‘local’ talent, back in the days when the US>UK exchange rate, tax concessions and a vast pool of technical talent and resources made Blightey practically a suburb of Hollywood in terms of the sheer number of US blockbusters that were shot here.
The US falls in and out of love with the English on a regular basis. After the swinging sixties swung their last, America was briefly awed once more at the revival of British film heralded by David Puttnam’s Chariots Of Fire at the beginning of the eighties. It fluttered its lashes at Britkind once again when The Full Monty took America by storm in 1997 (not that it stopped Hollywood casting us as the sicko psycho, a role Gary Oldman seemed determined to monopolise in that period).
US TV is little different as regards the portrayal of the English: when Gene Roddenberry needed a Brit on the Enterprise, was he really likely to have chosen a touch-phobic shopkeeper over a charming Irishman or a tough Scottish engineer? No chance. The success of London-accented Edward Woodward (born in Surrey, incidentally) as CBS’s Equaliser in the mid-eighties is the rare exception proving the rule. If Brits want to be heroes, they usually need to adopt a US accent as Lena Headey does for The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Hugh Laurie (rather more patchily) does for House. Or a Scots accent. Irish. Welsh. Anything but English.
Don’t be bringing up Deep Space Nine‘s Alexander Siddig either – he was born in the Sudan. Roger Rees’ 17-episode stint as Robin Colcord in Cheers in the 1980s is far nearer the standard Brit mark in US TV history – rich, arrogant, spoiled and even possibly a little in-bred.
No, as the ‘Lila’ character in Dexter season 2 demonstrated, the brogue may be eroding, but we’re still as horrible as ever…
10: Elizabeth Hurley – Bedazzled (2000)Born: Basingstoke, England.
The very devil! Though remaking this comic take on the Faust legend may have been ill-advised, it was nonetheless a great idea to re-cast the sulphurous Peter Cook role from the 1967 original with a woman. And since the character is evil, kinky and perverse, of course it had to be an English woman. It’s just that the Englishwoman should have been Tilda Swinton, Miranda Richardson, Lena Headey (she’s Scottish but we’ll stretch a point) or Helen Mirren, because they are able to act. Or perhaps they could have roped in the lusciously-voiced Fenella Fielding to dub Hurley’s wooden delivery, as the producers of Barbarella (1967) did when Anita Pallenberg turned in a visually stunning but theatrically deadening performance as The Great Tyrant…
9: Ray Winstone – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)Born: Hackney, London.
The Indiana Jones quadrilogy has a pretty deep-seated xenophobia behind it, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t extend to blightey, I guess. God knows, the film manages to fit in evil Ruskies and Nazis, so why not a nasty limey too? The whole franchise is based on Saturday-morning serials with ‘swarthy’ villains and fiendish foreigners, which were repeated in cut-price matinee-land when Lucas and Spielberg were growing up. It’s just that dear old down-to-Earth Ray Winstone is supposed to be exempt from doing evil in American movies because he’s not got a plum in his mouth. No kinky shenanigans for Ray – it’s the missionary position followed by pie and chips. Well apparently not, as his character George “Mac” McHale does the dirty on our hero. Blimey, is nothing sacred?
8: Most of the lead villains in the 6 Star Wars moviesPeter Cushing / Christopher Lee / Ian McDiarmidCushing: born Canterbury, England.Lee: born Belgravia, London.McDiarmid: born in Tayside, Scotland.
Peter Cushing remains one of my favourite actors from film history – when his career took off, he specialised in either of two roles – ‘nice’ or ‘evil’ – and did them both to perfection. Of course, he’s evil in Hollywood blockbuster Star Wars as Death Star supremo Grand Moff Tarkin, and gets blown to smithereens along with his evil creation for torturing and imprisoning all those Californians. Nasty Count Dooku is at least the second aristocrat of evil for screen veteran Lee, who quite rightly gets his head chopped off for being so English.
With the point proven, I’ll admit that Ian McDiarmid’s superb 3-film turn as Palpatine (Jedi/Clones/Sith) doesn’t strictly qualify here, since the actor was born in Scotland, but note that he plays the part with the accent of a Hampstead stockbroker. And whatever accent he may have tried out on Lucas when creating the part, I’m guessing it was met with “Gee, could you maybe do it a little more evil? Y’know, more English?’
Vader voicer James Earl Jones (born in Arkabutla, Mississippi) may not be English, but the guy you see on screen is – bodybuilder Dave Prowse (born in Bristol, England), the formidable physique to which Jones lent his imposing bass voice.
7: Jeremy Irons – Dungeons & Dragons (2000) / The Lion King (1994)Born: Isle of Wight, England.
Don’t worry, we’ve got Simon Gruber from Die Hard With A Vengeance listed in the bonus section. However in D&D and Lion King, Irons plays it straight from the English stately manor (although he is losing his aitches a little in the Dungeons clip below). As malevolent sorcerer Profion, the actor takes every opportunity to chew the scenery, which is pointless if you’re using an English accent in a movie: one hit of those clipped vowel sounds and we know you’re a yo-yo. As treacherous, murdering old Scar in Lion King, Irons gets back to his noble Brideshead Revisited roots, in terms of accent. We’re not counting Dead Ringers (1988) here as that’s actually a pretty intelligent horror film where Irons plays identical twins who are neither strictly good nor strictly evil.
6: Malcolm McDowell – Tank Girl (1995)Born: Leeds, England.
Yes I know he was chief Droog in A Clockwork Orange, but that was set in dystopian Britain anyway. In Rachel Talalay’s under-rated comic adaptation, McDowell is the sole Londoner among Americans, and plays ‘evil Brit’ so fortissimo as to sound a welcome note of satire on the practice. Over-ripe dialogue such as “Shoving a small, innocent child down the pipe and then slowly letting her drown…is that wrong?” is a pure delight. As Keslee in Tank Girl, this fine actor – who played a very Cushing-esque ‘nice guy’ in Nick Meyer’s Time After Time (1979) – finally gets to wear his typecasting straightjacket with a little comedy flair…
5: Charles Dance – Last Action Hero (1993)Born: Redditch, England.
John McTiernan’s unsuccessful box-office rival to Jurassic Park provided another delicious opportunity to send up the ‘evil English villain’, with Charles Dance as a white-clad, drug-eyed Brit drug-lord who seems to have saved his wardrobe from White Mischief (1987). Dance reports that his part was written for Alan Rickman, thought to have refused the project. But then, Rickman’s turn in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (see #2 below) was so ripely evil that the comedy aspect of Last Action Hero may have escaped the average viewer if he’d done it. Of course Mr. Benedict (Dance) adds weaseley treachery to his many other English sins in the movie, betraying his crime-lord boss; but then, that’s how the English are. I wouldn’t be editing Den Of Geek if there weren’t three ex-rivals propping up the Watford by-pass, all either poisoned or shot in the back while they were taking a leak…
4: Jason Isaacs – The Patriot (2000)Born: Liverpool, England.
The historical inaccuracies of Roland Emmerich’s Brit-hating extravaganza of revolutionary war have already been discussed at this site. It only remains for us to say that Isaacs portrays a psychopathic English scumbag in almost the highest register possible. Colonel Tavington burns people alive with wilful glee and sets about the innocent with a savagery and contempt that makes the Terminator look like an agony columnist by comparison.
This performance – and role, as written – sits in the same nook as #1 below, in that the anti-British sentiment behind it was borne out and amplified by American criticism of the troubles in Northern Ireland throughout the nineties. Having apparently abandoned our faded empire to become stylish and hip in the sixties, turns out we were still indulging in colonialist atrocities all along, and suddenly the Celtic contingent in Britain became the prized Anglo-Saxon underdogs (along with spiritual siblings, the Australians), with the English the tyrants again. This sentiment emerged, albeit eliptically, in Rob Roy (1995, see below), In The Name Of The Father (1993) and most famously in Braveheart (1995). Tavington is arguably the Hollywood nadir of the Brit as imperialist monster, since #1 (below) at least had a little personality.
3: Terence Stamp & Sarah Douglas – Superman (1978) / Superman II (1980)Born: Stepney, London [Stamp] / Stratford-Upon-Avon, England [Douglas].
Two of Hollywood’s earliest ‘psychopaths from surrey’ were Zod and Ursa in Superman / Superman II, as portrayed by Terence Stamp and Sarah Douglas. Kinky, black-clad, sociopathic, selfish and sadistic, their main impetus for power seemed to be the sheer boredom of the idle English rich, as imagined by the rest of the world. At the beginning of Superman, the Eva Braun-like Ursa was singled out (by noble American Marlon Brando) as ‘perverted’. The Nazi motif is quite apparent, and happens to tie in to the way the New Romantic movement in England developed and extended punk rock’s ‘love-to-shock’ fascination with the SS.
2: Alan Rickman – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)Born: Hammersmith, London.“Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!”
In Kevin Reynolds’ take on the legend, all the good guys are cast American and the nasties English (the sole exception being Michael Wincott as Guy of Gisborne – this Canadian actor has made a speciality of English-accented villains, as we’ll see in the ‘Bonus Lists’ below). I’m guessing a lot of people think that Rickman’s ripe and avid take on the disgustingly evil Sheriff of Nottingham should be number #1. If the character hadn’t pulled the same odd tactic as Ming The Merciless in 1980’s Flash Gordon – forcing a woman he desired to marry him when he had enough power to simply exploit her – he’d be at the top. The notion that marrying the king’s cousin (Maid Marian, as played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) would get Nottingham any nearer the throne was pretty silly given that he was inciting treason throughout the movie.
1: Tim Roth – Rob Roy (1995)Born: Dulwich, London.
[after brutally raping Rob Roy’s wife] “Think of yourself a scabbard, Mistress McGregor, and I the sword. And a fine fit you were, too,”
“It is years, Your Grace, since I buggered a boy…and in my own defence, I must add, I thought him a girl at the moment of entry.”
[to his tearful groupie, after abandoning her through boredom] “Love is a dung hill, Betty, and I am but a cock that climbs upon it to crow.”
The Martian invasion will indeed start in England if Rob Roy is the only film that made it through the space-static to the red planet. Archibald Cunningham is the first motherfucker you’d want dead. He rapes (more than once – he likes rape), he kills, he cheats, he steals…Tim Roth takes the template of Hollywood-English-psychopath as only the basest foundation on which to build a far worse incarnation of Anglo-Saxon sadism.
In a chat at The Hollywood Interview, Roth discussed the role:
“It was so over-the-top…I thought ‘When the studios see the dailies, I’m fucked. I’m going to get fired for sure’…My whole aim was: underneath the powdered wig, and foppish exterior, is a skinhead. Underneath the wig is a psychopath, and all the rest is dress-up.”
You might have detected a faint note of hostility from me in this article at Hollywood’s portrayal of the English, but in all truth Rob Roy is an under-rated classic, and Roth possibly the nastiest screen villain of all time. To boot, the film closes with absolutely the best sword-fight I have ever seen, choreographed with as much psychology as footwork….
[Sorry, they pulled the clip, even in the context of it being practically an ad for the movie!]
HONOURABLE MENTIONS:Donald Pleasance – Fantastic Voyage (1966) Robin Sachs – Galaxy Quest (1999)Robert Shaw – The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) — Shaw died in County Mayo, Ireland, but was born in Lancashire. I’m indebted to houndtang for pointing out the error in the original post. The actor plays a truly psychotic English ex-soldier in the excellent original version of the impending remake.
Evil English villains played by non-Brit actorsJoaquin Phoenix (accent) – Gladiator (2000)Billy Zane and Francis Fisher – Titanic (1998) Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Michael Wincott – The Count Of Monte Cristo (2002) / The Three Musketeers (1993) — Okay, if he was French in these movies, where’s the French accent? This actor loves playing English villains (see #2 above), almost as much as Monte Cristo director Kevin Reynolds relishes them (again, see #2) . In Monte Cristo, Wincott and his English brogue delight in giving protagonist Jim Caviezel a bloody and merciless thrashing every year on the anniversary of his incarceration; a nice piece of research by Wincott, as we English do love to sadistically thrash innocent people on the faintest pretext (this act is not in the Alexander Dumas source-novel, by the way).
Non-British villains nonetheless played by British actors
Gary Oldman – Lost In Space (1998), Dracula (1991), Air Force One (1997), JFK (1991), The Fifth Element (1997) — Brit-nasty par excellence Oldman was the ‘go to’ guy for screen psychos for the several years that he was building up his retirement fund in Hollywood. I’m a huge fan of Oldman, but I can’t help feeling that the odd ‘strange look’ an Englishman gets in America is directly attributable to some of his higher-paid work…
Sean Bean – The Hitcher (2007) Alfred Molina – Spiderman 2 (2004) Laurence Olivier – Marathon Man (1976) Daniel Craig and Jude Law – The Road To Perdition (2002) Bill Nighy – Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List (1993) / Red Dragon (2003) Daniel Day Lewis – Gangs of New York (2002) Tilda Swinton – Constantine (2005), Michael Clayton (2007)
Tim Curry – Legend (1985), Annie (1982), Scary Movie 2 (2001, and the fact his character is called ‘Oldman’ is surely a loving tribute to prolific Brit-villain Gary). And let’s not forget It.
Anthony Hopkins – Silence Of The Lambs (1991), Nixon (1995), The Road To Wellville (1994) — Admittedly Hopkins is not a villain in Wellville, but you try and get an American actor to play an impotent eccentric who enjoys giving himself enemas with a surgical instrument shaped like a phallus…
Alan Rickman – Die Hard (1987) Jeremy Irons – Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995) Christian Bale – American Psycho (2000) / Shaft (2000) Malcolm McDowell – Star Trek: Generations (1994) Art Malik – True Lies (1994)
Now if you’ll excuse me, some of my more fetching servants require a good spanking, and after that I have some helpless furry animals that need ruthlessly experimenting on (not trying to discover anything, it’s just for fun).