Yanks are starring on foreign screens -- and it ain't a pretty sight.
- By Michael IdovMichael Idov is contributing editor at New York magazine and author of Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design.
Night. Iraq. An American Humvee patrol, trailed by the ominous strains of horror-movie cello, nears an idyllic country wedding, all colored lights and thumping folk music. "Who’s in charge of this, this gathering?" spits out the American commander, wrinkling his bulbous nose. We all know what’s coming, and minutes later, there it is: the groom, spattered with blood; the bride, mid-howl, raising her eyes heavenward in slow motion. "We did a hell of a good job there, Lieutenant," drawls one Yank to another, puffing on a cigarette that must surely be a Marlboro.
If you want to see the face of the Ugly American over the decade since the 9/11 attacks launched the United States into an aggressive "global war on terror," look no further than the rest of the world’s movie screens. After decades as bumbling but well-intentioned tourists, G-men, cold warriors, and capitalist fat cats, Americans in global cinema of the early 21st century are door-kicking soldiers and torturing medics, from the brutes of Turkey’s Valley of the Wolves: Iraq to the devilish Army doctor in the South Korean horror film The Host. Given U.S. preoccupations over the last 10 years, this is hardly surprising or undeserved. But it’s a stark shift nonetheless — to turn from abstract hegemon to ground-level menace.
Not all the grunts in foreign films are bad guys, of course: The soldier character manages to embody the entire gamut of American archetypes, roughly depending on the source country’s stance on the Iraq war. The one unabashedly adoring, sunshine-and-Coca-Cola American character I have seen in non-Anglophone cinema of the 2000s was in the delightful California Dreamin’ from Romania (which sent a force of 730 to Iraq). In this 2007 comedy, a minor paperwork error detains a U.S. troop at a rural Romanian train station, which gives the station agent’s daughter time to fall in love with one of the soldiers.
Aggrieved Turkey, on the other hand, gave the world Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, the one with the wedding-crasher Yank commandos. The 2006 action film was Turkey’s most expensive and highest-grossing ever, costing $10 million to shoot and making $28 million. Its plot piles a wild revenge scenario atop a real snafu: the accidental 2003 NATO arrest of several Turkish officers, with the detainees seen on TV in Abu Ghraib-style hoods. Barely a news blip in the United States, the "hood event," as it’s known in Turkey, became such a sore point that, three years later, the country packed cinemas to cheer as a group of fictional Turkish supermen infiltrated Iraq and murdered the commander responsible for the errant raid. The real-life American officer found himself portrayed by B-grade villain specialist Billy Zane, who first shows up in a fedora and an ascot; his opening line is "Make no mistake. We will kill you." A comprehensive compendium of Muslim anxieties about American power, the film also throws in a fake Lynndie England, that Iraqi wedding bombing, and, for good measure, an Army doctor — played by Gary Busey as a conniving Jewish stereotype — who steals prisoners’ livers for wealthy clients in New York and Tel Aviv. I haven’t seen the latest installment by the film’s team, Valley of the Wolves: Palestine, which apparently gives the same evenhanded treatment to the 2010 Gaza flotilla storming.
What’s fascinating about Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, and the new crop of such films in general, is the increasing participation of Americans in America-bashing. Twenty years ago, the evil Yanks of Valley would have been played, in bad English, by bottle-blond Turks and perhaps a German or two. Now, there’s Zane and Busey. In fact, a whole group of low- to mid-level Hollywood players has proven more than willing to accept such gigs: Armand Assante (who also happens to play a crusty but lovable captain in California Dreamin’), Michael Madsen, Rutger Hauer, and others. I’d love to posit some theory about Hollywood self-hatred here, but it’s much more likely that we’re seeing a curious byproduct of the globalized film economy. With Turkish studios now more able to compete with Zane’s salary for, say, the straight-to-DVD Stephen Baldwin vehicle Silent Warnings, everyone can get their foreign villains directly from the source.
And there are plenty of bad roles for them to play. When the American soldier isn’t a love-struck pinup or a sadistic killer, he is an oblivious jerk loosing hell upon the world with his negligence: a compromise view, of sorts. Take the opening scene of the South Korean horror film The Host, also from 2006, in which the United States accidentally creates a many-tentacled amphibian monster by dumping formaldehyde into a Korean river. "Pour [the bottles] right down the drain, Mr. Kim," sneers the American character, another Army doctor, in English. "That’s right.… The Han River is very broad, Mr. Kim. Let’s try to be broad-minded about this. Anyway, that’s an order. So start pouring."
But the decade’s most viciously and pointedly anti-American film came out of Russia. Financed by the pro-Putin political party A Just Russia, Yuri Grymov’s Strangers (2008) makes Valley of the Wolves: Iraq look like California Dreamin’. It is, for all intents and purposes, an allegorical essay about the superiority of Russian morals. The plot follows a group of American doctors — again — who come to the Middle East on an ostensibly charitable mission to vaccinate children. Needless to say, they’re up to some Big Pharma evil instead. But more important than the plot is the cast of characters making up the five-person team: a married couple who are incapable of having children (it’s barely a spoiler to say that halfway through the film, Arab sperm does the job), a gay couple whose kiss sends local children running in disgust, and a neurotic single woman who clearly just needs a good roll in the sand. An analysis by the U.S. intelligence community’s Open Source Center dubbed Strangers "a laundry list of Russian anti-Americanism" and quoted a Russian marketing source calling the movie "the most anti-American film ever to come out of Russia," no mean feat considering the legacy of Soviet propaganda.
But there’s a significant difference between Brezhnev-era anti-Americanism and the Grymov brand. In their depictions of American evildoing, Soviet films implicitly laid the blame on the heartless capitalist system, not the individual: Inside every U.S. Army colonel was a potential good communist who just hadn’t had his awakening yet. The cult 1986 thriller Interception, for example, shows an American spy and the Soviet border guard on his tail as mutually respectful equals. For Grymov, on the other hand — and in this, he echoes a newly widespread Russian attitude — American villainy stems from the American national character. His own promotional materials provided a convenient list of "American qualities" the film meant to illustrate: infertility, adultery, homosexuality, repressed sexuality, imposition of own values, ignorance of other cultures, scapegoating, consumerism, fitness obsession, pragmatism, and teamwork. (Yes, teamwork.) Later, the director added another to the list: the "Batman complex." In this case he didn’t mean the American characters in his film but its actors, who, he told the newspaper Izvestia, "behaved like Batmen on the set," unable to convincingly sink to the required depths of humiliation. But it was too much, even for Russia. The film tanked. Even a last-minute "viral" claim that it had been personally banned in the United States by Condoleezza Rice couldn’t get it off the ground.
It remains to be seen whether the next, hopefully more peaceful, decade’s crop of movie Yanks will still be duplicitous bastards cloaking their evil in PC-speak or the more traditional archetypes: comic fatsos and saintly naifs. As it stands, we’re still dealing with a bit of a brand problem. When Hollywood’s mega-budgeted adaptation of the Captain America comic opened this July, in Russia, Ukraine, and South Korea it was called simply The First Avenger. Right now, in the eyes of global pop culture, "Captain America" is a name fit for a villain.