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The Devil Eire Effect: Historical Films and Villains…

I wrote a little while ago about how suspicious I am concerning “true stories” that make it to the big screen. Truth be told, life doesn’t exactly fit into the three act structure or one-hundred-and-twenty minutes of screen time – I understand that changes need to be made. Real life characters are often boiled down or reduced to mere collections of quirks, the hero faces a more streamlined obstacle than they did in real life and sometimes even ends up a far better person for it. However, I was sitting down watching The King’s Speech at the weekend and I couldn’t help wondering if we really needed for Albert’s elder brother David and his American fiancée Wallis to be portrayed as nothing more than scheming villains, just because we needed to root for Albert a little more.

The Simpsons?

Note: The ever-wonderful TV Tropes describe this as a “Historical Villain Upgrade” if you’re looking for more examples of what I am talking about…

The most ridiculous example of movie vilification which I can think of off the top of my head comes from Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. It’s a good film, well-made and brilliantly acting – and it wonderfully evokes the period in which it was set. For those unfamiliar with the movie, it features Liam Neeson as Michael Collins, the military strategist who pretty much singlehandedly masterminded the campaign which freed Ireland from British rule and took control of the government which steered us through the bloody civil war that followed, before being assassinated in Cork. He is pretty much universally regarded as a patriot and a hero, and almost always shows up in those “greatest Irishman ever” polls that every radio station or website runs year-in and year-out.

Anyway, the first half of the film pretty much has the villain set-up. It’s the colonial British forces – and the movie gets bonus points for having the very sinister Charles Dance show up as a very sinister British agent. It covers most of the events reasonably well – there’s certainly no ridiculous anti-British bias like in that Mel Gibson film The Patriot. The most horrendous actions captured on screen actually happened (albeit in a slightly different manner). So, Michael Collins kicks the British out of Ireland and goes about setting up his government.

Then the Irish Civil War happens. Unfortunately, the Irish Civil War doesn’t have conveniently coded “good guys” and “bad guys” – there isn’t a side advocating fascism or there isn’t a side supporting slavery. The fundamental disagreement is often stated to be the division of Ireland into the North and the South – the North remaining a part of Great Britain. However, even that summary isn’t necessarily universally agreed upon – there are a whole rake of causes that any number of historians will rank differently. The two main political parties in Ireland at the moment don’t split along the political left or right, they can trace their divisions and origins from this conflict – ninety years ago. That’s how deeply engrained the Civil War is in Irish history.

"I'll get you, Michael Collins!"

Michael Collins led one side. Eamon DeValera led the other. Now, the historical DeValera is an interesting creature. He was a schoolteacher who got involved in the republican movement and participated in the Easter Rising. He was spared execution and went on to become one of the major political proponents of Irish independence. After Ireland gained independence, he involved himself with the anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War. After they lost, he went about trying to affect what he sought through political change. He founded Fianna Fail, which is the party currently in power in the country and which was regarded as one of the most successful parties in Western Europe.

DeValera was elected Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) about a decade after the Civil War. He was a royal pain in the backside to our British neighbours, but he did give Ireland its current constitution. Although it has dated (extremely poorly) it was one of the finest examples of a constitution at the time. DeValera was a successful international statesman, leading the League of Nations at one point and keeping Ireland neutral during the Second World War. Winston Churchill disliked him so much that he made a point of pronouncing his name “Devil-Eire”. DeValera went on to become a fixture in Irish public life, even successfully being elected President of Ireland.

The historical DeValera is a controversial figure for any number of reasons. Any number of his actions listed can be construed in any number of ways. Some people admire how he built the country into a nation during the years when we were a back water European island at best. Others blame him for his role in putting fuel on the political fire which led to the Irish Civil War, costing countless lives. Some people can even do both. However, he has a strong following in public life and frequently shows up in those same polls which feature Michael Collins as “the greatest Irishman”.

On the other hand, let’s meet the DeValera from the movie Michael Collins. He is played by Alan Rickman. Rickman, a character actor so sinister that the twist in Harry Potter is that he isn’t a bad guy. Rickman, a man so convincingly evil as a German terrorist in Die Hard that you don’t dare wonder why he has a British accent. In fairness, Rickman can play solid, well-developed, complex characters – like in Galaxy Quest or Nobel Son or Love Actually, for example. However, I don’t think the casting director was looking for that Rickman. DeValera is a man plotting in the shadows, cowardly and afraid – a man who lacks any real courage or moral fibre, asking other men to die for his beliefs. The movie even tries to connect DeValera to the death of Collins, insinuating that he was involved in plotting it.

He's a Bad Guy...

The King’s Speech makes a similar effort with Prince David and Wallis Simpson. The relationship between the two led to the “abdication crisis”, where David had to step down from the throne in order to marry his sweetheart, an American divorcée. Perhaps it’s this open wound in British history which leads the couple to be portrayed as villains in most works – much like the Irish may never forgive DeValera for his involvement in the Civil War, perhaps the British can’t forgive Wallis for her role in creating a crisis for the monarchy. Of course, the lady had a number of skeletons in her closet (the movie is correct to point out she was having an affair, but it also indulges some of those ridiculously sordid and unsubstantiated rumours about her time in the Orient), but here she’s presented as downright evil – a seductress with the King of England under her thumb. Meanwhile, in Any Human Heart, she’s helping to cover up a murder.

David is consistently portrayed as soft little boy in the thrall of a cynical woman. When his father dies, he rushes outside to cry – thinking of how this is going to affect Wallis, rather than giving any thoughts to the throne. At a party, Wallis dares to send him, the King of England, to the cellar to pick up some wine. However, the movie isn’t content to portray David as a fool in love, blinded to his responsibilities – he becomes truly sinister when he pauses to make fun of his brother’s stutter for no real reason. It doesn’t help matters that Guy Pearce plays him as a complete ass and that shooting a small child in front of the camera doesn’t make a character appear nearly as sympathetic as making fun of a person with a disability. It appears that being a bit of a dick is the one that David is capable of doing – it’s such a marked shift in tone from the rest of his portrayal as a blind buffoon that the moment takes some getting used to.

Throughout the rest of the movie, as Albert is put through the proverbial wringer, there’s not one indication that David and Wallis wish him any luck. He’s the victim in all this, despite the fact that David has been consistently told (even by Albert) he can’t marry the woman he loves because the Church of England doesn’t recognise a woman’s right to divorce. And, although Albert is far too dignified to take part in, everybody is busy lining up Albert to replace David – suggestions that Albert correctly observes are tantamount to “treason”.

The grass is always greener, eh?

It actually worries me that I may have to wait for Madonna’s biography of Wallis Simpson in order to see the couple as anything other than a bunch of scheming villains. Given the singer’s track record on film, and the suggestion that the movie will essentially be playing out her own American-in-England drama, I’m not getting my hopes up.

It’s strange, because it doesn’t have to be this way. Any number of non-historical films feature villains far more sympathetic than Rickman’s DeValera or Pearce’s David – hell, some films can get by without even having a villain at all. I am not suggesting that the movies should be politically correct or balanced or anything like that – I just find the whole issue of presentation fascinating, and how easy it is to vilify a historical figure. The impacts are surprisingly longterm as it’s these films which will pass into the popular memory – I suspect that Alan Rickman has singlehandedly done more to erode away DeValera’s support than any number of famous historians.

I wonder if it stems from something deeper – if, rather than these characters being presents as villains in order to tell a story, we portray them as villains in order to give ourselves some sense of closure. Perhaps we seek to use the cinema as some sort of historical shorthand – after all, we boil a life lived down to its most basic components to make a two-hour film, so there must be some appeal. If we wanted complexity in these historical tales, we’d look to those thick books written by qualified historians or even as far as the nearest search engine.

Why do we portray them this way? I'm speechless...

A two-hour movie gives us a bite-sized chunk in an easy-to-swallow form. Perhaps we want to reduce historical complexities. Perhaps it’s easier for us to the imagine the past as a far less morally ambiguous place – I mean, you frequently hear people remarking about how these days it’s difficult to spot the bad guys. The truth is that it was never really that easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys (with a few very obvious exceptions), but perhaps we want to believe that it was – maybe the world was once a simple place with good and evil, without the fluctuating spectrum in between.

I don’t know, maybe I’m rambling. I don’t know. I’d love to hear what other people think. Is it something that is just a result of the format of modern movies, or is it something a bit deeper – a way of trying to make sense of the world?

7 Responses

  1. Things like this irritate more than they should. David certainly wasn’t a cold-hearted prick just a man who fell in love. The King’s Speech didn’t need a villain.

    • Yep. It just seemed like I was being manipulated. Now, I know that most cinema is about manipulating your audience – but it only really works if they aren’t aware of it. I was very aware of it.

  2. The one part of the King’s Speech that bothered me was how I was supposed to accept that David was “bad” because he wanted to marry a divorced woman. *GASP* It seemed so strange. I guess that’s why I didn’t love the movie; I was forced to accept that this puritanical, hypocritical institution was something I should be rooting for.

    • Yep. I mean, the film didn’t have to really address it – the monarchy can get away with a lot because it’s the monarchy. Just say he has to step down to be the woman he loves, everybody’s a little sad, and Albert has to step up. It didn’t have the be dwelt upon. But villifying him for that just seems… a little unfair.

  3. The reason that David should be considered bad by us for his choice is because he’s considered bad by the rest of the characters of the film, most of all our protagonist, for his choice. It might seem strange but that was a huge deal.

    I kind of disagree that David was just a villain– maybe the heavy, but certainly not a scheming villain, though I hardly think you can blame anyone for labeling him that when he’s so intent on shacking up with a Nazi sympathizer. (Though admittedly the film kind of glosses over this point, just a bit.) If there’s any reason to look at their relationship through that sort of lens, it’s her suspected connections to Nazi Germany (and by extension, his).

    • Which would be better, I suppose. However, the film is so busy tattooing “slut” on her head that the Nazi element kinda slips under the radar. It’s a lot of what Justin said – it’s the idea that they’re bad because they’re in love, rather than being bad because they are possible Nazi sympathisers or just bad people.

      • Well, there is the line about the 24 carnations. Maybe it could have used more embellishment but it’s there even if it comes up but once.

        I guess I just don’t see the movie labeling Edward as “bad” just because he fell in love. Much more is made over his choice to break royal protocol by associating with a married woman; I think the characters, and the film, view Edward negatively because he willfully chooses to behave like a bon vivant instead of accepting the responsibility placed upon him by his heritage. Albert seems to bristle at Edward’s active choice to shirk his duty to the throne and to his people.

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