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Filmism.net Dispatch July 18, 2012

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I got thinking about accents in movies and what they mean, especially with The Dark Knight Rises coming out this week. A brilliant movie as we all expected it to be, but it follows some very hard and fast (yet unconscious) tropes when it comes to cinematic accents.

The first commandment from the rulebook is that the hero will be American unless there's simply no other way to do it. Look at figures from Bruce Wayne via Luke, Han and Leia. Even when they cast a Welsh actor in Christian Bale he does an American accent.

But more interesting is the British accent on film. There's a couple in The Dark Knight Rises, and they adhere to both popular laws of Brits in film, which states that a Brit will either be the wise old sage and father figure to the hero or the villain.

Think of Alfred (Michael Caine, and Michael Gough before him in Burton and Schumacher's Batman films) all the way back to Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi, via Richard Harris and Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore*. The British accent means level headed wisdom, and coming out of a grey-haired head, that means someone who's been there, who'll care for the hero and help him (not being sexist, few heroes in film are women. And if they are, there's no old, grey-haired lady to show her the hand of guidance. You might as well show a dog getting shot as cast a woman over 40 in a populist film).

But you don't want to be that character. Just look at Chapter 7, subsection 14c of the screenwriter's manual. The surest way to force the hero to stand up and become the man he's destined to be is to kill his wise British mentor when things are at their darkest. Ben Kenobi copped it, as did Gandalf the Grey.

The other kind of Brit in movies is the bad guy. In a twist on Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne, James Earl Jones delivered Darth Vader's menacing baritone in a British accent. Why? Because while they can be sage, calm, wise and loving, the British are also fond of pomp, ceremony, order, hierarchy and class. Everything Americans hate.

The American accent stands apart from both the villainous and benevolent Brit because he's everything American audiences want to believe about themselves. They're brash, don't take orders from nobody, know what's right and don't mind kickin' ass and takin' names to get the job done, protocol be damned.

Look no further than the difference between James Bond, a dapper blue blood who speaks impeccable English and lives in Knightsbridge, and John McClane, a fast-talking cop, self-described 'bum' and loving father with all the cowboy swagger of the quasi-persona he adopts in Die Hard, Roy Rogers.

The list is endless. Tony Stark and Loki in The Avengers. Captain Holland and Dr Hans Reinhardt in The Black Hole (although Maximillian Schell was European, which is even more evil). Alex Rogan and Xur in The Last Starfighter. Jack Dawson and Cal Hockley in Titanic. Batman and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. And yes, John McLane and Hans Gruber.

I tried hard, but The Living Daylights is the only movie I can think of with a British hero and an American villain.

Speaking of villains, how many iconic villains did we see in 1962? Surely Robert Mitchum as Max Cady has to go to the top of the list. After loving Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear I've always wanted to see the original, and Mitchum will give you chills.

* I know what you're saying. 'But Harry Potter was English'. First of all, apart from the accent and school uniform, he was as American as apple pie with his just-slightly-rebellious hoodie jackets. Come on, he was Luke Skywalker for the online generation, with Dumbledore his Obi Wan and Voldemort his Darth Vader. If you still disagree, well... don't you know that in Hollywood, nobody knows anything?

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