Shying Away from Terrorism:

An Examination of Villains in Terrorist Films


Matt Martinez

With the events of September 11th, 2001 still heavy on our minds, many wonder what will become of the violent entertainment that we as a culture have so recently enjoyed. Many audience members cheered for the mass destruction of major landmarks as witnessed in such special effects extravaganzas as Independence Day (1996), Armageddon (1998), and Deep Impact (1998), but now watching those images is difficult after seeing it for real. More difficult will be watching films in which acts of violence are committed by terrorist groups, especially those of Arab affiliation. The question remains whether or not these types of films will be reduced in the years to come, although it does lead one to question whether that many have already been made. When examined, it does seem that, perhaps, politically motivated terrorists have not been used as villains as extensively as we may think, and filmmakers may already have been reluctant to use such foes in their films.

The 1988 film Die Hard launched an entire subgenre of action pictures. Its situations and characters were copied ad nauseum by countless other films that were released in the 1990s (e.g., Under Siege (1992), Passenger 57 (1992), Sudden Death (1995), Air Force One (1997)). The premise is very familiar; a group of terrorists invade a skyscraper and hold employees hostage, but one man wages a battle against them. Of course, having been labeled terrorists, an examination of the villains’ motivations is in order. Consider the following exchange from an early scene in the movie:

After invading the Christmas party at the Nakatomi building, villain Hans Gruber and his men take the CEO of the company, Joe Takagi, up to his office to discuss the combination of the building’s vault. When it is revealed that Gruber and the others are actually after the six million dollars in bearer bonds inside the vault, Takagi asks, "You want money? What kind of terrorists are you?" to which Gruber laughingly replies, "Who said we were terrorists?"

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, terrorism is, "The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons." Now, consider the definition of the word extortion, which is the act of "[obtaining] from another by coercion or intimidation." By stripping away the political and ideological association, a much better description of the villains found in many of these action films has been found.

There are several reasons for this adjustment, and I feel the best explanation comes from John McTiernan, the director of Die Hard. In his audio commentaries found on the DVD versions of Die Hard and the third film in the series, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), McTiernan explains that he wanted to change the motivations of the main antagonists because he felt there could be "no joy" in terrorism. "Terrorist movies," he says during the first film’s commentary, "are usually mean, filled with all sorts of mean, nasty acts…How do we take the meanness out of a terrorist story and make it what is, essentially, Summer entertainment?" They decided to even keep the nationality of the terrorists "neutral." McTiernan explains that the villains were German terrorists because they really could not be connected to anything that "makes sense" and would keep politics out of the movie. He once again sites the fact that the film was intended as pure entertainment and not as political fare.

Die Hard is not the only film to use the idea of extortionism masquerading as terrorism. In fact, several of the groups of villains in motion pictures follow this idea. One of the first Die Hard clones was the 1992 film Under Siege, which concerns a group of mercenaries hijacking a battleship to steal nuclear warheads. Their goal is to sell these warheads to the highest bidder.

One of the aspects of the film mentioned in reviews is its portrayal of the villains. Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, writes "The villains are superb, vile, and deliriously insane…[Gary] Busey…plays his murder scene in drag, gnashing the scenery as if he’s enjoying every bite." The term "gnashing the scenery," or more commonly, "chewing the scenery," implies a humorous, over-the-top performance, and this gets to the heart of another popular choice for the portrayal of villains, the inclusion of humor.

A 1995 study by Cynthia King-Jablonski and Dolf Zillmann from the University of Alabama College of Communication (published in the journal Medienpsychologie) tested audience reactions towards violent films by showing them sequences from action films which used humor, presumably to detract from the horrific nature of the violence. One group was shown the sequence with the humor intact, while another group was shown the scene with the humor carefully edited out. When reactions were gauged, the first audience was shown to have a lower level of distress towards the violent acts depicted in the scenes, while the latter group reported a higher distress level. With such reactions, it is no wonder why filmmakers such as McTiernan look for ways to inject humor into these films.

Another aspect of acceptance of villains in action films deals with nationality, as nationality will often imply political motives. In The Rock (1996), rogue American Marines invade Alcatraz and hold tourists hostage for money. Released in the same year was the film Executive Decision, which concerns a group of Middle Eastern terrorists who hijack a passenger liner and demand the release of a fellow terrorist from prison. (It is revealed that the true intent of the leader of the group is to crash the plane into the eastern seaboard of the United States and release a nerve toxin.) The main villain of the film is clearly shown as being politically motivated and the filmmakers make clear the religion of the villain as well, as he quotes from the Koran and is seen praying at one point.

An interesting comparison can be made between these films when examining box office grosses. The Rock was the seventh highest grossing film of 1996, earning over $132 million. Executive Decision was the twenty-seventh highest grossing film that year and earned less than half of The Rock’s gross, with almost $57 million. (Also of note is the fact that Executive Decision was released in March, almost a full three months before The Rock, thereby giving it a longer period in which to accumulate ticket sales before the end of the year.) This suggests that movie-going audiences may not be comfortable with seeing villains with clear political agendas, as director John McTiernan has suggested. Such an idea can be mirrored in the words of critics. Roger Ebert wrote in his review, "It would have been easy to make the terrorists members of a non-sectarian movement, and I wish they had." New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin referred to the villains as "unexplained Arab fanatics who draw on every known ethnic cliché," and goes on to say, "The Arab groups that protested unflattering stereotypes in True Lies [(1994)] have a stronger complaint about this." Perhaps it is such a backlash that is feared by many filmmakers.

In 1998, Twentieth Century Fox released a film called The Siege, in which terrorist attacks in New York City lead the United States government to declare martial law in the Big Apple. The film was met with protests by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) who felt that the movie could potentially lead to "harassment, intimidation, discrimination, and even hate crimes against Arab-Americans" (Muravchik 57). Seeking to avoid such reactions, I would imagine, leads many filmmakers to avoid the use of politics and nationality all together.

As previously mentioned, in Janet Maslin’s Executive Decision review, another film to receive such protests was the 1994 James Cameron film True Lies. In the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a secret agent that takes on a group of Arab terrorists. This was quite a successful film, despite such aspects, and I believe a large part has to do with the aforementioned inclusion of humor in the film. José Arroyo, in his article "Cameron and the Comic," states that "The representations of Arabs reinforce many negative stereotypes: they are wealthy, devious, hyper-emotional and ultimately incompetent. Their function is to be held up for ridicule so the audience can laugh, and even applaud, as they are systematically eliminated" (41-42). As found in King-Jablonski and Zillmann’s study, it appears that the inclusion of humor made the audience more able to accept the villains and their motivations and perhaps even disassociate them from any real-world people, places or things.

Also a practice used in both True Lies and The Siege is the inclusion of an Arab-American hero. Obviously, this is intended to "buy a license for this type of representation" (Arroyo 42). However in both cases, said character is a sidekick/partner and not the main character. Arroyo comments, "as if one computer nerd could compensate for reams of racism" (42). In other words, the lack of emphasis placed on the characters due to their supporting roles has a possibility of negating the intended effects of the practice.

The full implications of all these issues were brought to the forefront on September 11th, and it has certainly caused many filmmakers to adjust the content within their films. This is something that does not apply only to the makers of violent action pictures, but does carry emphasized impact for them. The Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Collateral Damage was pushed back from a September 2001 release to a January 2002 release, due to the fact that its storyline concerned the main character, a firefighter, losing his wife and child to a terrorist bombing. As Mark Steyn wrote in the September 22 issue of The Spectator in reference to the film’s use of a mock news headline in its print promotion, "The headlines were the same: ‘Veteran Firefighter’s Wife And Child Killed In Bomb Blast.’ The New York Post? No, the subway posters for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new movie about the bombing of a skyscraper…" (56). Said advertisements were immediately removed, as was a large promotion for Rod Lurie’s The Last Castle (2001), which depicted an American flag hung upside-down.

As discussed in an article in the September 23-29 issue of Video Store magazine, some groups had even called for the removal of such films as the Die Hard series from video store shelves. Despite the fact that the villains in the film have no connection to those responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it is obvious that the imagery inherent in films about terrorists, or villains who claim to be, is too disturbing for the American public right now. (It appears this is so much so that even images of the Twin Towers had to be eradicated from the trailer for the 2002 Spider-Man film.)

Whether this trend will continue in the upcoming years is unclear, but it does help to prove that America has always been uncomfortable with terrorism. John McTiernan’s assessment that no joy can be found in the subject of terrorism seems very prophetic these days, being released less than four months before the tragic events in New York City and Washington D.C. Will we see the death of the terrorist film? The chances are highly unlikely. I would imagine that we will be seeing a very different type of terrorist film from now on. The emphasis will not be on spectacle and excitement, but rather on the reasons and circumstances surrounding real-world terrorism. The film industry’s motivation will be to educate the American public about the threat of terrorism, rather than to exploit terror groups for mass entertainment. It is hopefully through these means that we as a society will be able to pick up the pieces and go about living the rest of our lives.

Works Cited and Bibliography

Arroyo, José. "Cameron and the Comic." Action/Spectacle Cinema. Ed. José Arroyo. London: British Film Institute, 2000. 39-44.

Die Hard. Dir. John McTiernan. Twentieth Century Fox, 1988.

Ebert, Roger. "Executive Decision." Chicago Sun-Times Online. 15 March 1996.

--"Under Siege." Chicago Sun-Times Online. 9 October 1992.

Executive Decision. Dir. Stuart Baird. Warner Brothers, 1996.

Finnigan, David. "Like the Rest of the World, Hollywood is Stunned, Quiet." Brandweek 17 September 2001: 10.

King-Jablonski, Cynthia and Dolf Zillmann. "Humor’s role in the trivialization of violence." Medienpsychologie 7:2 (1995): 122-133.

Maslin, Janet. "Executive Decision." New York Times Online. 15 March 1996.

Muravchik, Joshua. "Terrorism at the Multiplex." Comment 107:1 (1999): 57-60.

Rock, The. Dir. Michael Bay. Hollywood Pictures, 1996.

Siege, The. Dir. Edward Zwick. Twentieth Century Fox, 1998.

Steyn, Mark. "Inflicting real pain." The Spectator 22 September, 2001: 56-58.

True Lies. Dir. James Cameron. Twentieth Century Fox, 1994.