When I popped into an Abu Dhabi hair salon last month, I enjoyed watching Braveheart with a group of Pakistani men as much as getting the trim. Just as William Wallace was about to deliver a stirring pep talk before the battle of Stirling Bridge, the barber turned off the TV. "Almost prayer time. So sorry." I told him that I understood. "But they are your people," he replied.
He could not have been referring to the English in shining armour, or to Mel Gibson - even my wife wouldn't humour me with the comparisons. I must have resembled the ragtag Scots behind William Wallace: that's why I needed the trim. Before I could explain that I was an American, several generations removed from Ireland, the muezzin began his call; the room fell silent. I didn't think to identify myself quickly as a "Plastic Paddy". He might have understood. They probably have their share, even in Pakistan.
When the barber turned the TV back on the English cavalry was getting wiped out by the Scots. "Happy?" the barber laughed. It was only as US marines were being mowed down by the Na'vi in the hundreds in Avatar that I remembered the barber's question. The enemies in Avatar don't just speak in English, they speak American. And while The Hurt Locker edged out Avatar to win the Oscar for best picture on Sunday night, actors with British accents also won a small victory: they might have had fewer roles as villains in Hollywood epics if Avatar had won. The victory would have put the Academy's stamp on an important changing of the guard in Hollywood: Americans replacing the British as the go-to bad guys.
From the worst of the Romans in Ben Hur to Darth Vader's officers aboard the Death Star, they all spoke in British accents. The actors didn't even have to be British themselves. When Yul Brenner played Ramses II in The Ten Commandments he speaks in the same authoritative tone as Pierce Brosnan in Mrs Doubtfire. And they all sound similar to a few of my English superiors at The National. "By condemning without hesitation, I shall be feared," proclaims Messala in Ben Hur. "The problem with Scotland is that it is full of Scots," declares King Edward I in Braveheart. These great lines just don't sound the same if they aren't delivered from the mouth of an Englishman - or at least in the manner that an American thinks a pompous Englishman would.
The rhetoric from the war on terror sprinkled through Avatar works the same way. Avatar's Colonel Quaritch, and his eagerness for military action, just wouldn't have sounded the same in the accent of a British public schooler. Tony Blair is probably the only one who could have made it believable. In real life, he did. Avatar's antagonist speaks like someone from about as far away linguistically from Sussex as you can get: the American South. This made Stephen Lang, who plays the US marine vet intent on blowing the Na'vi back to the stone-age, a perfect fit. Lang is actually the son of Hungarian-Jewish and Irish immigrants and grew up in New York City.
But playing the Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Thomas Pickett in two films about the US Civil War, he was well cast; Lang knew how to speak in the accent of a character on the wrong side of history. Of course, Lang's casting as Avatar's antagonist is only a small reflection of what has changed in real life since James Cameron directed his last blockbuster, Titanic, where even the aristocratic Americans on board spoke in posh British tones. Titanic was released in 1997, the same year the British sailed out of Hong Kong. Of course, that's not the only influence that had a bearing on the voice of international villainy. Indeed, there are several members of the Bush administration who would be well-cast as the Titanic's crew if Cameron could make a sequel.
Avatar will certainly have a second act. Perhaps the British will arrive then, with their accents and possibly a few Frenchman and Italians, as Nato comes to share the burden of its American allies, seeking revenge against the Na'vi. And maybe they can be such good friends as to convince the Yanks that it's not worth the fight? I wouldn't count on it. firstname.lastname@example.org