I’ve recently finished a rewatch of the entire Steven Spielberg filmography and it struck me that, for a filmmaker who is often accused of emotional simplicity, Spielberg’s heroes and villains are not always as clear-cut as some would have us believe. In fact, his work is replete with antiheroes, perhaps the most interesting of the three categories of character I have decided to explore in these articles. We’ve already looked at Spielberg Heroes in the first part. In this second part, we’re looking at some of Spielberg’s great villains.
10. Smee – Hook
By rights it feels like we should be talking about Captain Hook here. I mean, I’m other incarnations he’s a great villain and Spielberg’s film is actually named after him so you’d expect something a bit special from this version. Unfortunately, what we get is something akin to when the local scoutmaster steps in to cover the sick kid in the school play. Dustin Hoffman is so badly miscast in the role that he doesn’t even seem like he’s having fun so much as screaming for water to wash down those extra-large chunks of scenery. To be fair to Hoffman, his performance is part of a film where pretty much every leading role is miscast, from Robin Williams’ strangely bland grown-up Peter Pan to Julia Roberts’ baffling Tinkerbell (Roberts was unfairly forced to carry the can for the whole debacle, despite her struggle being more down to a terribly written part).
My negative reaction to Hook as a whole may lead you to wonder why it’s represented in these lists at all. That would be down entirely to the heroic (or should that be villainous) efforts of Bob Hoskins, whose performance as First Mate Smee represents the one truly inspired piece of casting. Hoskins’ Smee is an effective comedy foil, easily outshining his screen partner Hoffman. The character is often portrayed as an awkward bumbler, intimidated by his Captain and unworthy of his high rank, but this Smee is the level-headed, in-control counterpoint to the emotionally volatile Hook.
9. Corporal Chuck “Stretch” Sitarski – 1941
Although it is regularly named as Spielberg’s worst film, I have a soft spot for the noisy, chaotic mess that is 1941. Its enormous cast and busy, clashing plots do not allow much time for most of the characters to register very strongly but amongst the broad caricatures stands a memorable, truly terrifying villain in the shape of Treat Williams’ imposing Corporal Chuck Sitarski a.k.a. Stretch. In a film that features Nazis, U.S. military man Stretch emerges as easily the most loathsome creation because, unlike the bumbling Nazis who seem like buffoons caught up in someone else’s war, Stretch is a bully who takes what he wants by force, including unconsenting women.
It’s no surprise to read that 1941 was written by future Back to the Future scribes Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, since Stretch does feel like a prototype for Biff Tannen in many ways. Certainly the moment when Stretch is dragging a screaming woman away has the same jarringly traumatic effect as Biff’s attempted sexual assault in Back to the Future. But there are no comic malapropisms with Stretch. He’s like a version of Biff that is trapped forever in that “I HATE MANURE” moment of sheer rage. His romantic advances are as aggressive as his violent threats. His comeuppance, which comes by way of an equally persistent and equally unwanted admirer, is, like Biff’s ultimate fate, nowhere near proportionate to his crimes. But as the credits roll with Stretch still remorselessly battering his way through life, we’re left with the appropriate impression that this loathsome character, and his real life equivalents, are as dangerous and relentless as the T-Rex from Jurassic Park.
8. Elsa Schneider – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Female villains in Spielberg films are thin on the ground but the Indiana Jones franchise gave us two. Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is as broadly pantomime as Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook but Alison Doody’s Elsa Schneider from The Last Crusade is a different matter altogether. The most conflicted of the franchise’s leading ladies, I’ve often erroneously referred to Elsa as a Nazi. In fact, though she does collaborate with the Nazi’s to achieve her goals, Elsa is driven not by any political ideology but by a single-minded obsession with obtaining the Holy Grail for herself. In order to do so, she is willing to work with anyone who can further her quest, even if she’s likely to ditch them at the last moment.
Elsa’s true motivation may not exonerate her for working with the Nazis but it does make her a far more interesting character than if she’d shared their hateful outlook. One of the most strangely moving moments of the film is when Elsa, having betrayed Indy to work alongside the Nazis, is seen weeping at a mass book-burning. Having formerly portrayed her as a cold-hearted woman who would do anything for selfish ends, this brief moment of the film confirms that she does in fact have a sense of right and wrong which she has had to bury deeper than the artefacts she seeks but which cannot remain suppressed in the face of such extreme evil.
The film does put Elsa within reach of redemption as she reaches the Canyon of the Crescent Moon and switches allegiances once again but ultimately, and fittingly for the character, she plunges to her death trying to reach the Grail and remove it from its rightful place in the temple. “Elsa never really believed in the Grail. She thought she’d found a prize” says Henry Jones Sr., although this rather undersells Elsa’s motivation. The Grail was more than a prize to her. It was something she valued more than her virtue, her beliefs or, ultimately, her life.
7. Mayor Larry Vaughn – Jaws
The debate regarding the true villain of Jaws has been a long standing bone of contention, so much so that the hosts of the Reelblend podcast recently consulted screenwriter Carl Gottlieb on the issue. “Well, clearly the shark is the primary villain”, replied Gottlieb, “since he’s the one that actually bites people, but the Mayor is a contributing villain because by his failure to take action and his denial, he puts more people in jeopardy, and more people get killed. And then he realizes the error of his ways, so he’s partly redeemed. As he says, ‘My kids were on that beach too.’ So we have some sympathy for him because here’s a guy who’s been elected to serve the greater good for the greatest number, the citizens of Amity, and he’s trying to fulfill that mandate in the face of this violent and unpredictable uproar about horrible shark death in the waters of the island. So you can sympathize with his problems.”
For some this was enough to confirm that the shark is the real villain of Jaws. But there are more to screen stories than their writer’s point of view. Bear in mind, Jaws was a novel first and it’s author, Peter Benchley, wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Gottlieb was then hired to write the final draft but he didn’t create the characters or story. And with other influences on the material coming from director Spielberg and Murray Hamilton, the actor who plays the Mayor, it’s clear that asking the screenwriter isn’t always the way to the definitive answer.
Maybe I’m just bitter because I’ve always felt the Mayor is the real villain. This was compounded when Boris Johnson began cheerfully comparing himself to the character in the face of his own anti-lockdown rhetoric. It’s true that Mayor Larry Vaughan has a difficult job to do. It’s also true that he not only does it very badly, he willingly puts peoples lives in danger. The shark is the film’s driving force but it is behaving according to its nature. The mayor is purposefully dismissing his better judgement at the expense of other people’s safety. There’s a big dollop of denial in how he clings to every theory that suggests the shark either doesn’t exist or has been dealt with. But he also seems to have weighed up the risks to the economy and the risks to people’s lives and decided the former is vastly more important than the latter. The final straw is when, with people lining the beaches as he’d hoped for, he then begins prodding them to get in the water. Gottlieb’s contention that he is partly redeemed by his realisation of the error of his ways is offset by the fact he says “My children were on that beach too.” There’s a sense that without that personal stake, this Mayor would just keep pushing for people to get back in the ocean.
6. “Mister” Albert Johnson – The Color Purple
The Color Purple has always been a controversial film in Spielberg’s catalogue, chiefly because he was obviously not the ideal choice to direct a story centred on the viewpoints of black women but also because of how he all but erased the lesbianism that is so integral to Alice Walker’s source novel. Spielberg has retrospectively acknowledged and owned all these things but for me The Color Purple still works as a film in its own right even if it fails as an adaptation. One thing that few people complained about, however, was the cast, with the three female leads, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey, all being Oscar-nominated for their roles. It is only right that most reviews of The Color Purple focus on these performances and yet, as the physically and mentally abusive husband “Mister” Albert Johnson, Danny Glover also registers strongly with an early-career highlight.
Glover is a perpetually overlooked actor; a consistently popular but rarely lauded artist whose versatility sees him turn up in all sorts of roles, big and small. “Mister” is one of his most notable characterisations, allowing him to make use of his physically imposing frame and his subtle vulnerability. The wounded masculinity of “Mister” is immediately apparent in those inverted commas, and though his bullying attitude, manipulative lying and propensity for violence against women all mark him out as a clear villain, he is not a powerful man. In the presence of his sneering father he becomes a little boy again and when his abused wife extinguishes his last bit of control by walking out on him, he completely falls apart. As befits such a complex, well-drawn villain, “Mister” doesn’t get the sort of tit-for-tat comeuppance a lesser film might have meted out. There are undoubtedly consequences for his actions but his character also makes a last minute gesture of kindness which, while not enough to be fully redemptive, offers a glimmer of hope and seems to bring a broken man at least a brief moment of peace.
5. Dennis Nedry – Jurassic Park
Sometimes a really crap villain can be a great one. By which I mean, an ineffectual “mastermind” can be as entertaining to watch as a bona fide criminal genius. Enter Jurassic Park’s Dennis Nedry. Played with lip-slacking glee by Wayne Knight, Nedry clearly thinks he’s a better villain than he is but the fact that his surname is an anagram of Nerdy and he dresses like all of The Goonies tips off the audience even before his masterplan stumbles on its way out of the gates.
There’s a Mayor vs. Shark element to naming Nedry as Jurassic Park’s greatest villain. Like the shark in Jaws, the dinosaurs themselves pose the main threat to our heroes. But they are also victims, brought to life and contained against their will for the entertainment of the public. And like the shark, they are behaving according to their nature rather than against moral guidelines they understand, recognise as right but choose to reject. Plus, it is Nedry’s shady dealings that ultimately allow them to run rampant.
My favourite thing about this rubbish/good villain is the fact that we get to dispatch him not in a grand climactic battle but in a mid-film slapstick routine. The scene of Nedry getting his jeep stuck in the mud while trying to escape with stolen embryos is one of my favourites in the whole of Jurassic Park. Though it ends horrifically, the build up to that grizzly punchline sees Spielberg playing up the humour with goofy sound effects and cartoonish peekaboo shtick from a baby Diliphosaurus. That adorable little dinosaur turns out to be a little less sweet than it first appears, which some may feel gives credence to the argument that the dinosaurs are the real villains. On the other hand, and not to sound too cold, but it does rid the world of Dennis Nedry.
4. Frank Dixon – The Terminal
The Terminal is one of Spielberg’s most featherlight films but when it works, it works beautifully and in Stanley Tucci’s Acting Field Commissioner Frank Dixon it has one hell of an effective villain. Dixon is a charmless, career-obsessed man who, when faced with Tom Hanks’s Viktor Navorski, sees only a threat to his promotion rather than a human being in need of help. Viktor is trapped in JFK’s airport terminal after a military coup in his home country renders his passport invalid, leaving him unable to return home or enter the United States. The resourceful Viktor makes the best of the situation and manages to charm everyone around him, something that makes him even more irritating to Dixon.
The Terminal is at its absolute best every time Dixon and Navorski lock horns, with Tucci and Hanks playing off each other beautifully. There are several moments when it appears that the narrative is going to give Dixon a redemptive moment where he joins forces with Viktor but to its credit, this warmest of films keeps its villain a complete bastard to the last. What begins as frustration for Dixon ultimately becomes pointlessly vindictive. In this respect Dixon becomes a comment on the casual, offhand cruelty displayed by so many towards immigrants, with humanity getting completely lost amidst bureaucracy and prejudice.
3. Amon Goth – Schindler’s List
This is where this list becomes potentially problematic. I’ve discussed already in the Heroes list how ranking real life figures alongside fictional ones could seem vulgar and disrespectful if done in the wrong way. The important thing to make clear is that it was the screen version of the person that was being ranked, according to how successfully they were portrayed onscreen. Compared to the Heroes list, of which nearly half was composed of real people, there is only one real life villain in this list. But in including Kraków commandant Amon Göth on a list of Greatest Villains, it’s important to make clear that the real man was not the greatest anything and it is not my intention to celebrate him in any way. All we are interested in here is his portrayal in the film Schindler’s List and those are the only terms on which we will explore the character.
Schindler’s List is often seen as Spielberg’s quintessential examination of good vs. evil but I’ve never seen it as that clear cut. Those of you who read the Heroes list first may well have been shocked not to find Oskar Schindler among them. This was because Schindler’s arc (no pun intended) in the film sees him go from a disreputable, scheming member of the Nazi party to a more enlightened man willing to risk his own safety for the lives and wellbeing of others. His starting point seemed to make him a shoo-in for the Antiheroes list but his later heroism prevented that, while the earlier scenes made him feel an awkward fit for the Heroes list too. In some ways Schindler is a deeply complex character but his hero and antihero personas rarely coincide, his Road to Damascus moment making him too cleanly split for either list.
Göth is quite a different matter however. One of the most loathsome villains to ever sully the screen, he is the epitome of evil, with prejudice, sadism, perversion and entitlement writ large in his character. Were this list based on the best performance by an actor, Göth would undoubtedly have come out on top, as Ralph Fiennes deeply committed Oscar-nominated turn is one for the ages. But Göth is perhaps less interesting in his sheer undiluted evil than he is compelling in his utter relentless. You can’t tear your eyes away and yet there is less to unpick afterwards than with more multilayered screen villains. We don’t really touch on why Göth is the way he is, we just sit agog at the results. But with evil this absolute, sometimes that is enough to make a horribly memorable villain.
2. Rene Belloq – Raiders of the Lost Ark
When you create a classic screen hero, it’s always beneficial if you can create a classic villain to go with him too. I’ve always felt that, with Rene Belloq, Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan did just that. It’s perhaps surprising then that Belloq went on to be completely unused in future instalments. I mean, obviously his death at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark was a bit of an obstacle but with a prequel film, flashbacks and an entire series exploring Indiana Jones‘s youth among subsequent entries in the franchise, surely they could’ve found a spot for him somewhere.
The most fascinating thing about Belloq is how he and Indy have followed similar paths but ended up at different places. While Jones hunts artefacts for their historical value, Belloq is a more mercenary figure, caring only about their financial worth. This means he is not picky about who he works with, making him another Nazi collaborator who does not follow the hateful ideology but declines to let the notion of abetting it stand in his way if there is something in it for him.
While it’s tempting to suggest Jones and Belloq followed similar paths to wildly different end points, the fact is they are not such different characters after all. Though Indy boasts a moral dimension that does not trouble Belloq, both have an unquenchable thirst for adventure, a tendency towards womanising and a determination that makes everything else subservient to their ultimate goal. Even through the resentment, you can see how these two go way back and are just a couple of steps away from being friends. Kasdan gives Belloq a great speech, wonderfully performed by Paul Freeman, about how he is Jones’s “shadowy reflection.” And since we know that Indy himself has a dark side, that just makes Belloq all the shadier.
1. The truck – Duel
So after a list featuring Nazis and pirates, predatory soldiers and vindictive bureaucrats, abusive husbands and snide saboteurs, my choice for number one is… a vehicle? Really?! Yes, really. Here’s why, for me, the truck from Duel is Spielberg’s most effective villain.
I’ve repeatedly refrained from including non-human creatures like the shark from Jaws or the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park on this list, with the justification that they are just acting according to their nature and are therefore not villainous. But surely including a truck undermines that argument. After all, a truck is just a machine that responds to commands from its driver, right? So shouldn’t the real villain be the driver of the truck from Duel? Not a bit of it! The way Spielberg shoots Duel, the audience is very much encouraged to see the truck as a lumbering leviathan; a kraken awoken by the smallest of perceived slights and seemingly able to surface anywhere on those long Mojave desert roads. The only part of the driver we ever see is their arms but these are very much portrayed as an extension of the machine; waving tentacles controlled by, rather than in control of, the villainous vehicle.
The seemingly trivial motive for the truck’s relentless pursuit of David Mann makes it an even more terrifying antagonist. What is apparently a violent overreaction to being overtaken is easy to see instead as a natural reaction by a strange breed of giant road beast. Like a shark snacking on plankton, the truck sees destroying vehicles smaller than itself as the natural order. Only the fact that this topsy-turvy vision of the world is an impossibility prevents us letting the truck of the hook on that count. Jaws could plausibly happen in real life and the sci-fi cloning of Jurassic Park isn’t too much of a stretch, therefore we can chalk the actions of their deadly creatures up to our real-world understanding of nature. But a living truck…? That’s a different matter.
Duel makes the viewer realise what a scary thing a massive vehicle is. We pass them on the road every day without thinking anything of it, yet any of them have the potential to become an unstoppable killing machine at any moment given the wrong set of circumstances. With their elevated operators invisible to those in lower vehicles, their facelessness adds nightmare fuel to the chilling prospect. This is the terrifying angle that Richard Matheson understood when he came up with the concept for Duel, and which Spielberg preserves so perfectly with his energetic, imaginative direction. At the film’s end, as the camera examines the wreckage of the truck after its plunge off a cliff, there is presumably also a mangled human corpse in its cab. But Spielberg never shows us that and we don’t think about it. That’s because for both director and audience, the truck itself is the mangled corpse. This final comeuppance has been delivered upon the vehicle. Its presumed operator turns out to be just another part, as inconsequential as one of its windscreen wipers.
So that was my top ten of greatest Spielberg villains. Next time we’re looking at arguably the most interesting category of the bunch: the antiheroes.