When I talk about fiction, I focus in on the villains a lot. Villains can make or break a story for me. I can’t discuss Final Fantasy XIII without complaining its main antagonist, who is one of the least compelling villains I’ve ever seen. I’m still not sure if the big reveal about his identity was supposed to be shocking. It had zero impact on me, because the character barely had a role in the story before that point.
And when he was on the screen, he was just…there. The game wanted me to hate him, but didn’t lend any fuel for my hatred. Even though he was the primary villain, he lacked presence. I often contrast him to Mass Effect 2’s Harbinger, who was off-screen for almost the entire game, but still made himself felt throughout the story.
The lack of a compelling villain is also one of my many complaints about Sticker Star, which couldn’t seem to handle Bowser as an actual character.
So, I complain about bad villains an awful lot, but what about counter-examples? It’s an important question for me as a writer, too. What makes a villain compelling?
I could be here all day writing about that. I wrote an entire paper on Iago from Othello. You want a compelling villain, take a look at the guy that made me slam shut my copy of Shakespeare to shout at the characters to stop listening to this guy already. Many of the works I’ve commented on favorably (Amnesia: Justine, Arsenic and Old Lace, Ace Attorney, Professor Layton, and even I Am Legend, believe it or not) have villains/antagonists that work. Of course, I can’t list everything that has a great villain, so go ahead, ask me if I like the villain in such-and-such.
But today, we’re not going to discuss a manipulative mastermind like Iago, or a cool swordsman like Descole. We’re going to jump back to a movie made in 1953 and discuss the informant in Stalag 17. (I will refer to him as “the informant” throughout this post, so you can keep reading even if you plan to watch the movie.)
This is an unusual example, because there isn’t a lot of on-screen villainy–which makes it an excellent example. Similar to Harbinger, Stalag 17’s informant becomes a sinister and compelling figure from the shadows. And just like any story with a mystery around its villain’s identity, the truth forever changes the way you view the rest of the movie.
And for me, it changed the way I hear a song.
There’s a Civil War song called “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” It’s not as big as some of the other patriotic tunes, but you might have heard it. The basic idea is that the soldiers are coming home, so let’s celebrate! It’s upbeat, optimistic, and all around cheerful.
So why does it give me chills? Because it plays during the scene in Stalag 17 where the informant is revealed to the audience. I often prefer when the audience and protagonist find out the villain’s identity at the same time, but Stalag 17 is an example of how it can work to show the audience first.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a Stalag is a German POW camp. The movie is set during WW2, and opens with two prisoners trying to escape Stalag 17, only to be shot by guards waiting for them. The remaining prisoners know someone among them must have told the Nazis about the escape plan. Their suspicion falls on a prisoner named Sefton, because he’s a jerk. (I don’t like Sefton, okay?) He starts the movie by making a bet that the escapees won’t get very far, and he openly trades with the Nazis. He’s the obvious suspect–but who is the informant really?
The following video shows the informant using the secret communication method he has with the Nazis, so if you don’t want to see spoilers for Stalag 17, don’t watch this clip.
By the way, even though he’s actually a Nazi, not a real prisoner, I’ll still call him a traitor. He’s betraying people he’s lived alongside and pretended to be friends with. I once got into a debate over whether or not he’s really a “villain,” since he’s just doing what’s right for his side. Yeah, he’s a bad guy. We see no sign of any moral struggle at all in him. I’m a big fan of sympathetic villains, and this guy is absolutely not one.
Whenever I hear that song now, all I can see is the informant joining the celebration. Singing along with the men he’ll happily betray and send to their deaths. It gives me chills. That one little scene carries more weight than anything FFXIII or Sticker Star managed to do with their villains, even though he barely did anything on screen. It’s all built up to that point–the deaths of the prisoners, the blame falling on Sefton, the betrayal of another prisoner who joins them partway through the movie.
You hate the informant for what he’s done, even though you don’t know who he is, and when a face is given to the traitor, you hate him even more. The scene itself is also well-crafted. While music is often used to enhance the atmosphere, the dissonance between “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and the informant’s actions works well. The actor also does contributes to the effect. His casual, yet deliberate, movements heighten the tension and make you wonder if anyone will notice. Even though I don’t write mysteries, I do like to have surprise villains. This is the sort of feeling I want to achieve in my audience–dread and hatred for a villain even when the character isn’t on the page. I want my villains to evoke emotions. Whether it’s a sympathetic villain the audience will like and almost root for, or this sort of unsympathetic villain the audience will long to see destroyed, I want the audience to feel something for them. In short, I want my villains to be more like Iago, Harbinger, and the informant, not like FFXIII’s villain and Sticker Star’s almost non-existent Bowser.
If you’re intrigued by what I’ve talked about today, you can always watch Stalag 17. It’s not one of my favorite movies, but it’s a good one, especially for this scene.---
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