It has often been asked why the bad guy in (chiefly American) movies always speaks with an English accent. The answer has to do with two interlocking concepts: the stereotype and the connotations of the English accent in America.
The Power and Convenience of Stereotypes
Most of the biggest-grossing Hollywood movies, for all their merits, are generally not replete with plotlines driven by unique or complex characters. The age of such productions as Lawrence of Arabia, in which the character of one of the most fascinating men ever to have lived is explored over the course of nearly four hours of film, is decidedly over. Today's moviegoing audiences won't stand for it, and even if they would, the big movie production houses are rarely willing to take the risk. They prefer to populate their movies with characters that are instantly recognisable: The Down-and-out Little Brother, the Amusing Ethnic Guy, and the Tough, Bitchy Battleaxe Who Is Revealed To Be Warm-Hearted At The End, Coming To The Aid Of Our Less Experienced Heroine. These are stereotypes, massive distillations of recognisable trends and tendencies. You may know people like this, but stereotypes have none of the uniqueness that makes the individual. Real battleaxes and ethnic guys you know are real and individual. Stereotypes provide the audience with prepackaged characters, often accessorised with easily identifiable motivations and predictable one-liners, sparing everyone (producers and audience alike) the need to develop and understand a unique persona. With valuable screen minutes thus saved, moviemakers can add more explosions and gratuitous sex scenes.
However, one stereotypical character you've probably never met in real life is the Evil Genius. And this presents a problem for film-makers.
The English Accent in America
The solution they came up with was admirably clever. Drawing on the legends of such gentlemanly criminals as Edward Pierce, and combining them with the American perception of the English accent1, the Sophisticated Evil Genius was born to populate villainous roles in film on countless occasions.
The accent most commonly employed in this manner is received pronunciation (or RP). This and other English accents, and sometimes even Scottish or Welsh accents as well2, in America have a ring of sophistication and intelligence. This association possibly stems from frontier times, when among the rough and tumble talk of the Wild West the less altered speech of genteel folks from the east stuck out conspicuously. It may have to do with the general impression of Great Britain as the 'Old World': a place of tradition and schooling and nobility. Also, the concept of the British as the 'old masters' and British influence as an unjust yoke to be thrown off is deeply ingrained in American cultural history. In any case, though most Americans don't know what RP is, it sounds smart to them.
This phenomenon has led to the creative use of accents to be found in Robin Hood movies. Beginning with Errol Flynn's classic portrayal, and leading up to Kevin Costner's laughable (and anachronistic) accent in Prince of Thieves3, Hollywood Robin Hoods have had American accents. The Sheriffs of Nottingham have, naturally, spoken with English accents.
Star Wars: a Case Study
The original Star Wars trilogy4 is an interesting case. On the side of evil we have the Empire, whose officers sound quite British. The baddest of the bad, however, is Darth Vader, voiced by James Earl Jones, an American. It is interesting to note, though, that casting Jones was a decision that came late in the film and he merely overdubbed the lines of the British actor who played Darth Vader. Also, Vader was redeemed at the end of The Return of the Jedi, and imperial officers were not. On the side of good, most of the characters had American accents, including the über-American, space cowboy Han Solo. But there is an exception in the Star Wars movies, as well. Sir Alec Guinness gives the role of Obi-wan Kenobi his most deliciously wise English voice. He is a remnant of the old order, a mentor guiding our young brash hero, and is still in line with the prevailing stereotypes.
History of the Villainous Accent in American Film
In the early days of cinema, Hollywood stars were American, while character actors came from everywhere else. Your American star carried the film, and never played a villain because it might have tarnished their image. The role of the villain was handed to a stock of character actors. Any US actor wanting to be a star some day might avoid the villainous role, whereas British character actors have always been more flexible. The same applied with crossing media. Once an American actor broke into films, it used to be seen as career death to go back to TV, but this limitation was rarely applied to the British.
The English accent in film has had a unique history. The casting of bad guys has often been politically motivated. During the first half of the century, they often had German accents, and during the Cold War, the thrillers of the era naturally had Russian bad guys. Ever since film has become a popular medium, however, there has been an overt political need to cast Britons as baddies. As mentioned above, the connotations of the accent come from centuries of anti-imperialistic fashionable thought. Even so, modern Americans don't necessarily associate modern Britons with the big, bad Empire of yesteryear. It's the accent that's seen as evil, not the nationality5. It has become merely a stereotypical way of indicating the bad guy, a job once done by white and black cowboy hats or the glow of a cigarette in a dark alley.
While some people who speak with British accents in real life find this phenomenon offensive and yet another example of American arrogance, others see it differently. To quote one Researcher:
As an Englishman born and bred I have to say that I'm quite fond of the American tendency to cast my countrymen as the villain of the piece. He might always fall foul of the hero and/or his own devious plots at the end of the film, but he always gets the best lines and brings an impeccable style to the dance that you just can't get with a US accent. Alan Rickman, Charles Dance, Jeremy Irons and many others always steal the scene away from the likes of Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks every time.
Please note - the following list contains potential spoilers, as even with the strong signifier that the character is English, the villainy of some of the ones listed below is only revealed as a late twist in the plot.
- Christopher Eccleston in Gone in Sixty Seconds
- Tango and Cash
- Roddy Maude-Roxby as the voice of Edgar the butler in the animation The Aristocats.
- Alan Rickman in Die Hard (a case of an English actor playing a Germanic character with a slight accent), Help! I'm a Fish, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Quigley Down Under.
- Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs6.
- Basil Rathbone in Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, Son of Frankenstein and The Mark of Zorro7
- Ben Kingsley in Sneakers.
- Betty Lou Gerson as the definitive villainess, Cruella DeVille in 101 Dalmations (see also American actress Glenn Close playing the same role for the live-action remake).
- Charles Dance in Last Action Hero.
- Christopher Lee in (among many others) Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
- Claude Rains in Notorious8.
- David Bowie in Labyrinth and The Last Temptation of Christ (in which all the non-Roman biblical characters are played by Americans).
- Dougray Scott in Mission: Impossible 2.
- George Sanders in Rebecca and Walt Disney's The Jungle Book.
- James Mason in North by Northwest, Salem's Lot and The Verdict.
- Jeremy Irons in Die Hard With a Vengeance (where again, it's an English actor playing a Germanic character), The Lion King and The Time Machine.
- John Lithgow in Cliffhanger and Shrek (American actor hamming as British, though Lithgow has also played his fair share of homegrown villains.)
- Jonathan Hyde in Jumanji
- Joss Ackland in Lethal Weapon 2 (British actor, South African accent!)
- Pam Ferris in Matilda
- Patrick Stewart in Conspiracy Theory
- Peter Cushing in Star Wars9 (an example of the Imperialism mentioned above being used as short-hand to differentiate between the old order (Jedis and the Empire) and the new (the Rebellion Alliance).
- Pierce Brosnan in Mrs Doubtfire10.
- Ray Milland in Dial M for Murder.
- Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park (although his character in the film version was much more benign and unconsciously dangerous than in the books).
- Sir Ian McKellen in X-Men11
- Steven Berkoff in Beverly Hills Cop.
- Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (alongside Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn, both sporting Eastern-European accents).
- Timothy Dalton in The Shadow.
- Tom Wilkinson in Rush Hour.