The Best Background Characters: Floppy Hat Guy

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

***

The Movie:

‘Jaws’

The Character:

A guy in a white hat who’s way too happy during a shark attack.

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 2:15 at the bottom of the screen, and at 2:18 on the far left)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

Humans are weird creatures. When faced with catastrophe, disaster, or the wrath of a man-eating shark, you’d expect people to be frozen in fear, frozen in shock, or being one of the few brave souls who charges in to save others.

What you don’t expect is for someone to be having the time of their lives, as one beachgoer does in 1975’s classic, ‘Jaws’.

The fellow in question, a mustached man with a white floppy hat, charges into the water with other adults when the shark attacks poor Alex. But unlike the adults who are trying to get the kids out of the water, Floppy Hat Guy just frolics about with the biggest, dopiest grin, nonplussed at the terrors of the deep turning him into Purina shark chow.

Naturally, one wonders what this man’s story is. Is he high on drugs? Mentally challenged? Secretly in love with the idea of flaunting danger? Getting a thrill out of seeing kids get eaten? Of course, the real answer is that he’s played by an extra who was probably just really happy to be in a movie, but that’s nowhere near as much fun as watching a guy having fun when surrounded by death and sharks.

The Murderer Made It In?!: The Importance of Avoiding an Afterlife Only For The Elites

If you were like most kids who watched Star Wars growing up, you fantasized about going on adventures with Luke, Han and Leia, exploring the galaxy’s many worlds, and chilling out in Han and Chewie’s sky house (or was that just me?). And at the end of your days, you would pass from the physical world and become a force spirit, where you could hang out with your best friends forever and become super sparkly!

But would you, really?

While kids (and many adults) fantasize about living in the Star Wars universe, a strong case can be made that it’s a terrible place to live, especially since it’s in a state of constant warfare, ensuring that you have a high chance of dying a terrible death, but there’s one aspect that’s rarely discussed:

The afterlife in Star Wars is unfair.

Don’t believe me? Let’s try a thought experiment and pretend that you’ve a typical person in the Star Wars galaxy who has just died:

Opening your eyes, you realize that you’re dead. That sucks, but you were prepared for it; after all, you lived a nice, long life. While it wasn’t exemplary and didn’t have any impact on the galaxy at large, or even the planet you lived on, you were still a good person who tried not to hurt anyone, admitted when you made mistakes and tried to make amends, and were generally someone who enriched the lives of the beings that knew you.

Now you find yourself standing before a great, multi-colored ocean. Without anyone telling you, you realize that this is a physical manifestation of the Force, a place where everyone goes after death. That sounds pretty fair… but then you hear the Force itself telling you that your ultimate fate is to enter and become one with it… but in the process, you will lose your personality, your memories, your sentience, and essentially cease to exist.

Wait a minute! You say, That’s not fair!

The Force doesn’t care. You’re just one being out of untold trillions. Tens of trillions of beings have entered the Force before you, and tens of trillions more will come after you. It’s a fate that has already affected your parents, your deceased relatives, friends, and your beloved childhood pets. By becoming one with the Force, they no longer exist.

You scream that it isn’t fair! Isn’t there any chance of not being dissolved?

Yes, the Force says. About ten beings have died but preserved their consciousness and become immortal.

TEN?! You yell.

Yep. And all of them were members of a religious order that was barely known by the galaxy at large… Oh, wait. Another one has just arrived!

You turn around to see someone at the edge of the ocean, but they’re being embraced by a beautiful, glorious light shining down from above. But who is it? You squint, trying to see who had earned immortality when you didn’t. And then you see that person’s face, and all your faith in justice and mercy is shattered forever, for it’s Kylo Ren, leader of the First Order, the monster who killed your parents and family when he raided a planet two years ago.

Why does he get to be immortal and not me?! You scream.

Because I made him force sensitive, the Force says, and he was very sorry at the end of his life that he murdered billions of beings.

Before you can say anything more, the Force suddenly drags you into itself, where you dissolve into cosmic goo and are erased forever.

Meanwhile, Kylo Ren high-fives Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Yoda, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, and the other lucky immortals.

None of them pay you any heed.

Harsh? Yes, but what you’ve just read is an accurate summary of how the afterlife in Star Wars works. If we only go by what we see in the movies, everyone who dies in the Star Wars universe becomes one with the Force. Exactly what happens to the individual themselves is not specified, but they apparently become part of a larger whole, like a drop of water entering an ocean, losing their personality, their memories, and everything that makes them, ‘them.’ However, there is one way to avoid that fate, and not get turned into non-sentient cosmic go. How does that happen?

1. Be born force-sensitive.

2. Be fortunate enough to join the Jedi Order.

3. Be fortunate enough to learn secret teachings that only a few Jedi know.

4. Spend the rest of your life not turning to the Dark Side.

4B. If you do turn to the Dark Side, repent at the very last minute.

5. Become a Force spirit when you die.

6. ???

7. Profit!

That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But there’s just one problem:

If you’re not born with the ability to use the Force, you’re screwed.

It doesn’t matter how you live your life. It doesn’t matter if you were devoted to destroying evil, helping space-orphans, or blowing up space-orphans in space-orphanages with their space-doggies mookas; you’ll be absorbed into the Force upon your death and cease to exist. And it’s not just you who suffers this fate, but all of your loved ones, and everyone who wasn’t chosen by the force to have the ability to sense it. Think being eaten by a sarlacc was bad? Imagine spending a thousand years being digested alive in unimaginable agony before finally dying, only to immediately be erased from existence instead of being reunited with your loved ones who have passed on before you, meaning that being tortured every moment of every day for a thousand years was all for nothing.

The longer you think about the implications of this, the more horrifying it becomes: Luke, Leia, and Anakin may have achieved immortality after their deaths, but they will never see their non-force sensitive friends or relatives again. Shmi Skywalker, Padme, Han, Lando, Chewie, Bail Organa, Uncle Owen, and Aunt Beru are doomed to be dissolved, or have already been dissolved. It’s amazing that Leia and Luke didn’t have a complete mental breakdown upon realizing that Han had died, and it’s no wonder Anakin was so desperate to save his wife after losing his mother.

And then, to twist the knife even further, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ ends with Ben Solo, the leader of a fascist empire, a mass murderer, emotional abuser, and willing follower of the Dark Side, gain immortality. In a truly rage-inducing moment for everyone who believes in decency and justice, the official novelization of the film has a line where Ben feels the Force reaching for him in welcome as he dies, all because he felt sorry for being the worst human in the galaxy since Palpatine and Anakin. The Force will happily grant a mass murderer immortality while consigning everyone he slaughtered to oblivion. It’s a disgusting perversion of justice and turns the Star Wars universe into a hellhole where only a chosen few who were gifted at birth have any chance at immortality, and everyone else have no chance of achieving the same thing, no matter how hard they try. And this isn’t wishful thinking; according to the Star Wars wiki, only force-sensitive individuals can become spirits:

“Not only was preserving one’s consciousness reserved for the Jedi, but also for users of the light side not affiliated with the Order.”

Damn.

When you realize how horrifying and unfair the Star Wars afterlife is, it becomes obvious that writers shouldn’t make their fictional afterlives favor elites and those with advantages they didn’t earn, condemning everyday people to oblivion or worse, all through no fault of their own. It’s cruel, sadistic, and once your audience realizes that, their view of your fictional universe will forever be tainted. After all, who would want to lose themselves in such a place, much less read about it? (though to be fair, an exception could be made for the purpose of social commentary, but that still won’t be enjoyable reading).

We must be fair when creating our fictional hereafters; If they must be grim, where the possibility of being dissolved or erased exists, then make sure that everyone has an equal chance of avoiding such a fate. If our characters have to earn their eternal existence, have them all know what must be done, make that information readily available, or make it so that the process is fair and applies to everyone (such as making immortality available to the compassionate and kind, but not the cruel and sadistic). Someone’s social standing or membership in an obscure organization with only a few hundred members should have no bearing on if they get to have a happy afterlife or not.

If writers make our afterlives fair, our audiences will be more willing to endure the trials and tribulations our characters will go through if there’s a chance they will make it to the great beyond, than if that possibility is denied to them. And to that end, let’s take another look at what the afterlife of the Star Wars universe might be like if it were fair:

Opening your eyes, you realize that you’re dead. That sucks, but you were prepared for it; after all, you lived a nice, long life. While it wasn’t exemplary and didn’t have any impact on the galaxy at large, or even the planet you lived on, you were still a good person who tried not to hurt anyone, admitted when you made mistakes and tried to make amends, and were generally someone who enriched the lives of the beings that knew you.

Now you find yourself standing before a great, multi-colored ocean. Without anyone telling you, you realize that this is a physical manifestation of the Force, a place where everyone goes after death. That sounds pretty fair… but what comes next?

That’s up to you, a voice tells you. It’s a voice you recognize as the Force itself. You may become one with me, or you may remain an individual as long as you wish.

What happens then? You ask.

You’ll become a force spirit and can visit the physical realm, you’re told. You can interact with your loved ones, as well as go anywhere and see everything. Nothing can harm you, and if you ever tire of such an existence, you may join with me and become part of a greater whole. And if you tire of that, you may live again.

Sweet! You say. I think I’ll become a force spirit for now.

As you wish, the Force says.

Good choice, someone tells you. Turning, you find yourself face to face with the legendary Anakin Skywalker. And not only him, but his son and daughter, his mother, and many others you’ve heard about: Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca, and so many others, all welcoming you to your new existence as a force spirit.

Hey guys, can I join?

You turn and scowl. Kylo Ren, the murderous tyrant and leader of the First Order, walks up, having recently died. But before he can say another word, he’s suddenly yanked into the ocean and dissolved; while he was sorry for being a genocidal egomaniac with self-esteem issues, and did bring one girl back to life, that wasn’t enough to grant him the right to choose how he wants to spend his afterlife. Thus, he becomes one with the Force, much to the relief and satisfaction of his billions of victims, all of whom are now spirits who go spend time with their families in the world of the living.

Glad to see that little twerp get what’s coming to him, you head off back to the physical world to see how things are going. Watching the sunrise on Coruscant seems like a good place to start. And as you materialize on the top of the planet’s tallest skyscraper, a nice spirit named Beru appears beside you, offering you a glass of spectral blue milk to welcome the day.

As we can see, this scenario seems much more fair and just. Death is supposed to be the great equalizer, which pays no heed to one’s wealth, social class, or beliefs. We shouldn’t be afraid to make that true when it’s time for our characters to head to their final rest.

No Explosions, No Gun battles, and No Multi-Million Dollar VFX budget: Writing Your Book Like It’s A TV Episode

Recently, I came across an article on io9 about the future of Star Trek films, and a comment written by was a lengthy discussion on what course a hypothetical film should take. The whole comment is a great read, but these two parts jumped out at me:

‘2) follow ST:IVs “no gunfights, no explosions” rule, and that forces the story to find ways to challenge our characters in ways that let them express their character…

6) No gunfights, no explosions. I really want to stress this, because Star Trek doesn’t generally do action well. Even when the effects are great, you have to come up with weird contrivances to explain why Kirk needs to skydive or why Picard needs to take the dune-buggy out. TWOK, arguably the most “action oriented” of original films, doesn’t have much action, and the space battles are very much in the vein of Horatio Hornblower in spaaaaaaace: they’re slow, they’re about positioning and about the crew working together, about tricks and strategy. Which isn’t what audiences really expect, so hell, for our first outing, just don’t. Sci-fi action these days is supposed to look like Marvel movies, and you aren’t making a Marvel movie. Don’t try. Minimize the action beats, to make room for character and wonder.’

Can you imagine that? Writing a science fiction movie that doesn’t rely on explosions, actions, or gunfights? Such films are so common these days that it’s sometimes hard to find ones that don’t feature them. And the longer I thought about it, the more genius the idea became.

Picture this: You’ve been chosen by a major entertainment corporation to write the screenplay for your dream story. Even better? It’s your favorite genre! You finally have the chance to tell that war story, that monster movie, or finally bring your grade school masterpiece, ‘The Rainbow Unicorn Saga Chapter 1: Sparkle Forest Massacre’ to the big screen!

But then the studio tells you that you have a tiny budget. Like, really tiny. Think, ‘TV Budget’ tiny. Because of that, you can’t have any explosions, any gunfights, or fancy visual effects in your story (a few miniatures and matte paintings are okay, but that’s it).

Can you write your movie under those constraints?

Now, take that same principle and apply it to a novel: Can you tell your story without explosions, gunfights, or sequences that, if adapted into a television show, would cost too much to make?

Looking at our work with this mindset may seem like a disadvantage, but it can work out in our favor: We’ll have to focus on characters, their motivations, and their relationships with each other. They’ll have to use their wits to overcome the obstacles in their path. They’ll have to talk more. Any fights will be with their fists and melee weapons, and not with miniguns and plasma rifles. Battles will be limited to maybe a dozen people, and everything takes place in apartment buildings, deserts, and parks conveniently located within ten miles of the LA area.

While it’s easy and fun to write scenes that would be impossible to film, there’s just one problem with that: if your magnum opus is ever published, Hollywood might pass on turning it into the next big blockbuster movie if the price tag is going to be over $300 million. But if your magnum opus could be turned into a movie that could be made for under $50 million, they just might give it a shot.

Consider the following:

*Instead of your epic space saga about aliens destroying the universe with massive fleets that engage in battles that destroy entire solar systems with a single blast, it’s now about an unarmed scout ship trying to find a way to stop the alien fleet before it arrives.

*Your epic, alternate-universe 1940’s WW2 movie that involves giant monsters and robots is now about two soldiers sneaking behind enemy lines to escape hostile territory and only face one monster at the end (that could be portrayed by a guy in a suit on a green-screen set).

*Instead of ‘The Rainbow Unicorn Saga Chapter 1: Sparkle Forest Massacre’ following an epic war of thousands of Unicorns slaughtering armies hired by evil corporations who want to bulldoze Sparkle Forest and turn it into a sewage refinery, it’s now about two villagers trying to find the one unicorn (who turns out to be an anthropomorphic unicorn that could be portrayed by someone in robes and a mask) who could stop the evil corporations, and have to fight their mercenaries using bows, arrows, and knives in sneak attacks at night.

These three scenarios take unfilmable movies and instead turn them into focused character studies. Any action or big events happen sporadically and briefly, and aren’t the main focus of the story, giving our characters more time to grow, interact, and endear themselves to our audiences, who will become more emotionally invested in their adventures.

For all the fun it is to write books and stories about impossibly huge armies, futuristic societies, apocalyptic scenarios, creatures that defy description, and Michael Bay explosionfests, it might be worth trying to write on a budget. Books let our readers use their imagination to bring the impossible to life, but sometimes having limits can help us narrow, focus, and zero in on what’s really important in a story, and help it reach its full potential.

‘The Force Awakens,’ ‘Underwater,’ and the power of Expanded Universes To Enrich Your Story

Note: This post contains spoilers for the 2020 thriller, ‘Underwater’

The year is 2015, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ I sit back in my seat, mulling over the first live-action Star Wars film in over a decade, my mind full of questions, so many questions, and few of them good:

*Where did the First Order come from? How did this group that’s supposed to be smaller than the Empire (and possessing a fraction of their resources) get more advanced ships, weapons, and a galaxy-killing planet?

*What’s the political state of the galaxy? How has it changed in the thirty years since the end of ‘The Return of the Jedi?’ Is the New Republic struggling? Has it been successful? Is it on the verge of becoming an empire itself?

*How did Maz somehow get a lightsaber that tumbled into a gas giant, ensuring that no one could possibly retrieve it?

*Why, when faced with a new fleet of space-Nazis, does the New Republic dispatch such a pitifully tiny group to fight it? What happened to all the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers we saw in ‘Return of the Jedi’? Shouldn’t a galactic government have the means to defend itself?

These questions left me frustrated because the film had no interest in answering them. Even more frustrating was that to get answers to many of these questions, I would had to buy tie-in novels, visual dictionaries, and encyclopedias to get answers that should have been in the movie in the first place.

Fast forward to 2020, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Underwater,’ an underwater horror-thriller (and the final film released by 20th Century Fox before being rebranded by Disney) in which drillers and researchers struggle to escape from the bottom of the Marianas trench while being attacked by fearsome underwater critters. While you won’t be able to remember the character’s names or any witty dialogue a week later, it’s still a satisfying and enjoyable way to spend 95 minutes. Later, I look online to satisfy my curiosity at any interesting behind-the-scenes trivia and read a few articles, including one promising a major revelation about the big monster who shows up at the end.

A few minutes later, and I’m blown away: It turns out that the big monster in ‘Underwater’ is none other than Cthulhu himself, the most famous character from HP Lovecraft’s fictional mythologies. In an instant, ‘Underwater’ goes from a generic creature flick to a movie about humanity’s first encounter with unspeakably powerful gods who could easily wipe humanity out without any effort.

Since reading that Cthulhu is the main monster of ‘Underwater,’ I’ve come to realize that the movie does one thing ‘The Force Awakens’ failed to do: use its expanded universe not to explain an incomplete story, but to enrich it.

For those who are unaware, expanded universe material is any secondary publication outside of a movie, television, book, or video game that further explores the world and characters of that story. Star Wars is the most famous example, with hundreds of novels, video games, and comics released over the decades that explores its fictional universe, but it’s now common for blockbusters and other big franchises to get expanded universe material of their own.

However, there’s one important thing to remember: Expanded Universe material is meant to enrich and enhance the franchise it’s a part of, not explain away problems that should have been addressed in the original movie, book, video game, comic, or TV show. ‘The Force Awakens,’ tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but there are substantial gaps (such as the ones mentioned earlier) that require reading said dictionaries and novels to understand.

Conversely, ‘Underwater,’ is a complete, self-contained movie that uses its expanded universe material to add another layer of depth that’s not in the film. The first time you see it, ‘Underwater’ is about scientists and drillers trying to escape underwater monsters. The second time you see it, it’s a movie about scientists and drillers trying to escape from a demigod, who’s just one of hundreds who have come from a place outside of time and space, all created by an insane god who could destroy everything if it wakes up. Our protagonists live in a world where gods are real, and none of them are our friends.

Yikes.

What does that mean for writers? When we write our stories, our audiences should get all the information they need from following our works instead of having to consult a wiki to understand what’s going on. While it’s fine to leave some mysteries and teases of a larger world in our stories, it’s important that those mysteries don’t come at the expense of the main story, and when a viewer has to do research to understand a story, that story needs help.

Try looking at it another way: Your story is a gourmet dish, and the expanded material is the sauce. If your dish is missing several ingredients, the sauce can’t salvage it. But if your dish is well-made, the sauce enriches and adds onto it, elevating the dish to something truly magnificent.

Great Quotes About Writing: Do the Best You Can With What You’re Given

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

***

‘I think the idea of midichlorians is a lot better than the “anyone can be a Jedi” trope that The Last Jedi tried to push. That’s not the way the world works. Some people are born more smart or talented than others, but it depends on what you do with what you’re given. There’s heroes in the Star Wars universe without high midichlorians that still did great things and others like Anakin that had talent that he wasted. “Do the best you can with what you’re given” is a much more empowering and realistic message than “You can be anything you want to be” ‘

LandoMT, commenting on ‘The Six Levels of Midichlorians Density‘ (emphasis mine)

So often in stories (and real life) we’re told that we can be anything we want if we push ourselves just a little harder, study a little longer, and keep going when everyone else gives up. It’s a cliche that will never die. But what if your character realizes that they can’t fulfil a dream because, no matter how hard they try, they will never have the skills or the talent to make it come true? The shock of that, coupled with searching for another dream, and then adjusting to work on that one and finding satisfaction in it, can be enormously satisfying because of the conflict the character has to go through.

Great Quotes About Writing: Winning Without Punching

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

***

‘I can’t think of a single other superhero movie right now where the real superpower that saves the day is the protagonist’s ability to convince other people to Do the Right Thing.

Of all the major confrontations in the flick, Peter is either at a disadvantage, or loses. He never wins via punch. He convinces Harry to tell him where Octavius is. He convinces Octavius to sacrifice his life to save the city. He wins over a train car full of New Yorkers. He convinces MJ to attack Octavius at the last minute. He convinces freakin’ J. Jonah Jameson that Spider-Man is a hero.

We need more heroes like that, and fewer heroes who save the day by using billion-dollar tech and magic rocks to vaporize their enemies. Yeah, you heard me. F*** Tony Stark and Spider-Holland. Long live Spider-Tobey.’

, commenting on ‘Spider-Man 2 Is a Perfect Sequel‘ (emphasis mine)

With superhero movies having saturated cinemas for the past decade, we’ve gotten used to expensive fight scenes, explosions, and magical artifacts being used to save the day at the climaxes of those movies. But as 2Lines1shape points out, perhaps the best heroes in fiction aren’t the ones who can punch through planets, control reality, or can blow things up with their minds.

The best heroes – superpowered or not – are the ones who inspire other people to be their best, to help them do what they can with their own abilities and gifts, and even save themselves, both physically and morally, characters like Superman, Atticus Finch, or Samwise Gamgee. They seek not to glorify themselves, but to extend a hand and invite us to join them in greatness.

What We Can Learn From ‘The Enemy Below’

Last time here on Imperfect Glass, we took a look at ship-to-ship combat in ‘Sink the Bismark!’ Now, let’s take a dive under the waves for the 1957 classic, ‘The Enemy Below,’ which follows a US destroyer and a German U-boat as they both seek to take each other out in a battle of wits.

What does the story do well?

It humanizes both the protagonist and the antagonist

Whereas a WW2 propaganda movie would work hard to establish the protagonist as a squeaky-clean all-around good guy, and the antagonist a Nazi who kicks puppy dogs for fun and eats babies for breakfast, ‘Below’ smartly shows that its two main characters – Commander Murrell of the USS Haynes, and Kapitän zur See von Stolberg of the unnamed U-boat – are not walking avatars of patriotism or the embodiments of vengeance and revenge. Both have lost loved ones to war, are tired of the conflict, and are good men who could get along if there wasn’t a war going on. Even better, the film portrays them both as professionals doing their job. Neither holds any animosity towards the other; they both just want to go home, but can’t until their current conflict is resolved.

It has both parties destroy each other

While it would be tempting to have either the sub or the Haynes overpower the other at the film’s climax, ‘Below’ has both ultimately destroy one another: the submarine gets a fatal blow on the destroyer, and the Haynes inflicts a mortal wound on the sub by ramming it, and then having both be blown up.

Though the Americans ultimately win in the long term (they’re rescued and the German sailors become prisoners of war), having both parties inflict a fatal wound on each other makes the climax more exciting, as the audience is left unsure who will ultimately emerge triumphant.

It has an unexpectedly wholesome ending

So often we have war movies that end with either one combatant being destroyed, or where nobody wins, and everyone suffers. Very rare is war movie – especially a non-comedic one set in World War Two – that features both sides not only surviving, but an honest-to-goodness happy ending that doesn’t feel contrived or out of place. ‘Below’ is one of those rare films, ending with only one person dying (Stolberg’s executive officer), and the rest of both the submarine and destroyer’s crews surviving to see another day with no hard feelings between any of them. Heck, we even get to see both crews work together to get their captains off the Haynes before it’s destroyed.

While such wholesome, happy endings won’t always work, especially in a war movie, ‘Below’ proves that it can be done.

What would have helped improve the story?

Having Stolberg be more aggressive

Thought I may be more realistic to have Captain Stolberg hide his submarine for most of the running time, it does create an imbalance of power. He’s supposed be smart, clever, and cunning, but aside from a torpedo strike early on, it feels like he’s always on the defensive until the climax, never getting a chance to strike or damage the Haynes (though his means of escaping detection by sailing under it is very clever).

Following up on the crew’s boredom

Early on the film, it’s established that the Haynes hasn’t seen much action during the war, and her crew are getting bored. It’s a good set up for a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario later on, but with the film’s focus being mainly on Stolberg and Murrell, we don’t get any moments where the crew regret hoping for some action while their ship is sinking or they watch as their shipmates are injured and wounded.

Conclusion

Much like ‘Sink the Bismark!’ ‘The Enemy Below’ goes to great lengths to humanize its antagonist and protagonist, and it pays off in spades. While it would have been nice to see both captains get an equal shot to show off their combat intelligence and abilities, the exciting climax, wholesome happy ending, and the lack of a revenge subplot makes ‘The Enemy Below’ a wholesome war movie that the whole family can enjoy.

Huh… there’s a sentence you don’t see everyday.

The Best Background Characters: The Backflipping Goon

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

***

The Movie:

‘The Matrix Revolutions’

The Character:

A goon with radical backflipping skills.

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 2:03)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘Don’t bring a gun to a knife fight.’ Another equal saying should be, ‘Don’t expect aerobatics to save you in a gun fight.’

The goon in this scene distinguishes himself when, after running out of ammo for his pistols, decides that the best course of action is to do backflips across the room. Then he’s shot and dies, complete with a ‘you failed!’ music cue on the soundtrack.

Much like one of Snoke’s guards, this goon stands out because his actions are so nonsenscial. Tactical backflips may look cool, but it’d have been more effective to take cover behind a pillar and survive to keep fighting. But with his sacrifice, Backflip Goon provides a valuable lesson to fighters in fiction: Unless you’re in a comedy where exaggerated actions are used for humorous effect, staying alive in a fight is more important than showing off how acrobatic you are.

What We Can Learn From ‘Sink The Bismark!’

Pop Quiz Time: If you were responsible for writing a movie based around finding, chasing, and sinking a battleship during World War Two, would you:

A. Focus entirely on the ship?

B. Focus on the logistics of finding said ship?

C. A mix of the two?

While action buffs (like myself) would pick A, and strategy fans would pick B, the 1960 film, ‘Sink the Bismark!’ which focuses on the real-life events leading to the destruction of the famed German battleship, tries to find a balance between giving us ship-to-ship action and the behind the scenes efforts to bring the boat down. As an action fan, I was surprised to see how well the film succeeds at accomplishing the balance of both action and strategy, turning the film into a battle not only of heavy shells and big guns, but also a battle of wits.

What does the story do well?

The movie has the protagonists under immense pressure from the very beginning

Much like in real life, ‘Sink the Bismark!’ portrays the British as being in dire straits during the early years of the war. They’re alone against Nazi Germany and their convoys – the lifeline keeping the island nation afloat – are being sunk at an alarming rate, leaving them with few resources to take on the Bismark. In short, the British are the ultimate underdogs in the film, alone and fighting against an enemy who has more resources, more ships, more men, more everything. Failure to stop the Bismark from attacking those convoys threatens to make an already terrible situation even worse.

Though we know that Nazi Germany will ultimately be defeated, the film does an excellent job in quickly setting up what’s at stake for the British should they fail, and how important it is that they sink the Bismark.

The movie focuses on the risks commanders take during wartime.

While most war movies would focus on action and ships blasting each other into scrap metal, ‘Bismark!’ takes the time to show the British struggling with how best to take on said ship. The number of vessels they have at their disposal is limited, and even sending some of them to take on the Bismark is a gamble, as they have to pull those ships away from convoys, and thus gamble with the lives of thousands of sailors and soldiers.

Smartly, though, ‘Bismark!’ shows that the commanders, while aware of the risks that they’re taking, are not cold-hearted monsters who don’t care about the lives that could be lost. They’re fully aware that they could lose thousands of people and don’t like having to take that chance, but they still do, which results in an agent losing his life after transmitting information on the Bismark leaving port, and Captain Shepard thinking he’s lost his son after ordering his ship to find and engage the Bismark.

One of ‘Bismark!’s biggest strengths is showing that these commanders, while still gambling with people’s lives, are people themselves who have to deal with the consequences of those choices. It gives the film an emotional weight that’s more engaging than something like this:

Commander Guy: I say, let’s send our forces here!

Second Commander Guy: Jolly good!

Battleship Guns: BOOM BOOM BOOM.

Showing blood drip out of a communication tube

It’s a minor moment in the film, but an unsettling one: After being hit by a shell, the compass platform of the Prince of Wales is sheared away, and a navigator in a room below has his work interrupted by drops of blood dripping out of the communication pipe. Had we not seen the platform be destroyed, seeing the blood would have been equally chilling, for it would have told us what had happened and left our imaginations to imagine how horrific the carnage would have been.

Even more chilling is knowing that this actually happened during the battle and isn’t the result of the filmmaker’s imagination.

The main character goes through a believable emotional arc

When I first saw ‘Bismark!’ I expected that the highlight of the movie would come from the Bismark blowing up the HMS Hood, and her subsequent final battle and sinking. But to my surprise, I was more engrossed in Captain Jonathan Shepard, the man in charge of finding and destroying the Bismark.

When we first meet him, Shepard is a typical no-nonsense military man, the kind who demands order and discipline and gives no leniency to those who are late, sick, or about to see their girlfriends be shipped overseas. The movie quickly and efficiently shows that he’s good at what he does, and is the right man for a very stressful job, but it’s easy to take a disliking to him. Typically military hard head, we think.

However, as the film goes on, we learn that there’s more to Shepard than meets the eye. He lost his previous ship to German admiral Lutjens (conveniently onboard the Bismark) and wants revenge. Furthermore, Shepard’s coldness to those around him is not because he’s a jerk or a control freak, but from being unable to deal with the grief of losing his wife in a bombing raid by the Nazis, leading him to not wanting to get close to anyone. Yet, after thinking he’s lost his son (after ordering his ship into battle), Shepard breaks down emotionally. While he does learn that his son is alive by the end, it’s these events that make Shepard realize (with the help of his assistant, Anne Davis) that he does need the help of others to get through tough events, and that he doesn’t have to be so hard or cold.

Shepard is a great example of a military man who goes through an emotional arc: at the beginning he’s an efficient, but cold man, but by the end he’s warmed up to others and remains more of his humanity.

It’s also worth noting that ‘Bismark’ also does a good job of setting up Admiral Lutjens as the main antagonist of the film. In the span of just a few minutes, we learn that he’s a Nazi with a big man-crush on Hitler (historically inaccurate, by the way). The movie could have ended there, but it gives Lutjens a little more depth by making him both wanting glory for himself, but also for Germany, due to feeling forgotten and ignored after the First World War. While he’s not a sympathetic character, he does believe in a cause greater than himself, and that’s admirable… even if the movie version of the character is a Nazi.

What would have helped improve the story?

More focus on ordinary sailors on the Bismark

With the film running at a tight and focused 97 minutes, ‘Bismark!’ has to be picky about which characters to focus on, generally choosing to focus on Shepard on land, and the admiral and captain onboard the Bismark, with a few intercuts to sailors on the Prince of Wales and other English ships. While we do get to see the sailors onboard the Bismark fighting for survival, I would have liked to see a focus on one or two of them throughout the story as well, if only to see the story from a pair of people who aren’t involved in command positions.

Conclusion

‘Sink the Bismark!’ manages to achieve the delicate balance between wartime strategy and wartime combat, showing how the decisions made during the former have consequences in the later. While it might have benefited from being just a little longer to allow for a subplot showing two ordinary German sailors and their perspective on things, the movie is still a tight, focused film that engages the audience with the emotional weight wartime commanders have to deal with.

The Best Background Characters: Middle-Aged Karate Dude

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

***

The Video:

‘Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins’

The Character:

A middle-aged man in a karate outfit

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 3:42)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

In case you haven’t stepped into an arcade, or read video game news since 1992, ‘Mortal Kombat’ has been rightfully called one of the most controversial video game franchises of all time due to its unprecedented violence, blood, and gore, which meant that it would inevitably have cartoon spinoffs marketed to kids (If Rambo and Robocop could do it, why not Mortal Kombat?). Perhaps the most infamous one, ‘Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins’  acts as a prequel to the 1995 movie, ‘Mortal Kombat,’ and is fondly remembered for its so-bad-its-good animation and fight scenes.

However, one moment stands out among the endless loops of recycled animation and atrocious CGI: When our heroes meet the other aspiring contestants for the tournament to determine the fate of the universe, one of them is a middle-aged guy practicing karate moves. He’s only on screen for two seconds, but what makes Karate Dude so memorable is how he’s hilariously outmatched: Mortal Kombat is a series about people, ninjas, gods, and mutants with superhuman strength literally ripping each other apart in the bloodiest ways imaginable. In a fight against any one of them, Karate Dude is like a chihuahua fighting a wood chipper: he’d be dead in seconds (can you imagine him fighting this guy and winning? Didn’t think so).

Yet, that underdog feel is what makes Karate Dude so endearing: He willingly went to this tournament to try and protect Earth despite having an average physique, being older than every other human present by at least two decades, and not having any chance of winning. But, like the best underdogs, he’s still willing to try, and proves that what he lacks in physical power, he more than makes up in courage, and for that he deserves our respect and admiration.

Or, alternatively, he could also not have any idea of what he’s about to face, and dies shrieking like a little girl while facing a ninja who shoots fire from his mouth. That’d be funny, too.