ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Entertainment and Media»
  • Movies & Movie Reviews

Foreign Languages in US-Made Films

Updated on November 25, 2015

What Did He Say?

In most "Hollywood-made" films, a character from a foreign country is played by an American who may have a modest understanding of the language he/she is required to speak, or has no knowledge whatsoever and is coached with their dialogue.

There are plenty of good Russian, German and other nationals living in the US who are good actors. And even if they happened to be in short supply, why not recruit a few fluent actors from their homeland?

For an individual whose native tongue is Russian, German, French, Dutch, or whatever, the substituting of American actors with poor skills in the language they are required to speak can send one's teeth on edge because they are so bad at the adaptation.

Not too many Americans are conversant in a foreign language, and even if they are, they cannot hear the subtle (and sometimes not subtle) flaws in which the American actors deliver their dialogue. If you happen to be a native speaker of the language being used in these films, you want to throw a brick at your TV screen.

If Mel Gibson can make a movie where everyone either speaks Aramaic or Latin, surely the audience is sophisticated enough to read captioning. He did this with "Apocalypto," as well.

The Passion of the Christ
The Passion of the Christ
Apocalypto
Apocalypto

Realism

I think the only authentic film I've seen previous to these was "The Longest Day," where ALL of the German dialogue was spoken by real Germans or Germans who were fluent with the language, and all of their commentary was subtitled. This gave the movie a great deal of realism.

Hardy Kruger (left) Maximilian Schell (right) from The Longest Day
Hardy Kruger (left) Maximilian Schell (right) from The Longest Day

Go For Broke

Why was this avenue abandoned? I cannot say. Why is Scarlett Johansson playing a turn-coat Russian? I like SJ, and she's obviously a box-office draw, but why not recruit that low-level, red-headed spy from Russia, Anna Chapman (А́нна Васи́льевна Кущенко)? She appeared on several magazine covers, and her inclusion in "The Avengers" would have been a real kick. I imagine she knows English well enough, but even if she has an accent, that would have just lent added credibility to the story. I think she would have found it easier to get into that black, latex suit than SJ. Her inclusion would have created all kinds of free publicity. Does she possess acting ability? Well, I tend to think so because she managed to reside in the US and mingle with the elite while hiding her true identity. That isn't acting for a huge paycheck, that's acting so you don't get sent to prison or deported. And did acting as the Black Widow really require a talent with the depth of SJ?

Anna Chapman - A Real Russian Spy
Anna Chapman - A Real Russian Spy
Anna Chapman Showing Off Some of the Goods
Anna Chapman Showing Off Some of the Goods
Anna Chapman - Maxim Cover (Russian Edition Obviously)
Anna Chapman - Maxim Cover (Russian Edition Obviously)
Anna Chapman - Sufficiently Photogenic
Anna Chapman - Sufficiently Photogenic
Anna Chapman - A Real Russian With Allure
Anna Chapman - A Real Russian With Allure

Politics

So, how did ScarJo get the role of Black Widow in "The Avengers" instead of Anna Chapman? Was it because Chapman was actually a spy? I kind of doubt it. For a period of time, until she was sent home, she was a kind of rock star in the US. Chapman gained a lot of recognition, plus she she seemed to thrive on all the attention. To the US government, Chapman was a very low-level operative -- probably seducing some high officials with the hope of learning a tid-bit of information here and there. I imagine the US sends its female agents to Moscow for the same purpose. A girl has to make a living.

No, ScarJo got the job because of the push-and-pull politics inside Hollywood. I think she wanted the role, and by the time it came to casting, she was impossible to refuse. She was a natural box office draw, had proven herself to be a kind of virtuoso performer, and she was willing to slim down to appear as a svelte agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. I'm sure she worked hard athletically, and as things turned out she's done a very tasty job in the role -- mixing sexual appeal with cut-throat abilities. But, a role in "The Avengers" was never going to win her an Oscar nomination, and she certainly understood this from the onset. She enrolled in the ensemble out of a sense of fun, and hopefully she obtained that. Scarlett is imminently watchable even if she doesn't have super-powers. So, by no stretch of the imagination can I say that she was the wrong pick. All things considered, she was the right pick, but I can't help but wonder how a real Russian like Anna Chapman might have handled the role -- even having no "real" acting experience. Certainly, she would have been more adept at handling the few Russian lines given to her. But what else?

Scarlett Johansson from The Avengers
Scarlett Johansson from The Avengers
Scarlett Johansson in All Her Latex Glory
Scarlett Johansson in All Her Latex Glory

Hollywood seems all so happy to recruit talent from the UK and Australia (and I find nothing wrong with this), but when a storyline revolves around the Russian mafia or WWII Germans, the producers opt for the actors putting on a phony accent and making them slur a few lines in (a cringe-worthy) dialogue.

I cannot accept that it's a budgetary issue. Without knowing the particulars, expatriate actors from Russia, Germany and elsewhere are probably willing to work in a film for the same price as any American actor. Okay, if you can't cast them in a lead role, can't the casting director at least place them in the various gangster roles or as your standard "Kraut" or terrorist ("Die Hard")?

The norm seems to be what we saw in "Red October," where Sean Connery begins by speaking his stumbling style of Russian then it transfers over to pure English. Why? Well naturally, you can't have Connery speaking all of his lines in Russian -- it would be an excruciating mess.

But more than this, the audience is amazingly lazy. They don't want to read captioning -- unless it's an art film such as those mentioned earlier produced/directed by Gibson. Since the moguls of Hollywood are really only concerned about the bottom line, they take these kinds of awful shortcuts. The result is either laughable or cringe-worthy. Why they take these cuts is beyond my reasoning. Maybe the natural foreign-speaking nationals are not enrolled in the Actor's Guild, I don't know.

Since American audiences don't speak foreign languages, they cannot tell if a Russian mobster is speaking a Ukrainian accent. To our ears it all just sounds like so-much mumbo-jumbo. I guess we don't even care, but we should. And we should also care about the transliterated captioning. Even if we go so far as to assume that the scriptwriter consulted an interpreter (or the studio), what you hear on screen (even if you cannot understand it) may vary widely from what is provided in the captioning (if any is given). That just leads insult to injury. It just means that people skilled with a foreign language have to endure not only a bastardized version of their spoken language but also a bastardized version of the subtitles. Think about how you'd feel if you were in the far East or Asia and either had to endure horrible English or duping plus idiotic captioning?

I've watched several very good Chinese films, relying on captioning, and even not knowing the language, I can tell that the editor was something of an imbecile.

While Hollywood spends millions on upgrading its computer effects, it neglects some of the very basics, and it needn't be this way.

Sean Connery in The Hunt For Red October
Sean Connery in The Hunt For Red October

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • rjbatty profile image
      Author

      rjbatty 23 months ago from Irvine

      Michala: Yes, indeed it's unfortunate. Some films make no pretense about being historically accurate. I'm thinking of the bad publicity now circulating about "Gods of Egypt," which was made with an entire Anglo cast. I suppose this isn't a crime. The film is clearly meant just to be another action flick, so we have to suspend our disbelief in any attempt to be historically accurate. One can make an argument about the lack of realism, but one has to consider the film's basic intentions to just be entertaining. I haven't seen the film yet, and I'll judge it on the merits of trying to be simply entertaining. If this was the only intention then one must just accept historical inaccuracies and enjoy or not enjoy the film on what it hoped to achieve. We have no idea really exactly how ancient Egyptians looked, but they certainly were not all lily white Northern European types. And that can be okay. We have no idea about the language used by ancient Egyptians, so why bother. Certainly, we can't expect any historical-type film to replicate the dialect of the period (especially when it is unknown). I think that we agree that where our beef comes in is when Hollywood uses substitutes for modern-day-depicted pictures. There is certainly no shortage of Asians or Asian-Americans who can speak their native tongue fluently. Moreover, why doesn't Hollywood cast native speakers in key roles? To me, it seems like a no-brainer. I'd love to have a conversation with a Hollywood casting director to get more insight on the matter. I'd like to put this discrepancy before someone who is in a position to include/exclude foreign/domestic talent. What is it all about? I sense there must be a reason beyond mere convenience, but I can't imagine what it may be. Many, many films are hurt by what appears to be taking a sort of short-cut. I can't ascribe the sacrifice to mere budgetary concerns, so something else is driving this process. I just don't know what it is, and that alone is aggravating.

      Thanks much for commenting on this Hub. For many (I suppose) our complaints must seem trivial and easily discarded. This may constitute the majority of film-goers. But, as America becomes more multi-lingual, our concerns may gain prominence over time and Hollywood producers will have to take our sour feelings into consideration -- like it or not -- if they want to maintain the highest audience reaction to films as possible.

    • Michaela Osiecki profile image

      Michaela 23 months ago from USA

      I imagine that a lot of Asian Americans get very frustrated with Hollywood as well, because instead of hiring Asian actors for Asian roles, the industry will often just white-wash the character and cast an American actor. This erases Asian identity and exposure in film and feels very racist, so I hear where you're coming from with concerning native speakers of languages not being used in films. It's really unfortunate.