Foreign characters speaking English in movies!

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Sam Davatchi, Aug 27, 2001.

  1. Sam Davatchi

    Sam Davatchi Producer

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    This is about foreign characters speaking English in movies (while they are supposed to talk their native language). This is something that has occupied my mind for quite sometime. I saw “Enemy at the Gates” few days ago and was watching Chocolat tonight. Well it was thanks or no thanks to Chocolat that I felt to write about this.
    I think there were some people who complained about the accents of the characters in “Enemy at the Gates” especially Ed Harris’ character. They said "how on earth he could speak perfect English?"! Well on the contrary, I think that they should talk perfect English! That’s the whole point.
    The character is supposed to talk in his native language but for our comprehension it’s English, it’s like a dub, it’s not real. The character is not really speaking English, therefore that’s why we should hear perfect English with no accent!
    “Chocolat” is the bad example for me here and it irritated me a little! I think even worse than using accents in these situations is to use foreign words like bonjour or …
    that they used in “Chocolat”. Again we are supposed to hear a dubbed version in English!
    Anyway that’s how I feel and I’m glad Miramax was unable to buy Oscars and critical acclaim just by money and publicity. They must have forgotten that no matter how many million dollars you spend, it’s the movie itself that should stand up!
     
  2. Jun-Dai Bates

    Jun-Dai Bates Stunt Coordinator

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    Funny, I was just thinking about this subject recently. I haven't seen Chocolat, but my film professor reported that when watching it, he at first thought the filmmakers were making a joke about how many British people there are in southern France, but alas no.
    In any case, I hated Enemy at the Gates for a many reasons, and the fact that they spoke English wasn't really one of them. It seemed like they did an adequate Hollywood job, mixing Russian/German in the background and in print, but using English where necessary, and without augmenting it with cute well-known German/Russian phrases (as I recall, anyways). Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth (another film I hated) struck me as a perfect example, along with Kundun, in which the characters speak in a funny sort of stylized English to indicate that they are really speaking Vietnamese/Tibetan. In Kundun it was particularly bad in the meeting between the Dalai Lama and Mao, where you had no idea what language they were speaking in (Mandarin would be the likely choice, I guess), but they both had these peculiar accents.
    In other films, however, it seems to work out well. Unbearable Lightness of Being, for example, all the actors worked very hard on their Czech accents, and it works beautifully. In Death in Venice it also works, and Dirk Bogarde hasn't a trace of an Italian or German accent. I think these are both good examples of how to work around foreign languages (the hard way and the easy way, I guess).
     
  3. Dave L

    Dave L Stunt Coordinator

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    In a somewhat related topic, there is a quasi convention that ancient Romans and Russians speak with English accents.
    Witness "I, Claudius," (the entire cast), "Spartacus," (Olivier, Simmons, Ustinov), "Cleopatra," (Burton, Harrison, and some of the supporting cast), "Quo Vadis," (Kerr, Genn, Ustinov), "Fall of the Roman Empire," (Boyd, Guinness, Mason, Quayle), "Ben Hur," (Boyd, Hawkins, Griffith).
    The Russians speaking with English accents is more concentrated with "Dr. Zhivago," (Guinness, Christie, Courtenay, Tushingham, Richardson) and "Nicholas and Alexandra" (Jayston, Suzman, Andrews) being the major examples.
    My other favorite convention in old films is the character who can speak a foreign language, often German, and passes as a native from then on fooling the stupid authorities, often Nazis. Having studied languages for years and knowing people who also have, it is extremely difficult to pass as a native, which would mean having no foreign accent, but enough of a regional accent to convince, and having mastered idioms, humor, slang, contemporary events, and everything else necessary to pass. As other old films have frequently shown, foreigners who learn English perfectly often forget to learn who won the world series last year. That's a minor fact that's tripped up any number of foreign spies.
     
  4. Ted Todorov

    Ted Todorov Cinematographer

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    The most clever approach was in The Hunt For Red October. The characters start out speaking Russian, then there is a close-up of an actor’s mouth as he says the word Armageddon, which of course is the same in most languages and when the camera pulls back they speak English.
    To distinguish the Russians from the Americans, all the Russians were played by British actors, speaking with British accents. IMO, it worked beautifully.
    Ted
     
  5. Hendrik

    Hendrik Supporting Actor

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    ...ahh... the upshot of all this, then, is that only Russians should make movies about Russians, only the French should make movies about the French, etcetera... plus, of course, plays should only ever be performed in their respective original language (e.g. Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Schiller, Sartre)... and the French, of all people, should stop dubbing all non-French movies into French, just as the Germans should stop dubbing all non-German movies into German, etcetera... let us therefore throw out - better yet, burn! - such cinematic abominations as the all-French-spoken, respectively the all-Italian-spoken Cinema Paradiso - in fact, let us stop watching Italian movies that feature non-Italian-speaking French - or American! - actors in lead roles (e.g. Visconti's Rocco and his Brothers and Il Gattopardo )... let's also destroy Stanley Kubrick's Paths Of Glory and Spartacus , Marcel Carné's Drôle de Drame ...
    ...leaves the room, wheezing with exhaustion from his rant...
    . . .
     
  6. MickeS

    MickeS Producer

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    Sam, this is something that has always annoyed me also. I don't know if it's because I am from Sweden, and thus was brought up reading subtitles on all foreign movies, but I suspect that's the reason. To me, a character should speak the language that he is suppusedly speaking in the movie, not the language that the actor speaks in real life.
    If that means that they'll have to hire an actor with the same native language as the character, or even that the movie can't be made, well then so be it. It's really ridiculous when for example the characters are both speaking english, and they're not able to understand each other, because they're supposed to speak different languages.
    "Schindler's list" was one of the movies I had HUGE problem with this in. I don't see why they couldn't hire German actors for the German speaking parts.
    Ted, I agree that they handled this very well in "Red October", and if they absolutely necesserally have to use actors that can't speak the character's language then this is the way to go, which Sam also points out; let the characters speak perfect English. At least it doesn't bring the movie down to the level of a second grade school play.
    /Mike
     
  7. Jun-Dai Bates

    Jun-Dai Bates Stunt Coordinator

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    Let's not forget Last Temptation of Christ, with its wonderful Brooklyn accents. [​IMG]
    In any case, the issue is not whether films can be good with people speaking one language while pretending to speak another, but rather how to approach the issue. Having actors speaking in the language of their character (other than English, for Hollywood) is often impossible or impractical. Historical films and science fiction are easy examples. But the key is to not make it stick out (unless the film is a comedy). And if there are multiple languages in the film (as there are in most of our examples), it becomes really messy.
    Rocco and his Brothers and Il Gattopardo don't really count, because even though Burt Lancaster is dubbed (not an Italian speaker, he mouths the words in Italian), he is as far as the viewer is concerned, speaking flawless Italian, even if you think he doesn't look like he should be.
    I do think that the habit of dubbing films from the language it was filmed in should be minimized (and it is in America. Animated films seem to be the main exception), just as aspect ratios should be preserved. I won't even mention opera. Of course some films are filmed in different languages, and dubbing can't be helped (Sergio Leone's films).
    Having everyone speak the appropriate language is an ideal, and sometimes filmmakers live up to it (Grand Illusion and Irma Vep, to use two disparate examples).
    The worst case scenario is to have an actor speaking in a language that he doesn't know so poorly that it grates the ear, which Hollywood has been doing for some time. The Insider and Mash both have brief examples of this (they come to mind quickly. There are many more, to be sure). This is about as bad as Hollywood actors with lousy, stereotypical accents (a la Mr.Yunioshi). You could start a whole thread on these purist issues (like white people wearing black-face, or casting Japanese actors as Chinese characters, or vice versa). I'm sure there is a great deal written on these subjects.
     
  8. Hendrik

    Hendrik Supporting Actor

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    "Rocco and his Brothers and Il Gattopardo don't really count, because even though Burt Lancaster is dubbed (not an Italian speaker, he mouths the words in Italian), he is as far as the viewer is concerned, speaking flawless Italian, even if you think he doesn't look like he should be... "
    Annie Girardot and Alain Delon and Roger Hanin and Suzy Delair, all in Rocco... are all as 'French' as they come, and with 99% certainty non-Italian-speakers, while Katina Paxinou, presumably, is Greek and likely didn't speak Italian either in that movie...
    What on earth makes you think that Burt Lancaster 'mouths the words in Italian '? He does nothing of the sort, but - visibly - speaks his part in English...
    It's just the way movies are made - and have been since the advent of sound...
    Occasionally, movies were made - sometimes simultaneously - in two versions: Pabst made a German and a French version of the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera featuring different casts... Garbo wasn't happy with her first Hollywood 'Talkie' Anna Christie and re-made it in (non-dubbed!) German, in Germany, with a different cast and a different director...
    Any movie - and I don't just mean the science-fiction kind! - requires from the viewer a certain measure of suspension of disbelief... knowing that, is how Hollywood came to cast an Austrian actress (Luise Rainer) and an actor (Paul Muni) who, until he was in his late 20s, only acted in Yiddish plays - as the 'Chinese' leads in Pearl Buck's The Good Earth... not to mention casting Katherine Hepburn in 'yellowface' as a Chinese patriot in Ms. Buck's Dragon Seed... or Mickey Rooney with buck teeth as a very unfunny (and, I'm sure, insulting as hell to Nipponese viewers) 'Japanese' in Breakfast At Tiffany's...
    . . .
     
  9. SteveGon

    SteveGon Executive Producer

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    Two more examples:
    Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Spanish characters speaking German. Fortunately, this doesn't detract from the film.
    Tortilla Flat. Admittedly, I haven't seen this movie in a long time, but I do remember that the otherwise excellent Spencer Tracy was just terrible here. I could live with the Hispanic characters speaking English or even Tracy playing a Hispanic [​IMG], but what the hell was with that pseudo-Hispanic accent he affected? I really found it to be insulting! His "performance" in this movie was little better than a caricature...
    ------------------
    [​IMG]
    "Death's at the bottom of everything, Martins - leave death to the professionals!"
    "Mind if I use that line in my next Western?"
    [Edited last by SteveGon on August 27, 2001 at 09:54 PM]
    [Edited last by SteveGon on August 27, 2001 at 09:55 PM]
     
  10. Kirk Tsai

    Kirk Tsai Screenwriter

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    Another recent one would be Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The film is set in a Greek island with Italians and Germans conquering them. English is of course the main language in which the natives, Italians and Germans speak to each other, so I understood why they had to have the (sometimes weak) accents. However, the inconsistency was quite glarring because between the own people, meaning a Greek talking to another, they still speak English with the same accent. Since the film was so much about the interaction between the peoples, I thought it probably would have been a better decision to just speak their own native language when speaking to the same people.
     
  11. Ugo Scarlata

    Ugo Scarlata Stunt Coordinator

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  12. Cees Alons

    Cees Alons Moderator
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    Cees Alons
    quote: My other favorite convention in old films is the character who can speak a foreign language, often German, and passes as a native from then on fooling the stupid authorities, often Nazis[/quote]
    I agree. And one of the even funnier forms is: if he just speaks English, but now with a funny (fake) accent. That way it becomes even simpler to assume another identity!
    Hendrik hit the nail on the head, I think.
    Like books, stories can be translated. The film is then supposed to be the English tale of something happening (and originally told, perhaps) in another country. Even the use of some local "slang" (like pardon, monsieur or towaritsch) would be acceptable, to set the "mood").
    Most of the problems arise when the (foreign) identity of persons are part of the story and if they differ between different characters.
    Also, when the actor is trying to have another accent - and fails miserably (some English actors playing Americans, and I shouldn't even start about Kevin Costner as Robin Hood, or Marlon Brando in The Mutiny..). Some won't be noticed by the big public, like a "German" or "Dutchman" uttering some hardly understandable words (in the ears of genuine Germans and Dutch). I have even heard a "German" once, speaking a few Dutch words - with a Belgian accent!
    Thos English speaking Romans - I always believed that it was to emphasize the sophisticated, perhaps even decadence of the ruling class and make them slightly more of suppressors. In Ben Hur all Hebrews have an American accent - after all it's supposed to be a sort of colony, isnt it?
    Didn't the sun hardly settle in the whole of the Roman Empire?
    And what was that ancient song again?
    Rule, our Roma!
    Our Roma rules the world...
    Romans nehehehehever will be ..
    (mmm, some were.)
    Cees
    [Edited last by Cees Alons on August 28, 2001 at 04:22 AM]
     
  13. Kim Donald

    Kim Donald Stunt Coordinator

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    The Fake German accents on "Shadow of the Vampire" were so bad I could not keep my mind on the story, everytime someone spoke all I could think about was how fake the accent sounded.
    kd
     
  14. Bruce Hedtke

    Bruce Hedtke Cinematographer

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    I love Heaven & Earth by Oliver Stone to death, but if there is a crititism of it by me, it was that it wasn't done in its native language. I can understand some people speaking english-such as the two daughters-but to have the mother and father both speaking only enlish? No way. The would've likely as not been conversing in Vietnamese almost exclusively.
    Bruce
    ------------------
    [​IMG]
    Welcome aboard the Satellite of Love
     
  15. StephenT

    StephenT Stunt Coordinator

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    The Red Violin is the perfect example of how it should be done. Everyone in it spoke the native language from French to German to Italian to English to a Chinese dialect. It had subtitles when English was not spoken. I love that movie! I belive all or most of the actors were even natives of the particular country.
    ------------------
    Stephen
     
  16. MickeS

    MickeS Producer

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    Stephen, yes "The Red Violin" is a perfect example of how this should be handled. One of my favorite movies of the past few years.
    /Mike
     
  17. Jun-Dai Bates

    Jun-Dai Bates Stunt Coordinator

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    For Rocco and His Brothers, I figured that you would make the stretch and assume that I was asserting the same thing as I was for The Leopard (about Delon and the rest of the cast)
    I can't find anything to back me up, but I recall my teacher (who had worked a little with Visconti) saying something to that effect, and if Lancaster is speaking his lines in English (I confess you're probably right), it matches his lips quite well (as opposed to, say, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). I'll have to go rent it from my video store, but I don't know how clear it will be on a widescreen VHS.
    Katina Paxinou is Greek, and used to play typical Greek mothers on stage, which (along with Delon, whose casting in the film is ridiculous at best) is one of the many reasons my teacher disliked the film so much.
     
  18. Jun-Dai Bates

    Jun-Dai Bates Stunt Coordinator

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    I haven't seen Red Violin, but the Pillow Book (along with Grand Illusion) is another example of that approach to the problem.
     
  19. Hendrik

    Hendrik Supporting Actor

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    FYI
    ...two 'multilingual' movies of recent vintage - both available on French R2 DVD - are:
    - the epic Russian, French, Italian Czech The Barber Of Siberia , where the Russian actors speak Russian among each other, or English with the the American father/daughter duo interpreted by (British) actors Richard Harris and Julia Ormond. Unfortunately, the movie, which supposedly is close to six(!) hours in length, was cut down to under three hours for Western consumption...
    - the more intimate French, Russian, Romanian East-West , where the languages spoken are French and, mainly, Russian - interesting movie, too...
    . . . [​IMG] . . .
    [Edited last by Hendrik on August 28, 2001 at 07:25 PM]
    [Edited last by Hendrik on August 28, 2001 at 07:26 PM]
     

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