In an opening scene of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp, converses with the British King, who urges him to find the fountain of youth before “the bitter” Spanish King, who is characterised with a dark complexion, moustache and black beard, does. Moreover, the film’s most positive protagonist turns out to be a young, fair-haired, light-eyed Anglican missionary, who tries to protect the fountain from the onslaught of the Spaniards, who want to destroy it, as usual….
Lazy, idle, temperamental, violent and fanatical. With these traits, Anglo-Saxon cinema often portrays Spaniards, almost always dressed as conquistadors, inquisitors or bullfighters, in what is a series of false and incomplete stereotypes that have been present since the origins of cinema. “We have been educated in the discourse of Anglo-Saxon supremacy, where the Spaniards are the bad guys and both the Anglo-Saxon cowboy and the English pirate are positive characters,” explains historian Esteban Vicente Boisseau, who has just published the book Hollywood contra España (Espasa), a work on the survival of the clichés of the Black Legend through the seventh art.
A good part of these cinematographic clichés derive from what was proclaimed by Anglo-Dutch propaganda in the 16th century (they were the precursors, although not the only ones) about the backward and depraved nature of Felipe II’s country. A discourse of hatred that is still reflected today in the way the rest of the world and the cinema view the nation of siesta, sangria and clapping. “We have also assimilated this discourse. While the African-American and indigenous communities have managed to change the filmic image of them, the Hispanic world has not pushed back and has preferred to conform to the Anglo-Saxon melting pot. There are many Spanish actors who participate in films that follow the clichés of the Black Legend. They prefer Anglo-Saxon acceptance to claiming something different”, says Boisseau.
Among the actors Boisseau refers to are such well-known stars as Antonio Banderas, Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. The stereotypes from outside contrast with the “civil war feeling” that permeates Spanish cinema from all historical periods. “It’s a bit shocking what is done here in films like ‘El Dorado’ or ‘Oro’, which weren’t even big box-office hits and focus on internal struggles. We have a complex and we have assumed the idea that the deeds of the conquest are acts of barbarism,” says the author of Hollywood contra España.
The book has its germ in the report “La imagen de la presencia de España en América (1492-1898)”, which was awarded a prize by the Ministry of Defence and has now been expanded and improved in large format. “While the first work focused more on films, I now wanted to explore other areas where images are also used, such as in video games. Image has always been closely related to anti-Spanish propaganda. Back in the beginning, engravings were used to support the texts of the Black Legend”, he recalls.
Illustrations in the press, comics, video games, television and series are necessary accomplices in keeping the Black Legend alive. This book contains numerous examples of commonplaces about Spain and its history in such notorious sagas as Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, Mission Impossible, Harry Potter and Star Wars. The fact that many of the films in the book have the Disney brand behind them is not due to an obscure conspiracy, but to the fact that this entertainment giant is enormously representative of the Anglo-Saxon canon: “The founder of Disney belonged to that milieu and oriented his public towards that discourse. The traditional view of historiography, both British and American, is very much imbued with the Anglo-Saxon Protestant essence”.
Just at the same time as the iconoclastic fury suffered by Spanish statues and symbols in North America, films such as Jungle Cruise or Eternals have emerged that have revitalised the terrible image of the conquistadors. In Boisseau’s opinion, in the US, two visions of the conquistadors must be distinguished: the one inherited from the Black Legend, as “exterminators of Indians” obsessed with gold; and that of the Spanish explorer, present, for example, in the Indiana Jones films, where the traces of their passage through the continent are shown with a certain admiration. “They convey the impression that they passed through and left quickly. It is a somewhat more positive facet, but always subject to the fact that, in the end, the Spanish explorers are surpassed by the Anglo-Saxon protagonists. This is clearly seen in Uncharted, which presents the circumnavigation of the world as a journey around the world. which presents the circumnavigation of the world as a gold-digging operation, where it is the Anglo-Saxon treasure hunters who end up winning out over the Spanish heirs,” he argues.
To hide its own shame, Anglo-Saxon cinema not only casts Spaniards and their Hispanic heirs in negative roles, but also glorifies historical figures of dubious character just because they are Anglo-Saxon. This is the case of John Smith, “a murderer of Indians” who is portrayed as a hero in the cartoon film Pocahontas. “The film is completely manipulated, misrepresenting historical reality, as many US academics have denounced. Of course, academic criticism is not what makes it to the screen,” he says.
The same goes for the Spanish Inquisition, whose massive presence, especially in British films, serves to mask Anglican bigotry itself. “It’s a nice way of not talking about their crimes, such as the persecution of Catholics and also of non-Anglican Protestants in the British Isles or the extermination of Indians in America,” says Boisseau, who warns of Anglicanism’s interest in presenting itself as a polar opposite to Catholicism based on reason.
From The Simpsons running the running of the bulls in Sanfermin to Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story dancing flamenco, the folkloric air is something non-negotiable for any representation of Spaniards on the big or small screen. It is not as harmful as showing them eating Dutch children or tearing up heretics, although this festive atmosphere also has negative consequences for the Spaniards. “Maybe they are more sympathetic stereotypes, but, in the end, it is associated with a tourist image of bullfighting, sun and beach that perpetuates the usual negative stereotypes and is far removed from the vision of other countries. Germans are imagined as hard-working and economically good, while Spaniards are always dancing and sunbathing,” he explains.