Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Facing the Faceless

Henchman play an important role in action movies. An intrinsic part of the bad guy boss image is having armed henchmen hobble around in uniforms to deter heroes from their goal. Henchman also fulfill the role of cannon fodder. It should be noted that the majority of henchmen are faceless, by equipping helmets or masks, causing them to lose their individuality and making violence directed towards them appear less important.

As we mentioned in class, children are able to recognize from an early age the individuality of a human behind a face. However, when individuals have their visages hidden, no longer can we associate them with any one person. They become devoid of emotion as subtle changes in facial features cannot be noticed. In a way, they lose their humanity and become simple humanoids. Squishy humanoids, I might add.

If we look at stormtroopers from Star Wars for instance, it is difficult for the viewer to tell if these faceless soldiers are humans, aliens, or robots. In fact, in their technologically advanced universe, they don't even bleed when they are shot or have limbs severed by lightsabers. While watching Luke Skywalker and his gang mow down battalions of stormtroopers with their blasters, the viewer does not feel as much sympathy for stormtroopers as for any other character in the movie that does have a recognizable mug. As soon as the scene changes, dead troopers are immediately forgotten.

Diverting your attention away from Star Wars, a scene from Kill Bill Vol. I exposes what happens when a member of the "Crazy 88's" is unmasked:

At 1:45, we see one of the anonymous henchmen lose his mask while his buddies are being sliced to pieces by the Bride, and we have have a moment of realization when a person's face is revealed. As the viewer, we are suddenly flooded with information: this henchman is unique. He's a young man, scared, and confused. Essentially, he acquires traits that are contradictory to what we associate with henchmen. As soon as he is unmasked, the Yakuza becomes a recognizable person for the audience. For his innocent expression the righteous Bride decides not to harm him. But had he maintained the mask, he would have been eliminated without a second thought.


  1. It makes a lot of sense that humans would feel so much emotion through recognition of another human. "What he doesn't know won't hurt him" is a phrase we often use, and how true it seems to be. The truth hurts people because of some sort of realization that they don't want to know about. When people view things like Star Wars or Kill Bill, anonymous henchmen seem villainous and evil. They surely deserve to get their heads chopped off, right?

    However, by revealing the identity of someone, it allows audience to sympathize with the henchman or storm trooper. Suddenly, that storm trooper doesn't seem so mean and evil anymore. Thoughts arise like, "Maybe we should give them a chance because surely humans all make wrong choices in their lives." It's an interesting idea.

  2. I've certainly always thought of the stormtroopers as being villainous faceless entities, so I'm forever surprised at how much kids seem to absolutely adore them:


    Granted, these aren't REAL stormtroopers and maybe kids just like anyone in a goofy costume, but every year I see kids light up at the sight of them at Mardi Gras parades.

  3. I enjoyed reading this post thoroughly although I have some facts to consider:

    A) No one bleeds when cut with a lightsaber (it cauterizes the blood).

    B)We eventually do find out who the Stormtroopers are (in fact they are a human clone of, bounty hunter Jango Fett). In the prequel episodes we actually do see the unmasked stormtroopers (but they are at this point allied with the good guy and fight for the Republic).

    Overall, interesting (and truthful) realization that the majority of henchmen are faceless beings in order to dehumanize them-thus making them expendable.

  4. The expendable nature of henchmen is also supported by their sheer numbers. They seem to be limitless in some movies where there are literally waves of them coming after the protagonist only to be cut down as soon as they attack; which of course is once at a time because honestly what group attacks as a whole? Their numbers help to further remove the impression of violence from the act itself because they are no longer viewed as human in the sense that they are so easily replace. To borrow a bit from the poster "a recognizable person" can only invoke sympathy from a killer or audience if they find a way to individualize themselves. Even if it is to only land a blow or act in a way in which they stand out (such as trying to escape because it is now obvious that after 20 dead/dying comrades that the protagonist is just too badass) the henchman is now recognizable even if he doesn't show his face. Although facial recognition is probably the foundation for recognizing human beings behavior (and the reasons behind it) also helps to strip the anonymity from henchman. In most movies however the single-minded behavior of the waves of attacking henchman helps to remove them from having any individuality or sympathy from the viewer.

  5. If the Stormtroopers took off their helmets we might see them more as humans, but also maybe they'd actually be able to hit their target. According to the so-called "Stormtrooper Effect" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_Evil_Marksmanship#Stormtrooper_Effect), even though the Stormtroopers are well trained an possess military-grade weaponry, they are unable to harm the protagonists even when attacking in superior numbers. The inability of henchman to harm the protagonists is present in many action films, and I feel exaggerates further the gap between the dehumanized henchman and the almost superhuman protagonists.

  6. I just read that wiki article. I highly recommend you make a blog post on it.

    Another point relating to the dehumanizing features of henchmen is their lack of names. Along with their mob mentality comes a mob name like "stormtroopers" without any means of referring to individual units. They don't even have numbers (maybe a couple do, but they are plot devices). They basically become clones of one another with the expend-ability of a Kleenex. Convenient that George Lucas decided to make stormtroopers all actual clones.

    Henchmen must suffer from serious identity crises.


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