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America's"Great Satan" Then And Now

The image of the Great Satan, the archetypal monster who exemplifies the current enemy, has always been a powerful stereotype in Hollywood movies.  In this fascinating article, Ralph Donald considers how the model for the beast constantly changes to reflect America’s changing foreign policy objectives over the years.

Posted 20-Feb-2014

By Ralph Donald, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Department of Mass Communications

After World War 2
The Cold War
Drug Lords
The Middle East
Bibliographic notes

During World War II, the feature film came into its own as a potent propaganda tool.  When American film propagandists used what rhetorical critics call  “devil terms” to disparage America’s Axis enemies, they often used a shorthand to characterize them.   American propagandists characterized the enemy as what Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini would later call a “Great Satan”:  a single, stereotyped image – often a person, sometimes a loathsome label -- to represent the enemy as a whole.  In Khomeini ’s case, he referred to both American President George Bush Sr. and the United States, but in many films of World War II, filmmakers used three individual, although sometimes interchangeable,  “Great Satans”:  Hitler – (occasionally Josef Goebbels or Hermann Goering) for the Germans, either Prime Minister Tojo or Emperor Hirohito to represent Japan, and Benito Mussolini for the Italians.  But there was also room for generic anti-Nazi and ferociously racist anti-Japanese propaganda in American films, radio and print media.

After World War 2

But what has happened in the years following World War II?  How is the Great Satan propaganda device used today in American films?  And has there been any evolution in its use?  This article will examine evidence that the Great Satan is still alive and well in many new and different forms in the films produced by Hollywood.  

After World War II, American intentions around the world became less clear and legitimate to both outsiders and to many Americans.  As American wars and foreign interventions became more controversial, images of the “Great Satan” in Hollywood’s feature films often became less clear.  In reaction to McCarthyism in the 1950s, Hollywood’s Great Satan of the Korean War was the fuzzy image of the “yellow peril” – Korean and Chinese communists -- a nameless, faceless communist enemy.

In a few films about the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh was invoked as America’s Great Satan.  But even during the apex of that terrible conflict, few Americans would have recognized North Vietnam’s president if they ran into him on the street.   Ho Chi Minh was a ghost to most Americans – except perhaps for the few young people who protested the war by waving North Vietnamese flags and wearing silk-screened “Uncle Ho” T-shirts.  In most American films about Vietnam, the enemy Americans saw on the screen was – like the enemy in the Korean War – just another faceless, nameless communist adversary.

Hollywood has occasionally put America on notice that not all Great Satans reside across the seas.  The Ku Klux Klan, for one example, has been Satanised in a number of modern motion pictures, including films such as Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), Mississippi Burning (1988), The Chamber (1996), and, more recently, in the comedy, O, Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).  But again, no grand dragon’s name jumps to the forefront as the common symbol for this hate group.  In American culture, especially in the 1960s and 70s, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace was arguably the most accepted symbol of Southern racism.  But while he espoused some of the Klan’s prejudices, Wallace was never directly linked to the Klan as a member.  Instead, the KKK is portrayed as a collective Satan, shown as individuals who do their jobs by day, go home for dinner with their families, but then slip out late at night to don white robes, burn crosses and chant racist slogans.

Even more obscure was the nebulous communist enemy in the few films that depict America’s invasion of Grenada.  For example, Clint Eastwood plays Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway in Heartbreak Ridge (1986).  Highway and his Marines make short work of the faceless, generic communist threat.

Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III (1988) provided viewers with a combat film about the fight against Soviet Great Satans occupying Afghanistan.  In this film, Rambo resorts to his usual mayhem as he rescues his friend Colonel Trautman from the clutches of a group of sadistic Soviet Army brutes.  In The Living Daylights (1987), Timothy Dalton as James Bond finds himself in the clutches of similar Soviet Satans in Afghanistan, but as usual, he rescues himself, his girlfriend and a mujahideen commander (insert your own Osama Bin Laden irony here). 

The Cold War

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets often achieved Great Satan status.  In every other James Bond film, Soviets are pictured as a nameless, faceless Russian bear of an enemy.  With no “Uncle Joe” Stalin as a strongman image, and especially with a succession of lacklustre premiers through the years, no Satan in particular – except perhaps Nikita Khrushchev – captured the American imagination anywhere near the same as our adversaries in World War II.  And Types-types didn’t appear in that many Hollywood movies until quite recently, when Enemy at the Gates (2001), the story of a mini-war between a Soviet sniper and his German counterpart during the siege of Stalingrad, features Bob Hoskins’ studied portrayal of Khrushchev, a ruthless commander ordered by Stalin to save Stalingrad at any cost. 

One of the best films to put a more human “face” on the generic Russian bear was The Beast (1988).   In this picture, a Soviet tank crew is lost in the Afghan desert, pursued by vengeful mujahideen guerrillas.  The tank is commanded by a cruel Russian tyrant, played by George Dzundza.  Interestingly, in both The Beast and the World War II submarine thriller Das Boot (1981), directors Kevin Reynolds and Wolfgang Petersen ask audiences to identify with and even cheer for sailors and soldiers representing America’s former Great Satans.  But in The Beast, Dzundza’s tank commander character is so hateful that audiences cheer when he dies.  And to confuse things further, the protagonist, a young, Russian tank crewman played by Jason Patric, ends up changing loyalties and joining the mujahideen.

This film’s image of the Bear-Satan has more clarity than the predictable, chew-the-carpet maniac images of Soviet Great Satans found in the Bond films.  Consider Steven Berkoff’s chew-the-carpet, psychopathic General Orlov in Octopussy (1983).  The general plans to detonate a nuclear bomb at an American air base in West Germany, hoping the disaster will cause NATO to withdraw strategic nuclear weapons from Europe.  Then, after the withdrawal, with no on-site threat of nuclear retaliation, Soviet superiority in troops and tanks stationed in the Warsaw Pact nations would permit him to invade and conquer Western Europe.  Of course, the British spy foils Orlov’s plans, and Europe is saved.

 Since the fall of the Soviet Union, America stands alone as the sole superpower on the planet.  To wound such a seemingly invincible enemy, neo Great Satans must find another approach.  Of late, terrorism is the strategy.

But before turning to the terrorist villains that now occupy our minds, we should examine some of our recent history’s lesser-remembered Great Satans.  For a short time before and during the U.S. economic boycott against South Africa that helped hasten the demise of the apartheid government there, a few South African Satans graced American screens.  For example, in Lethal Weapon II (1989), Joss Ackland’s sinister Arjen Rudd and Derrick O'Connor’s homicidal Pieter Vorstedt were South Africans dealing in illegal drugs and currency in Los Angeles under the safety of “diplomatic immunity.”  So perfectly did these villains portray Nazi stereotypes that Mel Gibson’s police detective character, Martin Riggs, gave Rudd the nickname of “Aryan” instead of Arjen, and referred to Vorstedt as “Adolph.”


   The IRA has provided Americans with some interesting terrorist Satans in films such as Patriot Games (1992).  Tom Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, formerly of the Marines and the CIA, is vacationing with his family in England, and coincidentally is at hand to thwart an extremist IRA faction’s attempt to assassinate a member of the British royal family.  One villain escapes, and he and his band of terrorists illegally enter the U.S., bent on revenge on Ryan and his family.  After that attempt fails and the terrorists escape from the U.S., in an all-too-close parallel to future events, the CIA launches an assault on the Middle Eastern desert hideaway of the terrorists.  Although many are killed in this assault, the chief terrorist again escapes.  Now even more enraged, he launches a second, bolder attack in the U.S.:  This time it’s an assault on Ryan’s own home.  Ultimately, Ryan helps repulse the attack and kills the terrorist.

Brad Pitt ironically portrays a terrorist with a conscience in The Devil’s own (1997).   Pitt’s character, a fugitive IRA member who employs a phoney passport to enter the U.S., is thwarted by a New York policeman, also played by Harrison Ford.   Again September eleventh comes to mind.

In Nighthawks (1981), a terrorist-for-hire named Wolfgar bombs Harrod’s department store in London and then tries to commit similar bombings and murders in New York City.  Another New York detective, this time Sylvester Stallone, steps in to foil Wolfgar’s plans.  And in the denouement, as in Patriot Games, Wolfgar seeks revenge by trying to murder a member of Stallone’s family.  Having been frustratingly one step behind Wolfgar throughout most of the film, Stallone finally learns that to defeat a terrorist, he must think like a terrorist.  He anticipates Wolfgar’s next move and for once is there ahead of Wolfgar, waiting to kill him.

Drug Lords

Between American involvements in outright wars, Hollywood created another kind of interim Satan: the powerful South American drug lord.  In A Clear and Present Danger (1994), the CIA’s Jack Ryan again does battle with American enemies, this time a pair of ruthless and very stereotypical drug-dealing Great Satans, one of which is a very transparent Pablo Escobar clone.  In License to Kill (1989), an even more outlandish drug lord invades U.S. soil, murders CIA agent Felix Leiter’s wife on her wedding night and feeds Leiter to a shark. Somehow Leiter survives.  James Bond, in typical ironic fashion, assassinates this drug lord using a cigarette lighter, a wedding gift from Felix.

We’ve not yet seen any American-made feature films about Great Satan also-ran –now war crimes defendant, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.  However, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia is not forgotten: Behind Enemy Lines (2001) deals with the race to rescue a downed American pilot from (appropriately) black-bereted, homicidal Serbians.  It’s clear that the Serbs are the villains, but Milosevic’s role as head villain is not a part of the film.

The Middle East

Followers of Mu’ammar Ghadhafi of Libya and the Ayatollah Khomeini  launched effective terrorist attacks against the U.S. and other western nations, such as the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the taking of American hostages in Tehran.  Although Ghadhafi and Khomeini  are relatively well-known, American filmmakers rarely used them as symbols of the Great Satan in quite the same way, or to the degree, that Hollywood used Hitler, Tojo or Mussolini in World War II.  It seems that Hollywood prefers to create its own stylised, stereotyped Arab fanatic.  An excellent example of Hollywood’s version of this fanatic is Art Malik’s wild-eyed al-Qa’eda-type detachment commander, Salim Abu Aziz, in the Arnold Schwartzenegger spy-action film, True Lies (1994).   In a film articulating threats voiced by President George W. Bush as an excuse to invade Iraq, Schwartzenegger, as spy Harry Tasker, spoils an attempt by Aziz and his followers to use a stolen nuclear bomb to obliterate Miami.   In an eerie and ironic reversal of the tragedy of September eleventh at the World Trade Center, Schwartzenegger uses an airplane – this time a Harrier jet – to annihilate terrorists holed up in a high-rise building.

Andrew Davis is the director of another Schwartzenegger film, Collateral Damage, originally scheduled to be released in Fall 2001, which was shelved by nervous studio executives until Spring, 2002, because of vague similarities to the September eleventh tragedy.  In this film, the California governor played a fireman (formerly a bomb squad member) whose family was killed in a terrorist attack.  Later Schwartzenegger takes the law into his own hands, uses the bomb-making skills he learned on the job as he seeks revenge against the terrorists. 

In an interview on public radio in September, 2001, director Davis confirmed that the Great Satan device is still on Hollywood’s minds when he said that to be successful, action film scripts like his must create strong villains.  Since Saddam Hussein’s forces overran and occupied Kuwait, the then-Iraqi dictator became perhaps the clearest, most recognizable movie Great Satan icon since Hitler.  In Courage Under Fire (1996) and Three Kings (1999), Saddam became a household name – and sometimes a curse word.  But nameless, mostly faceless Iraqis stand in for the dictator.  Interestingly, in Iron Eagle (1986), David Suchet’s “minister of defence” for an Iraq-like rogue Arab state fits Hussein perfectly.  Interestingly, this film was released nearly five years before Operation Desert Storm and during a time when Hussein was publicly considered almost an American ally.  And in this fantasy, a teenager who commandeers an American fighter jet shoots down a half-dozen inept enemy fighters, including one piloted by the Saddam clone himself. 

Speaking of fantasies, there is Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988), in which Leslie Nielsen assaults a room full of America’s Great Satans, including Yasser Arafat, Ghadhafi, Khomeini , Idi Amin and Mikhail Gorbachev.  Nielsen gets to do what so many Americans would love to: kick some serious villain butt.  Likewise, in Hot Shots, Part Deux (1993), a lunatic, cross-dressing Saddam is insulted, beaten up and generally manhandled by the good guys as Rambo-style commando Topper Harley leads a rescue mission into Iraq.  His mission (see if you can follow this) is to liberate some rescuers who went in earlier to rescue the previous rescue team who were assigned to rescue hostages left behind after Desert Storm.

For a very short period, Somali warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid became to Americans as hated a Satan figure as Saddam Hussein – this mostly because of the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers and the wounding of dozens more in the battle of Mogadishu in 1993.  This military disaster is portrayed in Ridley Scott’s dark film, Black Hawk Down (2001).  Although never pictured, Aidid was made out, both in the film’s opening graphics and later in dialog, to be the principal cause of all the suffering and starvation in Somalia.  Out of all the Somali warlords, producer Jerry Bruckheimer singled out Aidid as the sole person responsible for preventing food aid from getting to his people.  Director Ridley Scott helped emphasize Aidid’s Great Satan status with a terrible scene at the beginning of the movie in which Somali civilians were shot down just for standing in line to beg for grain at U.N. Food trucks.

If he wasn’t killed in 1996, Aidid might still be on America’s radar as a potential target. Somalia still remains an object of American concern.   Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld listed Somalia (due to its support of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qua’eda network) as one of the next possible targets of America’s war on terrorism.  And the tragic confluence of events that led to Aidid’s men dragging an American soldier’s corpse through the streets of Mogadishu may have had another negative effect.  The Philadelphia Inquirer quotes both former U.S. Ambassador to Somalia Robert Oakley and Mark Bowden, author of the original book, Black Hawk Down, as saying that al-Qua’eda and Osama bin Laden “… looked at our retreat from Lebanon in 1983 and from Somalia in 1993 [after the Battle of Mogadishu] as signs of fundamental U.S. weakness in the face of casualties.”

In what has now become a cautionary tale for America, in The Siege (1998), the CIA abducts an agent of the Great Satan, in this case a notorious Muslim leader.  In retaliation, terrorists carry out a number of bomb attacks on New York City.  The head of the FBI/New York Police Department Terrorism Task Force teams up with a CIA operative to arrest or kill the members of the terrorist organization responsible for the bombings.   Uncannily similar to al-Qa’eda, these terrorists work in cell groups, ignorant of the activities and membership of other cells  -- including those operating in the same city.  As bomb attacks on New York continue, The U.S. sends the Army into the city and the Army’s general-in-charge declares martial law.   The remainder of the picture is a conflict between civil liberty-minded civilians and the military, which is persecuting Arab-Americans, holding them in makeshift concentration camps without warrants, and in some cases, torturing and killing them.

And most recently, due to the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and, of course, the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Osama bin Laden has risen to the top of FBI’s most wanted list of “Great Satans,” offering a $25 million reward.  But at this writing, we still have seen no American motion pictures that feature this villain.

But there have been films made about the kind of individual who could very easily become an al-Qa’eda-type true believer.  Although The Peacemaker (1997) is a rather predictable, hackneyed, action-filled, George Clooney/Nicole Kidman vehicle about retrieving a stolen nuclear bomb, it gives viewers a revealing view inside the mind of a suicidal terrorist: a man who has lost so much that all that remains is blind, self-immolating fury – the kind of rage that in another reality could result in a tragedy such as September 11.

In The Peacemaker’s denouement, Clooney and Kidman foil this Bosnian terrorist’s plan to detonate a stolen nuclear bomb at the United Nations building in New York.  But terrorist Dusan Gavrich doesn’t know this when a few days earlier he records a taped message to the world – which he assumes will be found only after his suicide mission is successful:

You will look at what I have done and say, "Of course -- why not -- they are all animals.  They have slaughtered each other for centuries." But the truth is, I'm not a monster.  I'm a human man -- I'm just like you, whether you like it or not.  For years, we have tried to live together, until a war was waged on us, on all of us: a war waged by our own leaders. And who supplied the Serb cluster bombs, the Croatian tanks, the Muslim artillery shells that killed our sons and daughters? It was the governments of the West who drew the boundaries of our countries -- sometimes in ink, sometimes in blood -- the blood of our people. And now you dispatch your peacekeepers to write our destiny again. We can never accept this peace that leaves us with nothing but pain, pain the peacemakers must be made to feel.  Their wives, their children, their houses and churches.  So now you know, now you must understand. Leave us to find our own destiny.  May God have mercy on us all.

This is the newest, post-modern face for America’s Great Satan: a man who has lost everything and rightly or wrongly blames the U.S. for his misery  -- a man whose only desire is to make Americans share his pain and suffering.  No greed, no imperialistic aims, just blind, inscrutable fury. 

U.S. leaders would rather paste the Taliban’s and Osama bin Ladin’s faces on this new kind of Satan, because from a propaganda standpoint it’s much easier to make a loathsome enemy out of a gaggle of fanatic mullahs, a wild horde of rifle-wielding desert-dwellers or a renegade millionaire sheik than a wounded, despondent man willing to kill himself and murder thousands just to make a point.


This article has examined the phenomenon of the Great Satan in American action and war films and tracked its evolution through a small sample of pictures produced since World War II.  Only rarely, such as in films made during World War II, have we seen a correlation between clear American goals and popular opinion and the personification of an individual Great Satan.  Most often since then, these Satans were created as generic villains, carefully stereotyped for public consumption.  The clearest exceptions were Saddam Hussein, the warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid and Osama bin Laden.  Hussein’s savage rule in Iraq paved the way for the “regime change” caused by the American military intervention in 2003.  Aidid was murdered by rivals in his own country, or Somalia might have also been a part of President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” (Jan. 29, 2002)  The United States’ intervention against the Taliban in Afghanistan was aimed at capturing or killing bin Laden and defeating al-Qa’eda. 

So far, through the creation of suitably odious Great Satans, the American people have been persuaded to support military actions against many of them, moving in near-ideological unison in a earlier cases.  As the war against terrorism plays itself out over the following years, American filmmakers will probably draw the terrorist Great Satan in much clearer strokes.





The Beast


Kevin Reynolds

Behind Enemy Lines


John Moore

Black Hawk Down


Ridley Scott

Das Boot


Wolfgang Petersen

The Chamber


James Foley

A Clear and Present Danger


Phillip Noyce

Courage Under Fire


Edward Zwick

The Devil’s Own 


Alan J. Pakula

Enemy at the Gates


Jean-Jacques Annaud

Ghosts of Mississippi


Rob Reiner

Heartbreak Ridge


Clint Eastwood

Hot Shots, Part Deux


Jim Abrahams

Iron Eagle


Sidney J. Furie

Lethal Weapon II


Richard Donner

License to Kill


John Glen

The Living Daylights


John Glen

Mississippi Burning


Alan Parker

Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad


David Zucker



Bruce Malmuth

O, Brother, Where Art Thou?


Joel Coen



John Glen

Patriot Games


Phillip Noyce

The Peacemaker


Mimi Leder

Rambo III


Peter MacDonald

The Siege


Edward Zwick 

Three Kings


David O. Russell

True Lies


James Cameron


Bibliographic notes

Bush, George W.  President Bush’s State of the Union address, Jan. 29,2002.

Davis, Andrew.  Comments in an interview on “Talk of The Nation” on National Public Radio Sept. 25, 2001.

Rickey, Carrie.  Review of the film,  Black Hawk Down, Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan 17, 2002.


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