The Ancient Art of Adding Insult to Injury

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Yves here. It turns out rhetorical kickings when an opponent is already down have a long history. But since Dune has been a topic here recently, recall that in the fight that closes the novel, Feyd-Rautha hews to the classic, and one surmises gladiatorial tradition of taunting his presumed prey, while Paul Muad’Dib opts for Fremen silence and observation.

By Andrew M. McClellan, Lecturer in Classics and Humanities, San Diego State University. Originally published at The Conversation

At one point in the latest James Bond installment, “No Time To Die,” the henchman Primo has the upper hand on 007. But Bond has a wristwatch that can trigger an electromegnetic pulse keyed to local circuitry. Primo, conveniently, has a biomechanical eye, so when Bond activates his watch next to Primo’s head, it explodes.

Bond’s gadgeteer, Q, radios in, and Bond delivers the rhetorical goods: “I showed him your watch. It blew his mind.”

This sort of witty quip after killing someone isn’t unique to the Bond franchise. From “Dirty Harry” to “Django Unchained,” they’ve become staples of the action film genre.

Audiences might assume action films invented these one-liners. But as I’ve demonstrated in my work researching ancient Greco-Roman epic poetry, the origin of this sort of rhetorical violence goes back thousands of years.

A Perverse Eulogy

The one-liner is in many ways the calling card of action films. The motif took off in the 1960s and peaked in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Today you’ll see occasional nods to the tradition in films like “No Time To Die.”

Earlier James Bonds also delivered post-kill zingers. In “Thunderball,” Sean Connery’s Bond spears a foe with a harpoon gun, then jokes: “I think he got the point.” After “Live and Let Die” villain Dr. Kananga balloons and explodes from ingesting a gas pellet, Roger Moore’s Bond gloats, “He always did have an inflated opinion of himself.”

Roger Moore’s James Bond delivers a classic post-kill zinger.

These one-liners had become de rigueur by the 1990s. In “Universal Soldier,” Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Luc Deveraux kills Andrew Scott by feeding him through a woodchipper that hurls bits and pieces of his corpse through the air. Deveraux’s companion asks where Scott is, to which Deveraux laconically replies, “Around.” And after killing Screwface in “Marked for Death,” John Hatcher, played by Steven Seagal, discovers there’s another Screwface – or, rather, that twins have been running the criminal organization he’s fighting. Hatcher then executes the second Screwface in one of the most violent, prolonged death scenes in film history.

Hatcher catches his breath, before muttering, “I hope they weren’t triplets.”

But Arnold Schwarzenegger, who rose to fame during the golden era of action films in the 1980s, was the king of one-liners.

Commando” ends with John Matrix, played by Schwarzenegger, impaling the villainous Bennett with a massive metal pipe that travels through Bennett and, inexplicably, into a boiler. The blast of steam travels back through Bennett and out the end of the pipe. Surveying the carnage, Matrix quips: “Let off some steam, Bennett.” In “Predator,” Schwarzenegger’s character pins an enemy to a wall with a knife, inviting him to “stick around.” And in “The Running Man,” he chainsaws his adversary Buzzsaw vertically, crotch up.

When asked what happened to Buzzsaw, he reports: “He had to split.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger, virtuoso of verbal daggers.

The quips literally add insult to injury, defaming the victim immediately after their demise, emblazoning the death with a caption, like a perverse eulogy. Film heroes deliver the best taunts because their rhetorical skill is linked to their physical prowess.

This might seem incongruous. But the link between martial and rhetorical skill goes back to Western literature’s beginning.

The ‘Vaunts’ of the Ancient Epics

Ancient epic poems are, in many ways, the antecedents to today’s action flicks; they were the violent, thrilling blockbusters of their era.

Homer’s heroes in the “Iliad,” written sometime between 750 and 700 B.C., are not just deft fighters but also adroit talkers. Achilles, for example, is lauded as both the best fighter and the best speaker among the Greeks at Troy.

The parameters of ancient epic duels mirror action film fights. When two warriors square off, they taunt each other. When one warrior wins, typically the victory is punctuated by a witty defamatory “vaunt” that signals the champion’s prowess and the loser’s now-verified inadequacy.

In Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Turnus avoids damage from a spear cast by the young warrior Pallas thanks to his thick shield. After hurling a spear of his own that pierces Pallas, Turnus boasts of the performance of his weapon by comparison. The taunt is soaked in sexual innuendo: “See whether my weapon can penetrate better.”

Turnus later sneers over the slain Eumedes, whose throat he’s severed: “Hey, Trojan, the Western land you hoped to conquer, measure it with your corpse.” Since Eumedes sought to colonize parts of modern-day Italy, he would have surveyed the land for settlements; Turnus sardonically suggests using his dead body as a measuring stick.

A 1688 engraving depicts Turnus taking Pallas’ sword belt after killing him. Bavarian State Library

In the “Iliad,” Polydamas spears Prothoenor in the shoulder. He falls and dies, whereupon Polydamas jokes that the spear will be useful to lean on “like a staff when he descends to the underworld.”

At another point in the “Iliad,” Patroclus kills the Trojan charioteer Cebriones by smashing his face with a stone. The force of the strike ejects Cebriones’ eyes from their sockets; they hit the ground, and Cebriones follows them headfirst onto the battlefield. The bizarre situation elicits Patroclus’ zesty bon mot: “What a spring the man has! Nice dive! Think of the oysters he could come up with if he were out at sea …”

In this vaunt-cum-metaphor, Cebriones’ eyes, which he “chases” into the sand, have become precious pearls in the oysters he’s imagined to be hunting.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

What value does wit hold in genres defined by brute strength?

Never mind the fact that a corpse is hardly a suitable target for clever punchlines. The jokes are for the audience, and it’s as close as the genre gets to breaking the fourth wall. Viewers are attuned to these witticisms not simply because they are funny, but because they’re self-consciously ridiculous. They help distance the audience from the often horrific levels of violence on display.

[Over 115,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]

Epic poetry has traditionally held a highbrow status in literary criticism, while action films are regarded as puerile and brutish. These designations collapse at the level of rhetorical violence. In truth, epics like the “Iliad” skew more “action film” than most literati would like to admit, and vice versa.

The larger-than-life heroes from John Matrix to James Bond are ultimately the silver screen progeny of warrior-poets from antiquity.

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20 comments

  1. upstater

    Wow… a review of late stage capitalism cinema. Now I know why I never watch movies unless they are nature documentaries.

    Reply
  2. The Rev Kev

    Yeah, you see a lot of this in old films but I think that they are getting as dated as Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s careers. In “Hot Fuzz”made back in 2007, they were even mocking the idea of giving one-liners. For those that still like them-

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro2x8gd2v-M (12:55 mins)

    For shock value, they could have the hero/heroine in a film get killed and a baddy give them a one-liner.

    Reply
    1. jsn

      I guess I’m out of sync.

      My favorite “after violence” bon mot is from To Have and To Have Not.

      After Morgan shoots the Gestapo thug, grabbing his revolver in the drawer left handed. As he switches the gun to his right hand, his left hand is shacking wildly, “Look at that, ain’t that silly?
      That’s how close you came.”

      Reply
  3. orlbucfan

    As an English major, and lifelong world history nut, I love this sort of read. And yes, the ancient writers could be and were just as bloodthirsty as their modern equals. Thanks, Yves, and major kudos on the fundraising.

    Reply
  4. The Rev Kev

    Just realized that though this article mentioned Achilles, they do not mention his adding insult to injury. When Achilles killed Hector of Troy, he tied his body behind a chariot and dragged it through the dirt as an insult to him in front of the walls of Troy. Enraged, Hector’s brother Paris eventually shoots Achilles dead with an arrow to make a point – ‘Don’t be a d*** about killing people.’

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      In the ancient Irish epics, there would often be a postscript to the hero killing his enemies. It would list off all the great warriors and lords he slayed and add on ‘…as well as countless other riff-raff’. I can imagine the last line was delivered with a flourish by the storeyteller over a fire.

      Reply
  5. Chris Smith

    Ah, “Commando” one of my favorites! I’m never sure whether it is an intentional or accidental a parody of the genre. My favorite line from “Commando” was “Remember when I said I would kill you last? I lied!”

    And of course don’t forget Steven Segal in “Hard to Kill,” when he states “I’m going to take you to the bank. The blood bank.” That still cracks me up, and I don’t remember anything else from the movie.

    Reply
    1. Randy

      Commando is really bizarre. The final scene where Arnie mows down like 40 goons by just walking around in the open with an endlessly-firing machine gun has to be seen to be believed. Hot Shots parodied that scene and it was only slightly more ridiculous. The love interest in the movie has no reason to love Arnie and even appropriately sics the cops on him at one point, but risks her life and limb to help him anyway afterwards. They have so little chemistry and there’s so little romance I’m actually not sure she was even meant to be a love interest now that I think about it, just a poor woman with a severe case of Stockholm’s. Why the boss villain is even putting together an evil army just off the coast of… California…? is only vaguely alluded to. It’s basically like the movie was made by someone who had seen an action movie once many years ago and vaguely remembered “okay, these sort of movies are supposed to have these sort of scenes/characters in them” and had no idea about anything else. The whole thing is basically carried by Arnie, I don’t think any of the other action stars at that time could have made it into the cult classic it has become.

      Reply
      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Arnold is funny and has comic timing, not everyone has this, and “presence”. Ivan Reitman and someone like Harold Ramis had a chance lunch with Arnold, and one of them said abruptly that Arnold was hysterical during the lunch while they are talking. Then they cooked up Twins on the spot.

        Many of the other attempts at humor by classic action stars are just “you weren’t expecting that” kinds of lines. Its like when Obama told a seemingly self depreciating joke. They aren’t really funny, but its out of place enough to laugh.

        “True Lies” jumps out. Despite Tom Arnold and the Governator, they don’t even attempt one is slovenly and the other is fit kind of jokes.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsdgvRyNdN4

        Here he is playing a straight man in a quick scene from the movie “Dave“. I feel like the temptation would be to have him play a clown because “a body builder in Washington?!?!”. They don’t go with that.

        He’s kind of like Tom Hanks in Bachelor Party. This is why Commando works. He’s clearly better than the kind of movie it is, but he doesn’t phone it in.

        Reply
  6. lyman alpha blob

    My kid was fascinated by the Cyclops in a puppet show version of the Odyssey when she was little, so I got her an abridged “kids” version of the epic to read to her at bedtime. I didn’t read it myself ahead of time though to judge the appropriateness for her age, and not even one page in she’s already asking “Daddy, what does ‘slaughter’ mean?”. Decided to finish that story when she got a little older…

    Reply
  7. Carolinian

    The newest version of Suicide Sqiad is full of heads exploding and other forms of cathartic comedy violence. Pacifist me doesn’t have a problem with this as long as the exaggeration keeps it in the plane of unreality.

    However the joke does get old including all those Bond quips that these days seem quite formulaic (like everything else Bond). Which is to say they aren’t a taste problem so much as a creatiivity problem.

    Reply
  8. Noone from Nowheresville

    My mind went immediately to Game of Thrones and Tyrion’s trials by combat. Bronn v. Ser Vardis then Oberyn v. The Mountain.

    Oberyn and the Mountain’s battle particularly vivid with Oberyn’s taunts and unrelenting need to have The Mountain admit to his transgressions against Oberyn’s family / honor followed by Oberyn’s brutal death. Which leads us to Tyrion killing his father on the crapper. Which I suppose is ultimate insult to both the trial by combat roll of the die and the Lannister name / legacy which his father loved above all else.

    Reply
  9. Andy

    Speaking of gratuitous violence, even British and European films and TV series now regularly feature long, drawn out scenes of people being killed and brutalized in various ways. Often the killers are portrayed in a positive light as “flawed heroes” doing what they have to do to protect their families or their honor.

    Over the last 20-years a psychopathic amorality that excuses, and celebrates, extreme violence and sadism in the name of individualistic nihilism has steadily crept into regular TV fare. A Netflix or BBC crime drama will often have levels of violence that surpass what was commonly seen in R rated crime movies of the 80s and 90s.

    Even a show like Squid Games, which was purported to be a critique of extreme individualism under capitalism, degenerated into an orgy of violence and death. Superhero movies ending in genocidal displays of mass killing is almost cliche at this point.

    If culture and “reality” reflect each other in a symbiotic relationship, it’s hard not to see the nihilistic turn of pop culture as foreshadowing the coming Jackpot era of collapse and decline.

    Reply
  10. Roop Dogg

    The resemblance is undeniably striking, but I suppose the interesting thing would be to ask if there is a causal connection. I’ve read just one Ian Fleming Bond novel, and a long time ago, so not sure if the wisecracks were a feature of the books? But Fleming having gone to Eton in the first half of the 20th century would have received a ‘classical education’ and presumably have read such scenes.

    I’m also not sure if the poetic moments wouldn’t have been viewed as a bit crass by ancient audiences, or at least by the poets themselves. Turnus is basically a ‘baddie’ who gets his comeuppance at the end of the Aeneid. Patroclus is a goodie, but when he trash talks Kebriones he is getting carried away by his own hype and committing the fate-tempting sin of hubris. 100 lines later, he’s dead.

    Reply
  11. KrazyKat

    Can’t remember the movie, but here’s the set-up – a gingham-clad frontier lass sobbing over the man John Wayne has just shot dead.
    Lass…’Oooooh, that man is dead!’
    Wayne sez, ‘Everybody gets dead, it was his turn.’

    Reply
  12. study abroad in uk

    The newest version of Suicide Squad is full of heads exploding and other forms of cathartic comedy violence. Pacifist, I don’t have a problem with this as long as the exaggeration keeps it in the plane of unreality. Click here

    Reply

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