The ancient story of adding insult to injury

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Andrew M. McClellan, San Diego State University

(THE CONVERSATION) At one point in James Bond’s latest installment, “No Time To Die”, the Primo henchman has the upper hand over 007. But Bond has a wristwatch that can trigger an electromagnetic pulse linked to the local circuits. Primo, conveniently, has a biomechanical eye, so when Bond activates his watch next to Primo’s head, it explodes.

Bond’s gadgeteer, Q, walks in on the radio and Bond delivers the rhetorical wares: “I showed him your watch. It blew him away.

This kind of witty joke after killing someone isn’t unique to the Bond franchise. From “Dirty Harry” to “Django Unchained”, they have become staples of the action movie genre.

Audiences might assume that action movies invented these one-liners. But as I have demonstrated in my research on ancient Greco-Roman epic poetry, the origin of this kind of rhetorical violence dates back thousands of years.

A perverse praise

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 lore in films like “No Time to Die”.

Earlier, James Bonds also delivered post-kill zingers. In “Thunderball,” Sean Connery’s Bond throws an enemy with a harpoon gun, then jokes, “I think he gets it.” After “Live and Let Die” villain Dr. Kananga inflated and exploded after ingesting a pellet of gas, Roger Moore’s Bond gloated: “He always had an exaggerated opinion of himself. “

These one-liners had become de rigueur in the 1990s. In “Universal Soldier”, Luc Deveraux by Jean-Claude Van Damme kills Andrew Scott by feeding him with a shredder which throws pieces of his corpse into the air. Deveraux’s companion asks where Scott is, to which Deveraux responds laconically: “Around”. And after killing Screwface in “Marked for Death,” John Hatcher, played by Steven Seagal, discovers that there is another Screwface – or rather, that twins run the criminal organization he is fighting. Hatcher then performs the second Screwface in one of the most violent and protracted death scenes in movie history.

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

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

“Commando” ends with John Matrix, played by Schwarzenegger, impaling villainous Bennett with a huge metal pipe running through Bennett and, inexplicably, into a boiler. The breath of steam returns through Bennett and exits through the end of the pipe. Overseeing the carnage, Matrix jokes, “Relax, Bennett.” In “Predator”, Schwarzenegger’s character pins an enemy against a wall with a knife, inviting them to “stay”. And in “The Running Man“, he cuts his opponent Buzzsaw vertically, the crotch.

When asked what happened to Buzzsaw, he said: “He must have been separated.

The jokes literally add insult to injury, defaming the victim immediately after death, sporting the death with a caption, like perverse praise. Movie heroes deliver the best taunts because their rhetorical talent is linked to their physical prowess.

It may sound incongruous. But the link between martial skill and rhetoric goes back to the beginnings of Western literature.

The ‘boastful’ of ancient epics

Ancient epic poems are, in many ways, the antecedents of today’s action films; they were the violent and exciting blockbusters of their time.

Homer’s heroes in “The Iliad”, written between 750 and 700 BC. Achilles, for example, is hailed as both the best fighter and the best orator among the Greeks in Troy.

The settings of the old epic duels mirror the fights of action movies. When two warriors clash, they taunt each other. When a Warrior wins, victory is usually punctuated by a witty slanderous “boast” that signals the champion’s prowess and the loser’s now verified inadequacy.

In Virgil’s “Aeneid”, Turnus avoids the damage caused by a spear thrown by the young warrior Pallas thanks to his thick shield. After throwing his own spear that stabs Pallas, Turnus brags about his weapon’s performance in comparison. The taunt is drenched in sexual innuendo: “See if my gun can penetrate better.” “

Turnus later mocks the slain Eumedes, having his throat slit: “Hey, Trojan, the western land you hoped to conquer, measure it with your corpse.” Ever since Eumedes sought to colonize parts of modern Italy, he is said to have surveyed the land for the colonies; Turnus sardonically suggests using his corpse as a measuring stick.

In “The Iliad”, Polydamas throws Prothoenor in the shoulder. He falls and dies, after which Polydamas jokes that it will be useful to lean on the spear “like a stick when he descends into the underworld”.

At another place 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 head first onto the battlefield. The bizarre situation elicits Patroclus’ pungent joke: “What a spring the man has!” Nice dive! Think of the oysters he could find if he were at sea… ”

In this boast-metaphor, Cebriones’ eyes, which he “chases” in the sand, have become precious pearls in the oysters he imagines he is chasing.

Break the fourth wall

What value does the mind have in the kinds defined by brute force?

It doesn’t matter that a corpse isn’t a suitable target for smart punchlines. Jokes are for the public, and it’s as close as the genre gets to breaking the fourth wall. Viewers are sensitive to these jokes not just because they are funny, but because they are consciously ridiculous. They help steer audiences away from the often horrific levels of violence exhibited.

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Epic poetry has traditionally held intellectual status in literary criticism, while action films are seen as childish and brutal. These names collapse to the level of rhetorical violence. In truth, epics like “Iliad” skew more “action movies” than most scholars would like to admit, and vice versa.

The larger-than-life heroes from John Matrix to James Bond are ultimately the big screen offspring of ancient warrior-poets.

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