Films and Books: On The Wrong Side

I enjoy the plot formula when the protagonist realizes he or she is playing for the wrong team. These plots always produce dynamic characters. The psychological shift and the shedding of the former self, often possessing the courage to say no to the norm is a popular thread in coming-of-age stories as well as anti-establishment stories. Take South African author  J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.

The Magistrate was an interesting character. At the periphery of civilization, he was in charge of an outpost run by the Empire. He ran his outpost in a quiet, detached way, without deliberation, without anxiety. Then the radical, ambitious Colonel Joll arrived, incited and determined to capture the barbarians who it had been rumored was about to attack the Empire. They captured and tortured the indigenous people. One of them, a deformed, scarred girl, the Magistrate claimed for himself. She became his personal maid and bed partner. What made this situation interesting was the effect the girl had on him. The Magistrate became attached to her that was something akin to love.  He saw her as a barbarian, yet, could not shake his feelings for her. This conflict will result in his returning her to her village thus making him an enemy of the Empire. What was supposed to be a  black and white explanation of the world, that is, Empire versus Barbarian, it became a gray issue for him.  The Magistrate’s deliberations revealed much about his character. This is what makes an audience care about a character.

Sex was a theme and a method for the Magistrate to analyze himself. It was a cool way to mirror colonialism, too.  Sexually as a man, he recalled his role as an officer at the outpost and his interactions with the women in the compound. By focusing on his patterns of sex, he saw himself as a proud boar satisfying carnal need. As he came to care for the barbarian girl, he realized he and the Empire were the true barbarians. He rose above his animatistic yearnings when he thought of her as a person. He was no longer the boar, and his behavior no longer boorish. I highly recommend this classic. 

What about films? Where the protagonist realizes he or she has been duped?

19 thoughts on “Films and Books: On The Wrong Side

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  1. From recent movies, it also happens in The East (2013), and Promised Land (2012), though it doesn’t work as well as it seems to in Waiting For the Barbarians (with which I was previously unfamiliar).


      1. I think The East squarely average. It hints at greatness, but doesn’t attain it. It also never falls into bad, partially because it plays on some interesting ideas and has a couple dynamic performances to anchor it. It is worth watching, but I wouldn’t call it a must-see.


  2. I liked Waiting for the Barbarians, but it was a difficult read for me. He’s such a great author though and touches on difficult subjects.


  3. I think films that challenge ideological or political policies often have characters that begin trapped within themselves, finding the opposition is far more desirable. Like Abbi said, District 9 fits the bill, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil does so too in a similar way.


    1. Welcome, Dan! Thanks, yes, Brazil is another great example. Gilliam’s adaptation to 1984 was creepy. You could add 12 Monkeys in the pot, too. Madeline Stowe’s character ends up believing in the crazy one, doesn’t she?


    1. Hi! What’s your name, by the way? Let me guess. George.
      Anyway, always glad for your comments; I enjoy your blog and your posts about Korea a lot. In class, we are about to tackle the Korean War and Cold War.
      Wish me luck 🙂


  4. Would Roman Holiday count? In a good way though, as Princess Ann realized in the end who Joe Bradley was. Oh how I loved that movie. And yes Avatar too, which I just got the 3D version w/ our 3D kit. Great post Cindy!


    1. Ruth, you are always so great to me. I will definitely vote for you when Lammys come around. I should think rather soon? Especially your festival coverage and community building. Anyway, YES, why not Roman Holiday? You are quite right. 🙂


  5. An interesting question and a good call on Kevin Costner’s character John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves.
    What about Hitchcock’s Vertigo and James Stewart’s character John “Scottie” Ferguson?
    He loses his sanity once and has his heart broken twice before he finally realises that he’s been duped by Gavin Elster and Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak).


    1. Hi, Paul 🙂 Yes, I like how you picked up “duped” and made a perfect connection. Scottie is one of my favorite characters. Boy, what a sucker. I really thought he was going to push her off the bell tower. Stewart’s passionate acting was fantastic.


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