Richard Leskosky: Disabilities featured in many films

Richard Leskosky: Disabilities featured in many films

Before she even said a word, Illinois congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth, former director of the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs and a veteran herself, created a sensation at the Democratic National Convention when she strode to the podium on her artificial legs. South African athlete Oscar Pistorius recently made headlines when he ran in this year's Olympics and the Paralympics, winning two gold medals in the latter, on metal "blades" that replaced his boneless legs, which were amputated at an early age.

With such high-profile amputees and with the sorts of injuries inflicted by roadside bombs in our current wars, you can expect to see more films depicting major characters with prostheses, even in action films. In fact, "Battleship," released this summer, features a major subplot in which a recovering veteran, played by real-life double amputee Col. Gregory D. Gadson, recovers his will to live while trouncing an alien invader in hand-to-hand combat.

But actually, the movies have long exploited characters with disabilities. Heroes become more heroic if they overcome some serious physical impediment to achieve their goals.

With villains, the physical defects perform a different symbolic function, making the character appear grotesque or, paradoxically, intimidating. They may even sometimes have a humanizing effect, generating sympathy for a villain who is not all bad or at least did not start out wicked but only became so in trying to overcome his handicap.

Again, we've seen a big-budget example in this summer's "The Amazing Spider-Man" when Dr. Curt Connors turns into a murderous reptile, The Lizard, as a result of his experiments in limb regeneration to grow himself a new arm.

Such characters and their struggles are all the more striking when they appear in action films of one sort or another as opposed to serious dramas.

Americans are fascinated by technology and tools (including computers, Formula 1 racers, guns, self-cleaning litter boxes and electric vegetable peelers), and Hollywood films tend to focus not so much on the missing limbs as on what sort of appliance replaces them.

In 1977's "Rolling Thunder," the protagonist, a veteran just returning from seven years as a POW in Hanoi, turns vigilante when he loses his hand and his family to murderous robbers. After he's fitted with a hook, he uses it as a weapon on the felons when he tracks them down.

Even more spectacular is the home-engineered prosthesis in Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead 2" and "Army of Darkness." The sole survivor of an assault by demons, Ash (Bruce Campbell) replaces the possessed hand he had to cut off himself with a chainsaw.

But Robert Rodriquez topped that in his 2007 "Planet Terror." When zombies rip off the heroine's leg, her boyfriend first replaces it with a wooden table leg (with which she dispatches at least one would-be rapist) and then with an M4 carbine with a grenade launcher.

Of course, sometimes the prosthesis looks like the actual limb but with greater inherent strength. Just remember Luke and Anakin Skywalker's replacement hands in the Star Wars saga.

In 2004's "I, Robot," Will Smith's character sports an entire artificial arm made by the scientist whose murder he investigates.

And in "I Know Who Killed Me," (2007) Lindsay Lohan plays identical twins with identical amputations (one instance where a film does focus on truncated limbs, with almost pornographic fixation), one of whom sometimes wears a battery-operated but rather crudely sculpted hand and lower leg.

Main characters do not suffer from actual paralysis that often in action films, but a couple of prominent exceptions deserve mention. Professor Xavier in the X-Men franchise is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, but his awesome mental powers more than make up for his physical immobility.

Forensic detective Lincoln Rhyme in 1999's "The Bone Collector" (and its source, the series of crime novels by Jeffery Deaver), is a quadriplegic with a great mind (but not Professor X's telekinetic and telepathic abilities) who tracks down killers with the help of a sophisticated lab and a team of dedicated helpers. In his one screen appearance so far, he fought off and nearly killed an assailant despite being able to move only his head, shoulders and one finger.

Not paralysis but an equally debilitating condition afflicts the criminal mastermind in M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable" (2000). Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) suffers from Type 1 osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle-bone disease, which causes his bones to break under very little stress. This neatly positions him as the diametric opposite of hero David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who is strong and virtually invulnerable to harm (except drowning).

Villains for the most part, however, tend to follow the old pirate tradition of sporting flashy and menacing-looking artificial appendages. Best-known fictional pirates missing a limb include Captain Hook from the Peter Pan films (cartoon and live-action), one-legged Long John Silver from "Treasure Island" and Jack Sparrow's rival, Captain Barbossa, who turns up missing a leg in the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean film.

Dr. No, the title character in the first James Bond film, employs metal hands after losing his own to radiation. TeeHee, the main villain's henchman in "Live and Let Die" (1973) lost his arm to a crocodile and so has a metal arm with a claw hand he can use to grip and slice things (e.g., fingers).

In "Wild Wild West" (1999), villain Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) lost the lower half of his body during the Civil War and gets around in a steam-powered wheelchair, though he uses mechanical legs for his final battle with hero James West (Will Smith); he has also equipped the crew of his giant mechanical spider with various prosthetic weapons.

Of course, the villain with the most prostheses is the one whose lack of limbs we don't discover until the very last film (in terms of chronological release dates) he appears in: Darth Vader of the Star Wars saga, who turns out to be (do you really need a spoiler alert here?) missing both arms and legs after a fiery duel with former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Chinese and Japanese films, conversely, focus not on a hero replacing lost limbs but on excelling in his or her martial art without them.

A popular series of Shaw Brothers films from Hong Kong beginning in 1967 followed the adventures of the One-Armed Swordsman, and its success inspired another series of Hong Kong films with a one-armed swordswoman.

But as popular as the Chinese One-Armed Swordsman might be, he was not the first brachially challenged fighter. The original was the Japanese one-eyed, one-armed swordsman Tange Sazen, hero of a 1927-28 serial novel that almost immediately inspired three studios to produce serial adaptations.

Eighty years later, Tange Sazen films still appear, with the most recent in 2004. (Only one or two titles are on DVD, and not cheaply). The outcast rebel Sazen's box-office success inspired all sorts of damaged — both physically and emotionally — warrior figures in Japanese and Chinese films, including a one-eyed, one-armed Japanese swordswoman who appeared in at least a couple films.

So Oscar Pistorius is not the first amputee become famous using blades — it's just that these aren't as springy but are definitely a lot sharper.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at

Topics (1):Film