British claptrap, Expat Guide

Movies to prepare you for expat life in Britain

There are nearly 180,000 Americans living in the UK. But believe it or not, there have been very few films made about Yanks adjusting to life in Britain. Until Hollywood finally comes around to portraying our plight, I recommend US expats watch and learn from these movies, all of which are the next best thing:


elf-2Elf (2013)

 I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favorite. 

Synopsis: An elf from the north pole has a hard time fitting in when he visits the cynical real world to find his father.

How you will relate to it: Poor Buddy is too friendly, too familiar and too enthusiastic for nearly everyone he encounters. The locals mistake his geniality  and sociability for idiocy. He’s big and he’s loud and he stands out. Basically this is could be a documentary on what it feels like being an expat in Britain. In the end Buddy triumphs because his sincerity, work ethic and charming ingenuousness make him stand out amongst people who are too cynical and self-interested. God bless you Buddy, you are a great example to American expats.



 DI-InvasionOfTheBodySnatchersInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

There’s no emotion. None. Just the pretense of it. The words, the gestures, the tone of voice, everything else is the same, but not the feeling. 

Synopsis: Aliens take the form of humans, replacing them with exact duplicates when they fall asleep.

How you will relate to it: This film is often seen as a cold war era metaphor for the fear of creeping communism, but if you are an American expat living in the UK, you will also likely see in it a parable about the dangers of losing your identity. If you become “body-snatched” you become more of a conformist. Your voice gets flatter. You think more of the collective good of society and less of your individuality. You have no more need for your guns. In other words, you become more British than American. The film offers hope for those who would fight their inevitable assimilation. Instead of trying not to fall asleep to resist the pod people, as an expat, you can show your resistance to becoming British via saying “elevator” instead of “lift,” by being loud and individualistic, and by, er, driving on the right hand side of the road on motorways. Resist!



 Guardians-of-the-Galaxy_first_ScreenshotGuardians of the Galaxy(2014)

 Rocket: Metaphors go over his head.
Drax: NOTHING goes over my head!… My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it.

Synopsis: Five interplanetary misfits join together to save the galaxy.

How you will relate to it: The film’s main character Peter Quill is a pop-culture obsessed American, who was snatched from his home and forced to live in a strange new environment. But he’s not the only character you can relate to as an American expat. All of the Guardians feel like fish-out-of-water archetypes that are particularly relevant to an American living in the UK. Gamora has to prove to everyone that she does not share the same politics as her “family”- like a Yank apologising for her Fox News-watching parents. Rocket Raccoon is a wise-cracking outsider, and like many Americans, a genetic mutt. Groot is seen a loyal simpleton, underestimated because of his inability to speak well… they all strike familiar chords for this expat. But the character who I personally identify with the most is the hulking Drax the Destroyer. Drax is a very straight-forward man, without any semblance of tact or subtlety. He is quick to go to war, and when he sees an opportunity to revenge himself on his enemies, he decides to fight them all at once in an ill-conceived showdown. He’s basically Hulk Hogan meets George Bush, but living in a world where “softly, softly” is considered the proper way of doing things. Drax essentially is America. And he is awesome. Embrace your inner Drax and you will be a happy expat.



 600full-my-blue-heaven-screenshotMy Blue Heaven (1990)

It’s not tipping I believe in. It’s overtipping.

Synopsis: An Italian-American mobster in witness protection turns a small town upside down with his slick ways.

How you will relate to it: Every time I tip someone in the UK, I feel a little bit like Vinny Antonelli from My Blue Heaven. For Vinny, giving people a gratuity is a way of life. It’s not just a way of ensuring good customer service, it’s also his way of putting people in debt to him and building a network of accomplices. So Vinny tips everyone. His is a philosophy that, albeit exaggerated, is very familiar to most Americans but completely foreign to the British, for whom tipping is embarrassing and uncomfortable form of human interaction. My dream is to one day be like Vinny, going around London tipping everyone I encounter, from the staff directing me to the next available till at M&S to the underground conductor indicating that the train doors are clear. Those I tip would be confused and uncomfortable, but also grateful. And then the next time I’m in to buy a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich on malted brown bread, or trying to catch a central line train to North Acton, I’ll get respect. And dat’s what it’s all about, aint it?



 Bruce-Campbell-in-Army-of-Darkness-2Army of Darkness (1990)

 I am Henry the Red. Duke of Shale, Lord of the Northlands and leader of its peoples. Ash: Well hello Mister Fancypants…. I’m the guy with the gun.

Synopsis: An average Joe finds himself transported to a medieval world of demons and magic.

How you will relate to it: Ash, the main character from Army of the Dead is an American caught in a version of medieval England, complete with clans, castles and evil spirits. He is both a fish out of water and an anachronism. His American wisecracks are lost on the locals, but he gains their grudging admiration thanks to his skill with a firearm. Like an expat, his mispronunciation of important words gets him into trouble.

In other films about Yanks living in Britain, such as the 1984 Rob Lowe vehicle “Oxford Blues” and 1978’s “International Velvet” with Tatum O’Neill, the American character is desperate for approval from the locals, and for the most part depressed when it’s not forthcoming. Nothing you want to emulate. But in Army of Darkness, our hero Ash reaches out and grabs respect through force of will (and with the help of his Remington rifle). Hail to the king baby.



 Big-Trouble-In-Little-China-2Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

You people sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… call the president. 

Synopsis: Truck driver Jack Burton gets caught in the middle of a magical war between mythical Chinese factions.

How you will relate to it: This one is more like what it feels like being an American expat in general, not just one in Britain. Jack Burton, a loud-talking, over-confident truck driver is the main character, but he is actually extraneous to most of the story and the action. It’s like John Wayne accidentally stumbled into a kung fu film- a world where are the rules are different, and his normal tough guy routine doesn’t help things, but actually makes things worse. That’s what being an expat can feel like sometimes as you stumble through unfamiliar rules and culture. But God bless good old Jack Burton, he’s loyal, fearless and not afraid to mix things up and make an ass of himself. All great qualities for an expat.




1 thought on “Movies to prepare you for expat life in Britain

  1. What about Straw Dogs? Or Yanks, where Richard Gere is told to go home by some Limey drunk — and then apologizes to the drunk! If that doesn’t capture the English fantasy — abuse Americans, then expect an apology — I don’t know what does.

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