Or, rather, the fact that none of the main characters seemed willing to give Alfrid the fate he deserved.
Alfrid doesn't have a whole lot of purpose in the story, except as an object for the viewer's disgust. He isn't the horrible, 'fantastic' evil of the orcs and goblins and so forth; he is the normal, everyday evil of greed and selfishness taken to a ludicrous degree. In the early scenes, after Alfrid (who, I might add, is basically the same character as Wormtongue with a little more screen time) has attempted to escape with the Master of Laketown and been abandoned, the townsfolk quite reasonably attempt to lynch him. However, Bard - like Aragorn with Wormtongue in the film version of The Two Towers - stops them, insisting that enough people have died already. Thereafter, the good characters show a curious insistence on entrusting Alfrid with important responsibilities (which, of course, he fails to perform) and refuse to make him answer for his misdeeds; Bard even allows him to go on his merry, gold-laden way when Alfrid deserts the makeshift army of Laketown.
Much the same scenario plays out in the 1965 Von Ryan's Express, in which the two protagonists, one British and one American officer, take very different views on mercy and the demands of war. When the soldiers get out of the POW camp, the Brit, Major Fincham, insists they kill the officer in command of the camp; Von Ryan overrules him, arguing that the officer cannot simply be killed in cold blood. The decision comes back to bite him, costing quite a few of the soldiers their lives, and yet when the protagonists encounter a similar situation later on Von Ryan again errs on the side of mercy (and it once again backfires).
Why the emphasis - perhaps the over-emphasis - on mercy? Why can't we just hang Alfrid or shoot the evil Italian or German? From the writer's perspective, the choice seems to have far less to do with the antagonist (we don't really care what happens to Alfrid: he's a despicable character anyway) than it does with the protagonist: viewers are uncomfortable with a 'good' character taking a life into his hands, particularly in the role of executioner, and writers don't want to wrestle with the moral ambiguities through their protagonist. The evils the antagonist has committed aren't worth the protagonist getting his hands dirty. Hence this pattern of having a Bard or a Von Ryan choose not to kill a (human) antagonist - or, better yet, having the protagonist stop other characters from killing the antagonist - is such a recurring element that it now seems taken for granted. "Mercy isn't a weakness" is a mantra in fiction.
- "too many people have died already"
- "he's not worth the powder"
- "he's suffered enough"
- "if I kill him I'll be just as bad as he is"
Mercy is huge, and because it is huge it should be illustrated thoughtfully, intentionally - not brought in carelessly because that is what the consumer 'expects,' or because justice is too messy to handle.
You tell me! Do you think Bard should have killed Alfrid? How have your characters wrestled with these issues?