For some retirees, the amount of time now on their hands is a curse. But, for me, it is a blessing. Now I can indulge my weakness for film. Between the re-runs on sundry TV channesl and my DVD collection, my cup runneth over. Last week, BBC2 ran a series of cult British WW2 films, all of which I remember seeing at my local cinema as a boy. Leaving aside nostalgia for Pathe News, a cartoon and 6d for an ice cream as well as the ‘main feature’, the shift in social context and audience expectation was glaring.
In Which We Serve, The Dam Busters, Dunkirk, The Cruel Sea, Ice Cold in Alex, Reach for the Sky, etc are all fine films, distinct in the stories they tell. But they have much more in common, using violence, hardship and a common enemy almost never seen to bind a war-torn populace together with a sense of purpose in the trauma all had shared. The Americans were doing the same with Sands of Iwo Jima, Bridges at Toko-Ri, Run Silent, Run Deep, etc. On both sides of the pond, they satisfied both a civilian curiosity what had been done in their name and a mawkish venting of pent-up hostility towards a common enemy few had seen. Even in the films themselves the enemy rarely appeared as more than faceless targets or corpses.
By the 1970s, fim had moved on. Ass well as using colour, some showed a brutal enemy all too starkly (Sessue Hayakawa as Col Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai or Jose Ferrer’s Derra Garrison Commander in Lawrence of Arabia). This was carried over into serious attempts to portray a balanced view from both sides, as in Battle of Britain, Tora, Tora, Tora! and even Waterloo. In his brutal Cross of Iron, Sam Peckinpah pushed this so far that Nazis were heroes and the Russians faceless cannon fodder. A parallel development was the introduction of humour (Krlly’s Heroes) and satire (Catch 22) to broaden appeal and make more mordant commentary. But, though the one-sided moral simplicity of earlier films was gone, the violence inherent in war seemed justified ‘for reality’.
Outside the genre of war movies, violence seemed restricted to noisy and unrealisticrirefights, whether in Westerns or Police dramas. Clint Eastwood changed this almost single-handed with Leone’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry franchise. Because of Vietnam (and clunkers like Green Berets), war fell out of favour, but violence didn’t. Sly Stallone and Scwarzenegger brought military mayhem into civilian life with the Rambo and Terminator franchises, which opened a whole series of violent, weapons-laden film franchises that continue to this day, such as the Marvel Comics, Star Wars, Hulk, Mad Max, Jurassic Park, Kill Bill, Lethal Weapon, Predator or Transporter spin-offs. Unlike James Bond or Men in Black, all take themselves seriously enough to be confused with reality.
In so many filmd made recently, violence is standatd and very much a part of the appeal, as calculated by the producers. Over three dozen films have grossed over $1bn worldwide and half od them are from violence-oriented franchises listed above. For every Toy Story, there is a Battleship. The phenomenon is not limited to cinemas, where access is controlled. Adding a massive DVD market, with video streaming and game tie-ins, the relative exposure in the population down dwarfs the popularity of cinema in its glory days.
Violence in general and war in particular used to be something only a fraction of the population ever experienced. Cinema changed that in the interwar years but those post-war b/w we started with restricted violence to a war environment where it was clinically restricted to circumstances far from the everyday. That has changed. Modern film violence seems almost willfully framed within circumstances very close to our lives, such that the threshold of horror most people use to distance themselves from it is eroded. It has become a commonplace part of our entertainment; why then, should it not become a more common part of reality?
The transition can be traced to the scene in Rambo, where he shakes off his police pursuers in the forest. The whole film to that point had been building sympathy for Stallone’s character—a Vietnam special ops veteran struggling to find a life who is hazed unnecessarily by small-town police. In reality (or were it a 1950s film) Rambo’s character would have slipped through the woods and disappeared. But that he stayed, furiously building lethal traps for his pursuers taps into our modern, more revengeful attitudes.
Blockbusters like Avatar are violent, but of the old school. Beautifully done, their surreal creativity transports us literally worlds away from reality. But the slick brutality of Tarantino or the everyday brutality of The Sopranos, immerse us in a dog-eat-dog morality becomes an integral and unavoidable part of life in a way the almost prissy exposure in small doses of the 1950s never could.
Many people leading balanced lives will not only cope with this but broaden their mind by appreciating the creativity and entertainment value involved. But, when it comes to those less socially integrated, such as loners, criminals or even children, the increasing incidence of fatally unhinged, if not actual terrorist actions, might be traced to exposure to unjustified and gratuitous violence being peddled in the name of entertainment.