Violence is harder to escape than ever — and it’s so inherent in today’s media that its original meaning is often lost.
In the opening of “Fury,” the story of an American tank crew in the final days of World War II, Brad Pitt’s character stabs a German soldier in the head before casually wiping his blade clean on his enemy’s uniform.
The film opening this month will give audiences something few WWII films have, as Michael Cipley wrote in the New York Times this summer: “A relentlessly authentic portrayal” of what it meant to fight for the Allies in the spring of 1945.
It’s one thing for American audiences to see war atrocities committed in the jungles of Vietnam — the slaughter was brought into U.S. households on the nightly news, after all — but another thing entirely to see the Greatest Generation at its absolute worst.
“The Good War this is not,” Cipley wrote, pointing out that audiences have “rarely seen ugliness in the heroes of WWII.”
While war is, undeniably, hell, “relentless” is perhaps the perfect word for what “Fury” will, at least in part, be: The latest escalation of film violence packaged for the movie-going public’s consumption.
Contrast “Fury” with another WWII film pushing the authenticity envelope — 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” The film’s first 20 minutes presented an unflinching look at D-Day, but Steven Spielberg exercised some restraint, Cipley wrote.
“Little in its portrayal of slaughter at Normandy hinted at what some American soldiers would do less than a year later in their final push to victory — yes, they executed prisoners and killed armed children,” Cipley wrote.
Even when Spielberg made highly violent, emotional WWII-era films like “Schindler’s List,” he pulled punches, says film historian and Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride.
“The Holocaust survivors I interviewed all told me they loved the film but the reality was much more extreme,” McBride said. “Even a film like that had to be a little restrained.”
Of course, the rise of violence is present outside of war films. In a Los Angeles Times timeline of violence in cinema, the bloodshed goes from being depicted mostly off-camera (ala 1932’s gangster drama “Scarface”) to close-up killings in films like 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” The violence has reached such a pitch that with the 2012 release of Quentin Tarantino's bloody slavery tale, "Django Unchained," British newspaper The Independent called it "Cinema's new sadism."
Eric Wilson, author of “Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away,” says that nowadays, violence is harder to escape than ever — and it’s so inherent in today’s media that its purpose is often lost.
“When it works, violence in film opens us to empathy and makes us take life more seriously. The problem is, not everyone is operating on that level,” Wilson said. “Because so much violence comes packaged now, there’s a tendency to commodify it. We consume it like Big Mac. We’re almost overwhelmed by it.”
Loss of meaning
Wilson says it’s not that movies or TV are any more violent than other types of theater or drama, it’s that the violence has lost its meaning. He points to classical tragedies like “Oedipus Rex” or Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” that used violence to “punish” characters for various moral transgressions.
“There’s a lot of bloodshed in a story like Oedipus, but the chorus is right there, constantly saying that out of this suffering comes wisdom. It’s strangely reassuring in that way,” Wilson said. “Today there’s more emphasis on the rush of entertainment that get people’s pulse rising. The larger philosophical framework we see in Greek tragedy doesn’t show up much in recent cinema.”
Early American cinema took a different approach to morality in drama with the Legion of Decency — a Catholic organization begun in the 1930s that got parishioners to boycott films the church deemed unwholesome.
To keep audiences in theaters and the government from regulating movies, studios adopted a similar set of standards called the Hays Code, which purported to uphold “traditional values” by forbidding filmmakers to put certain things on film. McBride said the code avoided controversy by excluding depictions of interracial relationships and married couples sharing a bed along with graphic violence or language.
Virginia Tech film professor Stephen Prince said that many gangster films in the 1930s that walked the code’s moral line were preceded with messages from law enforcement, emphasizing messages like the famous, “Crime doesn’t pay.”
“That sort of preaching wasn’t what audiences remembered,” Prince said. “What they remembered was the vitality of actors like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.”
The moralistic grip on film began to slip when films like 1959’s “Some Like It Hot” were released without MPAA approval and enjoyed critical and audience praise. "Some Like It Hot" specifically was denied approval for its sexual double entendre and cross-dressing that the MPAA feared was an allusion to homosexuality. The MPAA abandoned the code in 1968 in favor of the current, more lenient ratings system. A year later, “Midnight Cowboy,” a movie initially rated X for its depictions of sex, won an Academy Award for best picture.
Prince says the demise of the old code allowed filmmakers more freedom to deal with violence and sex as never before — which they did with films like “The Wild Bunch,” “Taxi Driver” and “Jaws.”
“Filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah (who directed 'The Wild Bunch') really thought that if he showed a certain kind of brutal violence, it would wake people up. He was coming off of decades of the screen being sanitized, so he felt it was important to show people who hadn’t seen that kind of violence what it was really like,” Prince said. “Certainly we know now that he was wrong. People react very differently to it and you have to think about the entertainment function of the film.”
A filmmaker’s natural desire to leave a mark on cinema can go hand-in-hand with turning up taboos like violence, Prince said.
“As a filmmaker, you want to shift the lens and do something different,” Prince said. “But we do become desensitized to it, so it takes a little bit more every time.”
Where audiences could once opt out of a ticket to a violent film, Wilson argues that the public can’t avoid violence as it once could.
“We’re awash in it. There’s no cognitive distance from violence to make it meaningful,” Wilson said. “With the Internet, it’s more difficult to find a buffer that allows us to think about the meaning of violence. That can become traumatizing.”
McBride contends that since 9/11, audiences are less affected by violence in general.
“I still think we’re in a prolonged state of nervous breakdown since 9/11 and it’s reflected in our films. We’re dealing with it in a metaphorical way,” McBride said. “When you read about somebody being beheaded at their office (in Ohio), the movies seem tame. Maybe that helps filmmakers get away with more.”
Wilson also contends that the raw footage on the Internet has fueled a desire for a kind of realism that films try to answer with special effects that are often violent.
“There’s been a shift in our culture as raw footage has become more accessible. On the evening news 20 years ago, during Gulf War I, we didn’t see any real gore. But we can see it right now, with two clicks,” Wilson said.
Seeing reality, whether it’s cellphone footage a news station uses or a public beheading on YouTube, makes people feel powerful, Wilson said.
“We think that if we can look at world as it really is, we have a sense of what’s true. That’s satisfying to us on some level, to get the truth unvarnished, so we expect it of the films we watch,” Wilson said. “But that’s an illusion: Those films don’t show the world how it really is, either.”