Guts or Glory: War Violence on the Silver Screen
by Dog With A Blog on April 25, 2017 - 2:02pm
The use of violent imagery in the media has increased tremendously in recent decades. While there are strict regulations on nudity on television, some argue that the restrictions on blood and brutality are not strong enough in comparison. Extreme violence in the media is shown to cause more aggressive tendencies among views. This should encourage more regulation on this type of content. However, if used correctly, there is a place in the mainstream media where violent images can play an important role: in war films. There will be a focus on the movies Inglourious Basterds (2009), American Sniper (2014) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) in this approach. Spoilers ahead!
There have been countless studies that point to increased aggressiveness in viewers of violent content. In a study conducted by Leonard Berkowitz, he concluded that “film violence may well increase the probability that someone in the audience will behave aggressively in a later situation” (229). While this is a common theme among studies of this phenomenon; Berkowitz takes his findings further: “should the fantasy aggression appear socially justified [...] the consequence may be a weakening of restraints against hostility in angered audience members; they may be more likely to believe it is permissible to attack the “villains” in their own lives” (229). This idea of justified violence is important to consider while examining war movies.
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a movie set in World War Two which brings up questions of good and evil. Throughout the film, Tarantino attempts to humanize the Germans to show the relativity of goodness, particularly in a scene where an American soldier asks a captured German officer if he got his badge “for killing Jews.” The officer says it was given “for bravery” before the American bludgeons him to death with a baseball bat.
Given the fact that it is a Tarantino film, this is not the only instance of extreme violence. Early on in the movie an American unit known as the Basterds is seen scalping dead German soldiers. The film climaxes when the Basterds assassinate Adolf Hitler at a cinema premier. They fire their machine guns into a crowd of defenseless German political figures and high-class citizens before blowing the theatre up. The sheer brutality of some scenes in Inglourious Basterds are meant to shock the viewer make them think of what forms of violence are justified and against whom. Unfortunately, the light and comical tone of the film may detract from this deeper message.
In terms of combat films made during war, Dorothy B. Jones published an analysis of Allied war movies released between 1942 and 1944. She states that of all feature films produced in this time “approximately three in every ten were directly concerned with some aspect of the war” (2). When it comes to the portrayals of the enemy, “they tended to stereotype them [...], identifiable by the fact that he either “heils Hitler” and speaks with a guttural German accent, or has slant eyes” (Jones 5). This is where war films often go awry: in an attempt to justify the violence against the enemy by stereotyping and dehumanizing them.
American Sniper was released in 2014, shortly after the Iraq war ended but as America is continually involved in conflict in the Middle East. It tells the story of Chris Kyle, a sniper with 160 confirmed kills in the Iraq war. The movie received a lot of backlash over its depiction of the war. In an article on the topic, Larry Everest writes that “the movie demonizes and dehumanizes every single Iraqi [...], portraying them as evil terrorists and “savages” who deserve to die.” Meanwhile, the audience is meant to sympathize with Chris Kyle rather than see him as a killer. This creates a mentality of “us versus them”; the worst American is better than the enemy or even a civilian living in enemy territory.
While Clint Eastwood says that the movie can be seen as anti-war by demonstrating the struggles faced by American soldiers, “American Sniper is a movie that whips up ideological and political support for America’s ongoing crimes against the peoples of that region [the Middle East]” (Everest). Eastwood is misusing violence in his film as he does not condemn it but praise those who enact it, as long as they are on the right side of the war.
A war movie renowned for its accurate depiction of battle, specifically the D-Day landings, is Saving Private Ryan. The beach landing scene was so realistic that “[d]uring the two weekends since the movie opened, the Department of Veterans Affairs has increased staffing on its toll-free counseling line to accommodate vets shaken by the film” (Wallace). The visuals shown to the general public were so close to real battle that veterans were deeply affected. Should a film be able to show violence that is on par with events that traumatized many of the men who fought in the war? Only if the war is depicted equally as realistically off the battlefield.
Saving Private Ryan not only focuses on the fighting, but on the emotional distraught experienced by the soldiers. Many scenes involve emotional breakdowns and disputes between fellow soldiers over questions of morality. For example, the unit is divided on whether or not to kill a surrendered German soldier who killed a member of the unit. The German pleads for his life to the unit’s translator. When the two are able to communicate, they are able to see that there is not much difference between a soldier fighting for either side. Spielberg does well to break down any “us versus them” mentality.
Amy Wallace writes in the LA Times that “the true cultural impact of Saving Private Ryan is best measured not in dollars or book sales but in conversations.” The film opened the door to understanding for younger generations who had never experienced war. There are likely very few audience members who wish to go to war after viewing the horrors shown by Spielberg’s depiction of the war.
While violence in the media has shown negative effects in countless studies, the one genre where brutal visuals are helpful are war films. Before the onset of war in 1939, Albert Benham noted that “should war break out in Europe, a tremendous responsibility for preserving the peace and neutrality of the United States would at once be thrown on the shoulders of the film business” (410). While the U.S. did eventually get involved in the war, this statement holds true; the media has a massive influence on public opinion. Showing the general public the brutal violence of war, along with the psychological trauma, can help maintain an advocacy for peace.
Benham, Albert. “The ‘Movie’ as an Agency for Peace or War.” The Journal of Educational Sociology, vol. 12, no. 7, 1939, pp. 410–417, www.jstor.org/stable/2262018.
Berkowitz, Leonard, et al. “Film Violence and Subsequent Aggressive Tendencies.” The Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 2, 1963, pp. 217–229, www.jstor.org/stable/2746916.
Eastwood, Clint, director. American Sniper. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2014.
Everest, Larry. ““American Sniper”: Humanizing and Glorifying a Mass Murderer for the Empire.” Global Research, February 3, 2015. http://www.globalresearch.ca/american-sniper-humanizing-and-glorifying-a....
Jones, Dorothy B. “The Hollywood War Film: 1942-1944.” Hollywood Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 1, 1945, pp. 1–19, www.jstor.org/stable/1209583.
Spielberg, Steven. Saving Private Ryan. Paramount Pictures, 1998.
Tarantino, Quentin. Inglourious Basterds. Universal Pictures, 2009.
Wallace, Amy. “'Ryan' Ends Vets' Years of Silence.” Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1998. http://articles.latimes.com/1998/aug/06/news/mn-10608.