the current Mel Gibson flick We Were Soldiers, about
an early battle in the Vietnam War, there’s a nauseating depiction
of napalm’s devastating effect. An American soldier gets caught
in the conflagration when the Dow Corporation’s infamous flammable
jelly is dumped by U.S. jets onto an enemy encampment. But
when comrades try to pick him up, the skin on the wounded
soldier’s legs peels off his muscles, in full view of the
movie camera and complete with a moist sound effect.
In context, the moment has inarguable dramatic power, and
the filmmakers added a poignant note by casting an Asian-American
as the wounded soldier, giving viewers a glimpse at how the
victims for whom the napalm was intended must look. But this
grotesque scene is more than just a stomach-turning image
in a single war movie. It’s indicative of how the level of
onscreen gore has increased steadily since the release of
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998.
Spielberg’s movie was in many ways a conventional war film,
but the movie’s first scene was groundbreaking. The picture
opens with Tom Hanks leading his troops onto the beaches of
Normandy on D-Day, and Spielberg shot the scene with documentary-like
looseness. He also filled it with shocking violence—as soon
as the Higgins boat carrying Hanks’ team reaches the beach,
Nazi machine-gunners wipe out nearly half the Americans before
they disembark. Soldiers sinking to the bottom of the ocean,
body parts floating in the water, bullets ripping through
helmets and skulls . . . pretty rough.
Spielberg carved a path for subsequent filmmakers by suggesting
that the technical know-how usually employed on special-effects
pictures could also be used to raise the bar on realistic
depictions of violence. Ridley Scott, director of the recent
Black Hawk Dawn, has acknowledged in interviews that
he wanted his movie to feel like the first 20 minutes of Ryan
stretched out to feature length, thereby pushing the envelope
of how much intensity viewers can take.
Scott is just one of many directors who have followed Spielberg’s
lead. In Roland Emmerich’s Revolutionary War tale The Patriot,
a close-up shows a cannonball obliterating a soldier’s head.
Director David O. Russell turned heads (and stomachs) by using
real organs for a sequence in Three Kings depicting
what happens when bullets hit bodies. Hawaiian waters ran
red with blood in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. And in
Black Hawk Down, viewers are treated to such grisly
sights as a partially detached thumb dangling off a commando’s
hand and emergency surgery during which medics dig their fingers
into the viscera of a wounded man’s leg.
This onscreen bloodletting isn’t unprecedented, of course.
The movies have gotten bloodier and bloodier since old taboos
were eradicated at the end of the ’60s, and even television
got into the act a while back—some episodes of ER feature
as much gristle as a butcher shop. But the prevalence of post-Ryan
war flicks with attendant gore is significant—and likely to
become more so now that war movies are making big money in
the militaristic, post-Sept. 11 climate.
The question, then, is whether there’s really a need for the
kind of gross-out gore that’s filling contemporary war movies.
It’s true that Ryan created a better sense of the brutality
of D-Day than tame movies like The Longest Day did;
from a certain perspective, bloody war flicks are more honest
tributes to soldiers than candy-coated ones. Furthermore,
the pulsating plasma of current war movies is a logical outgrowth
of how the depiction of war changed after Vietnam: Movies
like Platoon and Apocalypse Now had violent
scenes that were considered shocking in their day.
But now that war gore has become fashionable, filmmakers who
indulge in it are drifting dangerously close to sensationalism.
Just as Francis Coppola was accused of exploiting the Vietnam
War by depicting the conflict as a haze of drugs and dementia,
directors like Scott have left themselves vulnerable to accusations
that they’re treating bloody combat like any other onscreen
spectacle. Although such directors can hide behind the pretense
of nobility—“I’m simply doing justice to the suffering of
war”—the level of battleground bloodletting is becoming as
excessive as the histrionic sex in such ’90s pictures as Basic
Instinct and Showgirls.
Right now, war-movie directors are doing a decent job of balancing
their desire to shock with their desire to illuminate. But
if you want a sense of how easily this trend could lead to
vulgarity, simply imagine a movie with shots of Americans
dying in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan or of Taliban warriors
being incinerated in caves. Even worse, picture an unflinching
movie about the events of Sept. 11.