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Upping the Ante

In 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.

—Peter Hanson

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