Since the 1960s, American cinema has churned out thousands of action movies. Since day 1, these have been a source of controversy and concern. What effects do action movies have on the viewer? Is the audience, especially the youth demographic, desensitized to conflict and murder? Is there any justification for showing realistic violence on the silver screen?
Violence is, unfortunately, one of the most popular elements of entertainment today. Young males shell out considerable amounts of cash a year to see simulated murders and retaliations. People with moral concerns, especially Christians, will very often object that there is no need to use extreme violence to tell a story. While this does seem like a reasonable objection, the Bible itself contains many gruesome stories, often set during war time in the Old Testament. Take David & Goliath, for example. The story most often told ends with David defeating the giant by hitting him square in the forehead with a smooth stone. The Bible itself, however, goes on to say that David takes the giant’s sword and cuts off its owner’s head, presenting it to King Saul. That’s gruesome. Is it unnecessary? It is part of what actually happened.
But in a fictional story, should we ever go that far? The argument for desensitization states that the more violence we are exposed to, the less we will value human life. This seems fair at first glance, but in my opinion, the desensitizing effects of extreme violence have more to do with the viewer’s own values than the images on screen. I have seen hundreds of people, in a fictional context, “shot” and “killed”, yet I have no desire to shoot or kill anybody. This is because I already value human life. When a fictional person is killed in a fictional context, it does not make me look at a real person in the same way.
The way violence is treated in the story itself, and the intents of the filmmakers, are also important distinctions. Take the ‘Die Hard’ series of action movies, for example. It is clear that the action element, a determined cop taking on enormous odds, is intended to entertain. Yet some of the violence is very graphic. Is it, then, the intention of the filmmakers to make the graphic deaths entertaining? I would venture a no. Though these films have a very strong sense of humor, they are also very grounded. It is important that the violence is rather graphic, to show the danger that the protagonist faces. The protagonist himself, importantly, doesn’t take any pleasure in killing his enemies. He does so in desperate, life-or-death situations, often where the lives of hostages hang in the balance, along with his own. Violence is an integral part of how ‘Die Hard’ is shown, but it is not for sadistic pleasure, at least as far as I can tell.
‘Jaws’, a suspense-thriller film about a giant shark that terrorizes a beach, is another example of violence shown for a (generally) good reason. The shark, the antagonist, is a malevolent intelligence. To show the threat of this creature, in the story, somebody has to die. To its credit, ‘Jaws’ escapes being a horror film by avoiding showing any more gore than necessary. All that is shown lets us feel the threat of this creature. It helps us understand the fears in the protagonists, and why they hunt the shark. The deaths are not shown to make us happy; rather, they make us afraid and angry enough to where we, too, would go after the shark if we had the chance. So the violence is justified by the story.
There is, of course, an implied line where violence becomes unacceptable. I have a personal distaste for all horror films, not because they are scary, but because they are sadistic. I always find it appalling that people can sit through two hours of slaughter, rooting for the brutal murderer as he kills his victims in shocking and inventive ways. That is nothing short of sadism. That is where violence is no longer justified by the story. When brutal violence is the point, it is wrong.
The element of violence, like all others, needs to be used in moderation. Filmmakers, I would suggest, when you are making an actioner, focus on making the story the most compelling reason to see your film. The action, then, will serve the story, rather than the story serving the action. In this way, you can establish how awesome your protagonist is in a fight without compromising your ethics.
Go ahead, make my day.