Violence as Light Entertainment–The Moral Question

I love a good turn-off-the-brain action movie–one where the hero gets to dispatch multiple bad guys without remorse but with plenty of clever quips. But the older I get, the more I begin to wonder if there’s something inherently wrong with these pictures. Do they teach us that we can solve our problems by killing the right people?

I’m not talking about thrillers, which usually involve a relatively normal person stuck in a dangerous situation and having to find a way out. I’m talking about movies with an exceptional hero, a high body count, and absolutely no moral ambiguity.

Some personal history:

I was a very serious young cinephile in the spring of 1974. I loved Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and The Seventh Seal (I still do). I thought of cinema only as a serious art form in the service of fixing the world. I also loved Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers, but I justified these on the grounds that.great comedy was inherently subversive, and thus doing it’s part for making the world a better place.

But action movies? Unless they were black satires, or lessons in the horror of violence, I had no interest in them.

That spring, I attended a special afternoon screening devoted to three-strip Technicolor. It included two features, the second of which was The Adventures of Robin Hood.

That movie was a revelation. I had no idea that a simple action movie, with a silly plot, witty dialog, and beautifully-choreographed but utterly unbelievable fights, could be so much fun. I discovered a whole new purpose for cinema, and I was hooked.

I still consider Adventures of Robin Hood the gold standard for mindless (but not witless) action. Other such movies that I love include the original Star Wars (AKA A New Hope), The Flame and the Arrow, Die Hard, some of the James Bond movies, and the first and third Indiana Jones movies.

None of these movies are entirely amoral. The villains are unquestionably evil, whether they’re imperialists, usurpers, exploiters of the working class, heartless murderers, and/or Nazis. Not using violence would only result in more innocent deaths.(Actually, I don’t really see usurpers as necessarily evil. The fact that your father was king doesn’t–in my book–make you the right person to rule the country. But the usurpers in these movies are always far worse than the rightful king.) But in real life, things are never that simple. Even Nazis have mothers, wives, and children. Most of the hero’s victims are mere henchmen who, for all we know, were forced into serving evil.

There’s a wonderful shot in The Bridge On the River Kwai. A new recruit has just killed a Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat. It was, in the context of war, an entirely justified act. But the camera briefly lingers the dead man’s Buddhist prayer beads and a photo of a smiling family. That sort of nuance never shows up in mindless action pictures.

Real conflicts don’t just dirty the hero’s hands–they dirty his (or her) soul. Sometimes, they kill the hero or people very close to him. In Adventures of Robin Hood, with all of its battles, not a single merry man takes a mortal wound. By contrast, Harry Potter is very realistic.

So what do these movies tell us? That violence, when in the cause of good, is trouble-blackswanfree? That killing the right people will solve your problems and not cost you anything except a minor wound and a few hours’ annoyance?

In these movies’ defense, I could argue that they’re so unrealistic that I have a hard time believing that anyone would take them seriously. I’ve shown these movies to my kids when they reached appropriate ages–and with Robin Hood, that was very young. I don’t regret it. And I’m not going to stop watching them. After all, what serious examination of the horrors of violence can match something like this video (which I unfortunately can’t embed).

But I wonder…