Why are movies more violent now than in the past?

A student from Bowling Green State University sent me a most interesting query:

“I am researching for a paper about movie genre’s. I stumbled across a blog of yours about TCM vs. AMC. That was similar to one of the topics I want to bring up in my paper. I am writing about the differences between modern day war movies such as “Band of Brothers” and “Apocalypse Now”. Mainly the way they are presents to the viewers. For example the way gore and blood are presented. In the older movies when someone was shot they basically fell to the ground dead. Now it seems we are shown all the blood and gore that really goes along with being shot. I was wondering if you had an opinion on why this change has taken place and if you could offer me any insight into it.”

I definitely have an opinion on this topic! Read on…

I believe that there are two key factors that have caused violence in movies to journey from the abstract shadow play of classic film noir (see The Postman Always Rings Twice or just about any Hitchcock film — Dial M for Murder is a splendid example, though not his best work) to the explicit gore of films like Kill Bill or even Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl: a significant change in what’s acceptable in our culture and changing film technology.
Dial M for Murder One SheetWith few exceptions, the most violent of films from the 40s and even 50s would be considered so tame today that it’d be a surprise if anything even garnered a PG rating. Not because the filmmakers back then didn’t want to make violent, aggressive, even shocking films, but because the very meaning of those words has changed quite significantly in the last fifty years.
Fifty years ago you’d have a tough time going out in public and seeing men wearing anything other than a suit. Look at photographs of baseball games from the 30s and 40s, for example, and you’ll see that men all dressed formally even for a ballgame. In the ensuing years, we’ve become quite a bit more slovenly (or comfortable, depending on your perspective) and now you’d be hard pressed to find anyone at a ballgame that isn’t wearing a T-shirt! And let’s not even talk about the change in music: we’ve come a long way from Elvis being castigated for swiveling his hips on stage to Britney Spears gyrating almost naked on national TV.
As our cultural expectations and the range of acceptable behaviors has changed, so have films both reflected that change and helped produce it. We can trace the evolution of violence in film by tracking what you suggest, war movies. An interesting selection of films to examine in this genre could include the earliest work like Eisenstein’s brilliant Battleship Potemkin to Casablanca, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia (the latter two both by David Lean), the extraordinarily powerful films Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and Gallipoli, the nightmarish Apocalypse Now and the more recent gorefest of Saving Private Ryan.
Casablanca One SheetIn the earliest of these war films even the most frightening of action is presented primarily in the abstract, as shadow play, or off camera. A prototypical scene might be from Casablanca, where the characters talk in Rick’s Cafe Americain, then stop as you hear the staccato of gunfire off-camera, then the characters look at each other, knowing that one of them has been shot and killed by the invading Germans. Though not a war film, perhaps no scene best exemplifies the use of abstract cinematography and imagery to sidestep violence than the shower scene in Psycho. No knife wounds on the actor (the beautiful Janet Leigh), just a shower curtain clutched as she collapses and the swirl of blood (actually chocolate syrup, but that’s another story!) as it runs down the drain.
Move to the 60s and the rebellion against the establishment and against the idiocy of the Vietnam War is embodied in the changing imagery of films like Lawrence of Arabia, where one of the most powerful scenes in the film is Lawrence being caught up in what can only be described as blood lust during the slaughter of the Turks after derailing a train. It’s considerably more violent in imagery than even Lean’s earlier work, The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Apocalypse Now One SheetApocalypse Now might be worth special mention, because it was based on the extraordinarily complex story Heart of Darkness (written by Conrad in 1902, but even Orson Wells couldn’t transform it into a movie. It took decades, the spectacle and horror of the Vietnam War and Francis Ford Coppola to get a movie on the screen). In the same way that Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and similar works use violence as one of its paths of communication, so did Apocalpyse Now deliberately create a complete nightmare world to emphasize the inhumanity of war and what it does to even the most rational of men. Unlike violence as a visual, the violence in these particular movies is the message.
And so we come to what I believe is, to date, one of the most violent of films in this genre: Saving Private Ryan. A brilliantly realized film, there’s no question that the first hour, the landing on Normandy during D-Day, stands apart as perhaps the most realistic — and terrifying — sequence brought to screen. Don’t forget, the audience was willing to watch such gore for an hour, while fifty years earlier if the film was screened people would have doubtless walked out and decried it as pornographic or worse. In rather a Pekinpah-esque way (sorry, I had to say that), Spielberg splashed the violence of war directly into our optic nerves and forced viewers to internalize the horror of war. As Roger Ebert said, “The movie’s opening sequence is as graphic as any war footage I’ve ever seen.” and “Spielberg’s camera makes no sense of the action. That is the purpose of his style. For the individual soldier on the beach, the landing was a chaos of noise, mud, blood, vomit and death.”
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: One SheetI would be remiss, however, if I didn’t also say that special effects have also evolved at an extraordinary pace. From the ten dollar special effects of 40’s noir to the tens of millions of dollars of special effects in even the most humble of movies today, high speed computing, computer graphics, and digital film processes have completely revolutionized the world of filmmaking. A viewing of the entertaining Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, where the entire movie was filmed on green screen and the visuals were layered in digitally in post-production, stands in stark contrast to the challenge of even getting the audio and film to sync up in the earliest years of the industry.
One possibility, by the way, is that films aren’t any more violent at all, and that their level of violence has always defined the limits of socially acceptable visual imagery in cinema. Hmmm….
I’m rambling on for way too long! I love this stuff, actually, and any excuse to write about movies and the history of cinema is a cause for me to have a break from my usual geeky business stuff. Not sure if what I’m saying is even helpful.
I’d love to get feedback from anyone reading this about my observations and, of course, which of these films have stood the test of time as examples of the best – and worst – of the war / violent film genre.

4 comments on “Why are movies more violent now than in the past?

  1. Dave,
    Excellent post. Not one, but a series of insightful observations.
    At any given time, there are always exceptions, but if you could plot out the RMS level of violence, I think you would see a steadily increasing graph. I think it is the positively reinforcing loop of “need to feel a rush” and “desensitization” repeated ad infinitum.
    Virtually all of us will go an entire lifetime without seeing a murder or an act of flagrant violence. Yet, we know it happens hundreds of times a day, every day. We all know we will eventually die and wonder how it will occur and what it will feel like. The ultimate combination of inevitability and unknowable.
    The medium of movie affords us the closest simulation of seeing and feeling what that inevitability will bring, and there is an immense thirst to get as close as “current sensibility” allows us to experience it.
    After we have seen 3 or 5 movies at Level 1 violence, we become desensitized. We can handle it. We know we are safe. And, we need an 30% increase to Level 2 to feel the same rush as when we saw the first movie. The cycle continues.
    Since movies are so ubiquitous, a large percent of the population moves along the same path of level of sensibility. However, I’m confident that if you plucked a native inhabitant of a remote, isolated culture and plopped them into a theater with a 1950’s war movie (which we have changed the rating in 2007 to PG), they would puke and run from the “relative pornography” of the time.
    Rather than pointing out another movie example of genre violence, I will point out the 1983 movie “Brainstorm” with Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood’s final appearance. This was about a device that recorded brain activity and allow one to replay and experience someone else’s recording. They start out with roller coaster rides. But the ultimate recording is of a developer that has the device on record when he has a heart attack and dies. Aaaaah, who dares to replay and experience an actual death as if it were your own. And will the experience be enough to actually kill again.
    And surprise, surprise… there were people that wanted to experience it despite.
    A need for a rush. Desensitization. Go to line 001.

  2. We’re also a more discerning audience now. Through other media outlets, we have what would be considered a fairly intimate knowledge of what organs and gore should look like. So, if a film director tries to pass off something that’s not realistic enough, that would be more jarring to the audience now than hitting them with something that’s too realistic.
    Just look at the effort that goes into making medi-soaps on TV have an authentic look, even though the surgical stuff is really just a backdrop to the “dreamy doctor dating the hot nurse” drama. With Nip/Tuck, the cosmetic surgery scenes are shockingly, revoltingly realistic!

  3. Corporations have gained complete control of the U.S. film industry. They do exhaustive research. They conduct endless focus groups. The results of their findings are that people will buy more tickets if the movies contain sexual content, negativity (arguments), and violence.

    They ignore any effect this has on the minds of people. They do it in the name of profit. The result, is that all of our movies are negative, violent, and commercially derived.

    99% of movies made after 1995 are tainted in this way. They are nothing more than a way to make money from you. Very sad, but true.

  4. I am a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. I am currently enrolled in a composition class that has asked me to write a trend analysis paper on any topic. I chose censorship/movie ratings. I am very interested in how they came about, and have enjoyed researching thoroughly into the past of censorship. Now I have to write about where censorship might be going in the future. I wanted to ask you some questions regarding the future of censorship/movie ratings. Please feel free to answer with as many thoughts as you would like!

    1. What do you think has been the biggest struggle for the movie ratings system and why?

    2. What is your biggest prediction regarding violence in films for the future? Will it continue to increase? Will ratings become stricter?

    Thank you for taking time out of your day to read and answer these questions! I hope to hear back from you soon.

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