The 1960s brought significant change to the rendering of film violence long before the US assault on Vietnam registered in the public mind via the mass media. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) took the horror film in a new direction with his portrayal of serial murder, in particular the film's famous shower scene wherein the ostensible heroine is stabbed to death, her blood running down the drain. Three years later, the same director's The Birds (1963), another venture into the fantastique that was a fable of the disintegration of small-town life, pushed the disintegrated PCA further with images of maddened birds pecking out people's eyes and tearing their flesh. The film included fairly unprecedented scenes of violent attacks on children. By the late 1960s, with the studio system gone, the PCA was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which produced a ratings system that assigned a letter to films on their release to designate their appropriateness for specific audiences: G ("general") for audiences of all ages, PG ("parental guidance") for adults and adolescents, R ("restricted") for adults and young people accompanied by adults, and X for adults only. The MPAA system closely mirrored the categories of the Legion of Decency, although it also allowed greater creative freedom to the filmmaker, dropping in-house regulation and leaving the decision making to the audience.
Although his contribution to the depiction of film violence in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was indeed startling and groundbreaking, Arthur Penn, like Sam Peckinpah, should be seen as something other than a filmmaker preoccupied with bloodshed. Arthur Penn is a skilled dramatist who, like other innovators in screen violence, offered moral and other lessons about the prominence of violence in American life.
Beginning in television directing productions for Philco Playhouse and Playhouse 90 , Penn moved to Broadway, winning a Tony for The Miracle Worker (1959), about the lives of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, which he also brought to the screen, earning Oscars ® for actresses Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in 1962. The Miracle Worker and Alice's Restaurant (1969), Penn's tribute to the 1960s counterculture, are among his more revered works. Still, Bonnie and Clyde is no doubt the film most associated with Penn, for it was a landmark in American cinema. At first, Bonnie and Clyde was dismissed by critics, who were shocked by the film's violence, particularly its sudden and very bloody ending, wherein Clyde (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) are ambushed by lawmen as they drive through the countryside, as well as by the sudden shifts in tone from violent to comic. Their bodies are jolted repeatedly by rifle fire as Penn shoots the sequence with several cameras, the scene recorded with the combination of slow-motion and rapid editing that Peckinpah would expand on many times over in The Wild Bunch (1969).
The notoriety of Bonnie and Clyde tends to overshadow Penn's other accomplishments in the depiction of film violence. The Chase (1966) is an uncompromising portrayal of the disintegration of American life in the 1960s, symbolized by the chaos that overtakes a small-minded, greedy, bigoted small town in the Southwest. Toward the film's conclusion, a group of perfectly middle-class citizens savagely beats the town sheriff (Marlon Brando) to gain favor with a local land baron (E. G. Marshall). The film brilliantly portrays the rage simmering within Middle America, a theme also explored in Penn's crime film Night Moves (1975). Penn's first film, The Left-Handed Gun (1958), explores both the legend of Billy the Kid and the allure of the myth of banditry. A later western, The Missouri Breaks (1976), is a scathing portrayal of the American frontier as the site of a struggle of the poor against the rich and ruthless, with some jarring moments of violence perpetrated by a mercenary in the employ of powerful financial interests.
The Left-Handed Gun (1958), The Miracle Worker (1962), Mickey One (1965), The Chase (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Alice's Restaurant (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Night Moves (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976)
Carvelti, John G., ed. Focus on "Bonnie and Clyde." Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Friedman, Lester D. Bonnie and Clyde . London: British Film Institute, 2000.
——, ed. Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde." Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Wood, Robin. Arthur Penn . New York: Praeger, 1970.
Accompanying this change were technological advances that allowed for more graphic images of violence, including "squibs," explosive charges placed inside an actor's clothes that can simulate the bloody exit of a bullet or other projectile. Although crude forms of squibs had been available for decades, their use had been proscribed by the PCA. By the late 1960s they were widely used, most shockingly (at the time) in Arthur Penn's (b. 1922) Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The film's violent ending, during which the outlaw couple is ambushed and shot repeatedly by a Texas Ranger and his posse, offended audiences of the day, but its portrayal of
violence was closely connected to its sympathy with both the populist spirit of the Depression (the time period of its narrative) and the antiauthoritarian zeitgeist of the late 1960s. The violence of Bonnie and Clyde , taking place in desiccated versions of John Ford's landscapes, was intricately entangled in the events of the 1960s, especially the Vietnam War and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 21, 1963. In the film's ending—which combines rapid cutting with slow motion—a portion of Clyde's head is blown away to simulate, according to Penn in various interviews, the shocking murder of Kennedy as depicted in the infamous home movie taken by the bystander Abraham Zapruder.
The US incursion into Southeast Asia occurred as television was reaching its peak as the central medium for news and entertainment. The Vietnam War was covered regularly by nightly news programs, bringing graphic footage of real violence committed against real people into American living rooms. As the war appeared to the United States to be lost with the Tet offensive of 1968, war footage seemed omnipresent. Some newscasts contained footage of outrageous atrocities, such as images of children running from napalm attacks, which Americans, many of whom had come of age in the sleepy 1950s, could hardly comprehend seeing on the previously sanitized network television programs. Coverage of the war, as well as urban protests against the war and attacks by police on African Americans and others working for civil rights, brought about a major change in public sensibility, which was reflected in the violence of late-1960s cinema and the films of succeeding decades. At the time, scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. expressed concern about a new "pornography of violence" overtaking culture as universities began a long cycle of empirical research projects into the effects of media violence on the public, especially children.
Within two years the violence in Bonnie and Clyde was far surpassed by that in Sam Peckinpah's (1925–1984) landmark western The Wild Bunch (1969), about a gang of aging outlaws looking for a last big score on the Texas/Mexico border at the outbreak of World War I. The Wild Bunch was a meditation on scrapped American ideals that was as significant as Citizen Kane (1941). It is unfortunate that the violence of The Wild Bunch nearly obscured the film's dramatic power for many journalistic reviewers of the day, who frequently commented on Peckinpah's "blood ballets" rather than the quality of his narrative. There is no question, however, that The Wild Bunch was the bloodiest mainstream film the mass audience had seen to that date and that it was a direct response to the US intervention in Vietnam. The film opens and closes with two spectacular massacres that make full and complex use of the squib to show the explosive impact of bullets on the human body. Peckinpah's intention was to remove the frivolousness from cinematic violence in order to show the consequence of the violent act, whose depiction had been long suppressed by the Production Code.
During the years of the Vietnam War, various genres made use of the creative freedom allowed by the new rating system by using violent images to comment on the savagery of the war itself and the new culture of violence that the war had created. George Romero's (b. 1940) Night of the Living Dead (1969), the first part of a "zombie tetrology" (concluded in 2005 with Land of the Dead ) that spanned five decades, was a low-budget, black-and-white horror film that portrayed modern America as a mob of mindless, flesh-consuming cannibals who are shot down by an even more mindless mob of cruel, vengeful enforcers of normality. The horror genre became a site of increasingly graphic violence in the years during and immediately after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal (1972–1974). Tobe Hooper's (b. 1943) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) created an image of a disintegrating America in which the driving forces are predation and madness. Similar ideas appeared in Wes Craven's (b. 1939) Last House on the Left (1972), which posited the notion that the suburban family is every bit as monstrous as the bad men they are taught to fear in the media. A cycle of "slasher" films, most famously represented by Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), continued the horror film's trend of replacing mythical monsters with psychopathic, vaguely motivated serial killers who prey on sexually active young people. All of these films spawned sequels and inspired other, similar series, finally taking the genre into a downward spiral as it set aside social commentary to emphasize gore. Where social commentary remained, its tone became steadily more conservative as if to jibe with the post-1960s reaction that
Sam Peckinpah is widely regarded as a director who made significant innovations in the portrayal of violence in cinema in the 1960s. A volatile alcoholic, Peckinpah was the archetype of the determined film artist trying to exist within a commercial system that labeled him l'enfant terrible . He had a distinguished beginning in television, cocreating one TV western, The Rifleman (1957–1963), and creating another, The Westerner (1960). Then began Peckinpah's extraordinary but troubled career in the cinema.
Ride the High Country (1962), only his second western, is a melancholy meditation on the fading of the American West's heroes and villains, a topic that was a Peckinpah obsession. Major Dundee (1965) was Peckinpah's first attempt to bring to the screen, in the form of a gritty post-Civil War western, his hard-bitten sense of the violent world of men. The film made him a Hollywood pariah for several years. He returned with The Wild Bunch (1969), his most famous film and his bloodiest. About a gang of aging outlaws fighting a last stand on the Texas-Mexico border at the outbreak of World War I, The Wild Bunch made full use of Peckinpah's interest in a realistic portrayal of screen violence. Peckinpah photographed battle scenes with multiple cameras at various speeds; in the final edit, the film's violent scenes clearly owe a debt to Sergei Eisenstein. Yet Peckinpah's emphasis on the explosive squib to simulate a bullet's impact on the body was fairly unprecedented, as was his sense of the chaos and madness of warfare.
Peckinpah soon became known as "Bloody Sam" and Hollywood's "master of violence." Perhaps too self-conscious of the labels, Peckinpah's next major film, Straw Dogs (1971), seems a strained essay film on masculinity's inherently violent nature. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) marked his return to the western. Like The Wild Bunch and The Getaway (1972), Pat Garrett shows sympathy for the underclass as well as the criminal outsider, and, like Major Dundee , it was hurt by troubles with producers and the studio, and by Peckinpah's increasing personal problems. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is Peckinpah's gruesome, quasi-surrealist tribute to one of his influences, Luis Buñuel. Peckinpah's last major film was Cross of Iron (1977), a World War II epic about the German retreat from the siege of Stalingrad, and a compelling meditation on the male group. While his career may have been compromised by his lifestyle, Peckinpah brought to the cinema not just new techniques for the portrayal of violence but also a new sensibility, one far more conscientious than that of other directors who have tried to render violence before and after the Production Code.
Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Straw Dogs (1971), The Getaway (1972), Junior Bonner (1972), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Cross of Iron (1977), The Osterman Weekend (1983)
Prince, Stephen. Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies . Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
——, ed. Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch." Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Seydor, Paul. Peckinpah: The Western Films—A Reconsideration . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Simmons, Garner. Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage . Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976.
Weddle, David. "If They Move … Kill 'Em": The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah . New York: Grove Press, 1994.
culminated in the Reagan era (1981–1989) and the years following.
The post-Code era brought a number of epic Hollywood productions whose violence would have been unthinkable during the studio era, most notably Francis Ford Coppola's (b. 1939) films about the mafia, The Godfather (1972) and its sequel, The Godfather II (1974). Both films contain scenes depicting the machine-gunning of people at close range, garrotings, stabbings, the exploding of cars (one of which contains a young woman), and various other forms of bloodletting. Stanley Kubrick's (1928–1999) A Clockwork Orange (1971) was viewed during its time as another breakthrough in screen violence, but Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel about a dystopia overrun by youth gangs was seen by some critics as bloodless on various counts, an overly stylized and emotionally icy view of humanity that is a representative example of the director's cynicism.
The 1970s and the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate brought a phase of film violence that exploited middle-class rage over the collapse of confidence in government and other institutions. Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971), William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971), Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974), and Phil Karlson's Walking Tall (1973) endorsed to varying degrees police or civilian vigilantism again the criminal underworld, which was frequently associated with the youth counterculture. Dirty Harry and particularly The French Connection portrayed rather uncritically the police as dangerous psychopaths who too often use gun violence to restore civil society. These portrayals of police violence conveyed a level of cynicism not seen in US cinema before the 1960s.
Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1975), loosely adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864), offered to post-Vietnam society an intelligent meditation on violence in America. The film's tale of a lonely, deranged cab driver (Robert De Niro)—whose search for identity concludes with a bloody massacre in a brothel—captured much of the malaise of the 1970s as the American social fabric disintegrated in the wake of Vietnam even as new waves of reaction approached. The 1970s also saw the phenomenon of the disaster film, whose origins can be traced to some of the early silent epics and films such as San Francisco (1936). The 1970s disaster films partook of a spectacularization of large-scale destruction that seemed to speak to the nation's crisis in confidence. The Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974) invited the audience to enjoy the destruction of middle-class life and of the nation itself, either in microcosm (the burning of an immense skyscraper in Towering Inferno ) or macrocosm (the collapse of Los Angeles in Earthquake ). These films featured little outright bloodletting and nothing in the way of meditations on the nature of violence in the manner of The Wild Bunch or Taxi Driver . Instead, they suggested the apocalyptic temperament then prevalent in mass culture and the film industry that would reappear by the end of the century in films such as Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004). The sensibility of the 1970s disaster cycle is marked by a feeling of nihilism and despair that sees no point to political or social reform, preferring instead the solace of wishful fantasies of self-annihilation. In their favor, the 1970s disaster films at least offered a few consolations about the regenerative nature of society.
The 1970s brought a delayed examination of the Vietnam War in films such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979); the former saw the war in terms of the wounds to the national psyche while demonizing the people of Vietnam, the latter viewed the war as a gross, horrific spectacle that signaled the end of the American process of conquest. The war has been revisited numerous times in films since, most notably in Oliver Stone's (b. 1946) Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), films whose graphic violence focused
principally on the wounds suffered by US veterans who were seduced into service by a deceitful government. But reactionary retellings of the Vietnam War accompanied the government of Ronald Reagan. The Rambo films starring Sylvester Stallone, in particular Rambo II (1985), took advantage of the "deceived veteran" theme but also tried, in effect, to rewrite the history of the war. Not coincidentally, these films and those starring former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger (b. 1947) reintroduced a cartoonish approach to violence in which blood-letting had little or no tangible consequence as they foregrounded the hypermasculinity of barechested, muscular men wielding large machine guns. Schwarzenegger helped establish a new form of painless, absurd violence in James Cameron's The Terminator (1984), which spawned two sequels ( Terminator 2: Judgment Day , 1991, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines , 2003). The Terminator films, like many similar movies, took the portrayal of violence several decades backward as they invited the audience to enjoy a spectacle of urban destruction that caused little or no real suffering for the films' characters, a trend of the latter-day disaster films.
In the reactionary turn of the millennium, the commercial cinema undertook a valorization of military violence and US involvement in various wars in films such as The Patriot (2000), We Were Soldiers (2002), Black Hawk Down (2001), and especially Saving Private Ryan (1998). Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan makes use of the graphic bloodshed effects introduced in the 1960s by Peckinpah and others while diluting or obliterating the moral lessons of Peckinpah, Penn, and others. The graphic violence of Saving Private Ryan serves a simpleminded celebration of national identity. Unlike the films of Peckinpah, Saving Private Ryan shows little ambiguity about the uses of violence; indeed, it celebrates warfare as a rite of national identity.
Yet the 1990s also saw a reevaluation of screen violence similar to that undertaken earlier by Penn, Peckinpah, and others. Actor and director Clint Eastwood (b. 1930), whose career was established by the violent Italian westerns of Sergio Leone (1929–1989) such as Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo ( The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly , 1966) and by Dirty Harry (1971) and its sequels, undertook a major revision of the western in Unforgiven (1993), which tries to reassert the terrible consequences of violence within a narrative that questions the mythologizing of the western genre. Several rather philosophical interrogations of media violence appeared in the 1990s, most notably Oliver Stone's ambitious but unfocused Natural Born Killers (1994), which is distinguished by a Brechtian, presentational style. While apparently concerned with the relationship of the media image and film violence to violence in American society, the film veers into a reflection on violence within the American character that makes the film confused and overwhelming.
The postmodern style of the 1990s cinema brought several "hip" comments on film violence that seem little more than pastiche exercises, or compilations of various tropes and conventions from earlier films with little added critical focus. The most notable maker of these films is Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963), whose Reservoir Dogs (1991), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), and Kill Bill films (2003 and 2004) made him in the minds of some critics and audiences the new "master of violence." His films are alarmingly cynical and empty of any specific notion either of cinema violence or of violence in American society, and merely overwhelm the audience with hyperbolic bloodshed.
The period since the 1980s might be termed the "era of the bloodbath" in that the new freedom allowed filmmakers has made violent scenes omnipresent, and steadily more graphic, as directors try to one-up each other in their uses of onscreen violence. (Tarantino will no doubt continue to be the representative model for pseudosophisticated uses of violence that reference the films of the past without their moral or political lessons.) Filmic violence has become pointless, boring, and rather shameless, lacking the moral force and shock effect of films
such as The Wild Bunch . While there are exceptions to this rule, the overall tone of the new Hollywood violence is one of cynicism and contempt for humanity, perhaps a reflection of increasing despair as economic conditions worsen and America loses the respect of other nations in the new globalized world order.
Alloway, Lawrence. Violent America: The Movies, 1946–1964 . New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971.
Fraser, John. Violence in the Arts . Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
Prince, Stephen. Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930–1968 . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Schneider, Steven. New Hollywood Violence . Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press, 2004.
Sharrett, Christopher, ed. Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media . Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1999.
Slocum, J. David, ed. Violence and American Cinema . New York and London: Routledge, 2001.
Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.