Realism in Movies: Oxymoron ('Gunga Din')
Carry Grant and Sam Jaffe as Sergeant Cutter and Gunga Din
My favorite movie of all time -- not counting a dozen or so of Bing Crosby's best films -- is the 1939 classic "Gunga Din," based on the Rudyard Kipling poem.
In the film, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Victor McLaglen play British soldiers fighting a fanatical religious sect in India that sacrificed (strangled) people for their god, Kali. Gunga Din, an Indian water carrier who yearned to be a soldier himself, is the hero of the epic. He sacrifices his life to save thousands of British soldiers about to walk into a deadly military ambush.
The movie is filled with action, and the bravado of the three British soldiers is accompanied by the injury and death of hundreds of Kali followers and British soldiers. Many were shot, some were strangled, others died amid blasts of dynamite, still others were tossed off rooftops, and a long line of natives fell to their deaths attempting to cross a rope bridge.
Despite all this killing, all these injuries, all these deaths, I say the movie was nonviolent.
How could such blood, guts and gore be described as nonviolent?
The inquiry, I confess, is a trick question. You see, the movie contains no blood, no guts, no gore. That's just my point! People die, sure, but not so graphically as to make the observer wince. They just fall to the ground, and even the most impressionable child is aware the fallen actor will arise to live again when the scene has ended.
In fact, Gunga Din, the movie, parodies the violence found in many other films. But, remember, this was 1939, and the fictional "violence" you saw in that era was tame compared to the way it's depicted today.
In movies today, the violence is often gratuitous, obviously for the same reason that gratuitous sexual scenes are found in so many of today's films: prurient interest and box office returns.
Filmmakers like to say they are trying to attain realism and that such realism is demanded in the '90s, but the truth is realism in movies is an oxymoron. You can't put "real" life on a two-dimensional screen.
Hyperbole, Not Realism
Graphic violence, of course, elicits strong reactions, but, as I see it, they're negative reactions. Audiences, I believe, would prefer not to see this kind of so-called realism, which more often than not is hyperbole rather than realism.
Perhaps the frequency of gratuitous violence, and sex, in today's movies is more properly attributed to a lack of talent among writers, producers and directors rather than prurient interests or greed.
Unquestionably, it would put great pressure on the talent of today's writers if producers were to demand well-written scripts without the use of such crutches as gratuitous violence and eroticism.
Movies like Casablanca, for instance, may not have been literary works of art, but they at least told a captivating story with a romantic interest without resorting to outright trash.
Censorship Not Required
To keep our movies wholesome, we don't need censorship; if we refuse to support the trashy fare offered by filmmakers, it will find its way to the junk pile on its own.
Personally, I cannot understand why people would want to see some of the trash that Hollywood's been putting out over the last few decades.
If you understand, you're a better man than I am.
I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on Feb. 14, 1998.