Great to say that The Vigilante Thriller is out in paperback in January – too late to fill a stocking perhaps, but just right for spending vouchers on. At time of writing it’s also reduced a little – click here for Bloomsbury’s official site (of course, it is available everywhere books are sold).
Bangor University – 7 & 8 September 2023
I had the great pleasure to return to Bangor University recently at participate in the Paul Verhoeven@85 Conference – a great set of panels discussing the works of a rather neglected director. Organised by Professor Nathan Abrams and Doctor Elizabeth Miller the conference covered all of Verhoeven’s three distinct periods, the early Dutch films, his move to the US, and his return to European filmmaking, and took a wide range of approaches, including looking at philosophy, politics, ideology and some interdisciplinary talks that covered Special Effects, Amputation and the ethics of public and private health care. My contribution, Bodies of Steel, Bodies of Mush: The Hard Body and Paul Verhoeven’s Dystopian Science-Fiction Action Films, discussed how RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers all subvert Susan Jeffords’ conception of the hard-body action film. Keep reading for the transcript.
Richard Nixon, writing in his 1980 book The Real War, raised the question of whether the United States would be a nation of ‘steel or mush’. Condemning the outgoing Carter administration particularly, and the whole US more broadly, Nixon called for leaders who are ‘”steely”, resolute and certain’ as opposed to those he called ‘”paralyzed”…, uncertain, “mushy” and wavering’[i]. The work of Susan Jeffords saw a link between the rise of what she coined the hard-body Action Film with the rise of a steelier version of American masculinity, encapsulated by the election in 1981, and re-election in 1984, of Ronald Reagan. As Jeffords states, ‘Ronald Reagan became the premiere masculine archetype for the 1980s, embodying both national and individual images of manliness that came to underline the nation’s identity during his eight years in office’[ii]. This masculinity, one which was ‘tough, aggressive, strong and domineering’[iii] counteracted the perceived weak and feminine Carter years (and Hollywood’s cinema of crisis and doubt evident during the New Wave period) and was encapsulated by the figures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. This new hyperbolic masculinity, defined not only through action but through the prolonged gazing at the stars’ musculature, would place the hard-body at the centre of the 1980s box-office, establishing Stallone, Schwarzenegger (and a select few others) as among the top stars in America and around the globe.
The growing American confidence of the Reagen era was reflected in the confident and decisive actions of the hard-body Action Heroes, such as when Stallone, as John Rambo, returned to Vietnam to demonstrate the American Soldier’s superiority in Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985), or when Rocky Balboa, Stallone again, put the ‘Evil Empire’ of the USSR in it’s place in Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985). The hard-body hero is a hero of overt, muscular, physical display, ritualized suffering, and movement which became synonymous with America itself (even when represented by the heavily accented immigrant Schwarzenegger). Rooted in the freedom of the individual the hard-body hero fights not just threats foreign and domestic, but also the limits of government bureaucracy (mirroring Reagan’s Small Government policies). As Jeffords summarises, these are movies with ‘spectacular narratives about characters who stand for individualism, liberty, and a mythic heroism’[iv].
These are films that offer their spectators a sense of mastery, in terms of plot ‘in which the hard-body hero masters his surroundings, most often by defeating enemies through violent physical action; and at the level of national plot, in which the same hero defeats national enemies, again through violent physical action’[v]. Spectators vicariously experience the hero’s power through identification both on a personal level, and as a collective in that the hard-body embodies the ‘political, economic, and social philosophies’ of the Reagen era.[vi]
This paper discusses how Paul Verhoeven’s Action Science Fiction films, RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997) interact with, reconfigure and parody this conception of the Hard Body. The first two of these films are regularly seen as part of the Hard Body movement and I will suggest that rather than conforming to the Hard Body formula, both films explore, expose and critique the very idea of the Hard Body. The third film, made after the Reagan period and post the box office dominance of the Hard Body Action film, builds on the themes from the previous two films but goes further in exposing the hollowness of the Hard Body concept – all three films demonstrate the tenuousness of the Hard Body, but also draw attention the anxieties the Hard Body formula represses. Rather than reinforcing the hardness of the Hard Body, Verhoeven’s films remind us consistently of the mush that sits within the hard shell, that the body’s essential fragility is inescapable and that the political associations of individuality and freedom are illusory. The construction of the Hard Body is drawn attention to, and the spectator’s sense of mastery is subverted – particularly through the repetition of images and themes of lobotomy, a mushy brain.
Part One: Total Body Prosthesis.
1987’s RoboCop was Verhoeven’s first American film and it is broadly recognised as a satire on many Reaganite policies, particularly the use of the private sector over the public and consumerism more generally. Despite this, RoboCop is often taken at face value as a Hard-Body film, indeed the protagonist is seen as the ultimate Hard-Body, his armour constructed from “titanium laminated with Kevlar”, therefore being an extension of the gym, and steroid, built bodies of Stallone and Schwarzenegger (indeed the panels of RoboCop’s armour mirror the shapes of such bodies). However, while RoboCop might appear as the ultimate hard-body the film asks questions of what lies inside the body and highlights it’s clearly constructed nature.
Much of RoboCop does conform to hard-body action tropes – we are given a hero who goes through a moment of ritualized suffering, only to return and defeat the various villains, therefore asserting his superior masculinity. However, Verhoeven pushes these conventions, taking them much further than the typical hard-body film. Compare a sequence in Rambo III where Rambo cleans and then cauterises a wound in his side, roughly two minutes of screen time, to Murphy’s prolonged, and detailed, dismemberment at the hands of Clarence Boddicker and his gang.
This situates Murphy’s body, more average looking than Rambo’s, as a soft body that needs to be rebuilt but the suffering of Murphy extends, perhaps throughout the whole movie. The steel works finale breaks Murphy’s now Robocop body down again, puncturing, piercing and crushing the outside – far beyond the injury of the typical hard-body hero. This is paralleled with other bodies throughout the film which are similarly broken down, revealing the soft mush inside, whether Boddiker’s spraying arterial blood or Emil’s whole body transformed into softness by toxic waste. The titanium armour succeeds in stopping bullets, but nothing can completely disavow the inevitable softness of the interior.
It is worth noting that RoboCop from the neck down is entirely a constructed product, we know this from the scene in which OCP Executive Bob Morton demands ‘total body prosthesis’ – that all remaining body material is disposed of. This asks questions then of the type of masculinity being presented, and what the spectator is being invited to identify with. In short RoboCop is a castrated corporate product.
His castration mirrors the absence of love interests in many of the Hard-Body films, but makes it literal. The essential element of masculinity, the phallus (in both the literal and symbolic sense) is absent. There are of course substitutes, the large gun RoboCop keeps in his leg for instance, or the ‘interface needle’ with which he kills crime lord Clarence Boddicker act as symbolic substitutes and confer RoboCop much of his power, but for RoboCop, unlike other Hard-Body heroes, the guns and armoured muscularity do not act as substitutes for the un-showable phallus – there is no organ to sublimate with symbolism here. Further to this loss, RoboCop, or Murphy, has lost the a key component of Reaganite policy, and traditional end-point of oedipal driven narratives, the family. Is it any wonder that, when confronted with images of his family, culminating in a curtailed sexual memory of his wife, RoboCop punches out a screen in frustration. Intriguing to that in one of the first crimes he prevents, the attempted rape of a woman by two assailants, RoboCop shoots one of them in the crotch. The hero’s castration is contrasted with the villains, who express an excessive lust (not just for women, but also drugs and violence). Verhoeven has spoken about his desire, early in the pre-production process, for Murphy and Lewis to have an affair, but later realising that ‘following American puritan standards’[vii] this wouldn’t work. This then, makes RoboCop an interesting comment on the Hard-Body hero – a body constructed (perhaps paralleling steroid use), lacking in genitals but having access to destructive phallic substitutes that connote power and strength.
This satire on the hard-body outside is paralleled by the questions of RoboCop’s identity and the question of Murphy’s ghost in the machine. During RoboCop’s recovery, having been attacked by the SWAT team, a distinctly Lacanian scene plays out. Removing his helmet for the first time, RoboCop sees Murphy’s face staring back at him – a moment that invokes the ‘mirror stage’, when the a young child comes to a moment of self-identification (which Christian Metz suggests is imitated by the cinema experience[viii]).
He then proceeds to destroy the baby-food Lewis has supplied for him, a symbolic act of growing up perhaps. The helmet remains off for the rest of the film, and when asked by OCP’s head, the patriarchally identified Old Man, for his name, he now replies ‘Murphy’. This seemingly confirms a moment of self-realization and self-identification, severing ties with the corporate product and reassertion of human individuality. But this triumphant moment is undercut in several ways – Murphy still requires the permission of the Old Man to kill Dick Jones (with the suggestive line ‘Dick, you’re fired’), his prime directives, including the classified ‘Any attempt to arrest a senior officer of OCP results in shutdown’ remains and the final cut of the film, hard-cutting from a smiling Murphy to the title card ‘RoboCop’ reasserts his nature as corporate product, suggesting that his reasserted identity is an illusion.
There is also the question of the bullet lodged in Murphy’s head, embedded in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that ‘regulates thoughts, actions and emotions’[ix], and the area targeted by lobotomies. A sexless, lobotomized, corporate product – is this, perhaps, Verhoeven’s (and screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner’s) view of the mythic heroism embodied by Stallone and Schwarzenegger? RoboCop, and through identification the spectator, have only the illusion of mastery here.
PART 2: IT’S THE LATEST THING IN TRAVEL. WE CALL IT THE EGO TRIP
The question of lobotomy is essential to Total Recall, it’s threat repeated several times to the hero Douglas Quaid. The casting of the ultimate hard-body, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as Quiad allowed Verhoeven to create a more hyperbolic film than perhaps first envisioned in the multiple script drafts. Rather than simply reiterate Schwarzenegger’s previous screen image however, Verhoeven uses the opportunity to subvert some of core elements of his star’s screen persona. Central to this are Quaid’s fantasies of Mars and desire to visit Rekall – in a sense even Arnie dreams of being Arnie and wants to take ‘a holiday from himself’. This tacitly points to the unreality of the Schwarzenegger image, that it is artificial in itself. Indeed, artificiality is a major concern of the film, whether it is in the sense of artificial memories, the predominance of screens (such as one in Quaid’s kitchen showing an artificial landscape), the Johnny Cab driver or the moment when Quaid becomes indistinguishable from his own holographic projection ‘Ha ha ha, you think this is the real Quaid…?’.
Perhaps the most subversive elements of the film is Verhoeven’s treatment of Schwarzenegger’s body which, other then an early scene, remains mostly covered by clothing. Gone are the explicit and fetishizing displays of muscularity. Instead, we have an elastic Arnold, one that cab be pulled and stretched in strange and unnatural ways. Three scenes show us this. The first is when Arnold removes the bug from his head, stretching his nose impossibly (and suggesting there was an unreasonably large gap somewhere in his head for it to be hidden), the moment when the ‘Two Weeks’ disguise pulls apart showing his head in an impossibly small space, and the finale where his eyes bulge and tongue lolls during his expulsion onto the airless Martian landscape (Quaid and Melina are marked out from Cohaagen by their ability to endure this stretching, in effect to be soft and malleable as opposed to hard and unyielding).
Of course, all these moments are performed by, very convincing, special effects, and these impossible moments return us to the questions concerning the real and fantasy that dominate the film (they also draw attention, in similar ways to how The Terminator does, to the fact there is something unreal about Schwarzenegger himself).
If the hard-body hero is made to have an elastic body here, the question of the mush inside returns in several ways. Visually it is dramatized through the mutants who populate Venusville on Mars – oxygen starvation has transformed their bodies, so that, in many cases, the barriers between internal and external have collapsed, organs breaking through their skin.
Returning to questions of fantasy and reality, we see how Verhoeven draws attention to the film’s narrative construction in the scenes where Quaid visits Rekall and the plot of the rest of the film is laid out exactly as his fantasy of being a secret agent who will ‘get the girl, kill the bad guys and save the entire planet.’ Quaid’s surrender to the fantasy mirrors the spectator’s, but it also throws doubts on our mastery of the narrative. By making the spectator conscious of the construction, then questioning its validity in the scene with Dr. Edgemar, our identification with Quaid, the spectator’s ‘Ego Trip’, is questioned and thrown into doubt. Despite this, Verhoeven allows the spectator to retain their feeling of mastery, as Quaid eventually wins, only to pull it away at the end. As Verhoeven describes regards Doug’s fate, ‘I mean he is lobotomized at the end. That’s why at the last shot, when they are so happy and kissing each other, it slowly fades to white, which to me meant “OK, there he goes. That’s the end-that’s the dream – they lobotomized him”’[x].
The archetypal hard-body hero, reconfigured as an elastic body – but elastic only through fantasy. Meanwhile he lies on a table somewhere, his brain turned to mush.
Part 3: They Sucked his Brains Out
Starship Troopers’ Johnny Rico is Verhoeven’s final critique of the hard-body hero – the individualist, muscled, American reduced to a simpleton unable to make decisions. As Verhoeven described it, the characters of Starship Troopers are ‘streamlined in a certain way… you could also call it lobotomised’.[xi] In the fascist future the film depicts even South Americans are reduced to being the corporate ideal of the bland US soap opera star; Rico, on the surface at least, appears to fulfil Jefford’s formula. He undergoes extreme suffering (the flogging which, like Murphy’s death in RoboCop, resembles the Crucifixion),
he possesses the muscular body that suggests mythic heroism, and moves through a series of action scenes. However, Rico never suggests any of the individuality Jeffords suggests, or that was part of the Reaganite messaging. Rather he is a character devoid of individual drive, manipulated by others, and incapable of making decisions.
Rico’s actions during the film are responses to others, rather than from a drive of his own. He decides to enlist (partly due to his teacher Rasczak, partly peer pressure) then changes his mind after his parents promise him a holiday, then changes his mind again (Carmen being a big influence), only to decide to leave the Mobile Infantry when Carmen dumps him, via a videoed Dear John letter. Despite gaining swift promotion in the field, there is little to suggest Rico has great leadership skills – rather he simply has a great capacity for surviving. He orders another trainee to remove their helmet during a live-fire exercise, which leads to the trainee’s death, and later he is guided to find the surviving Carmen, unknowingly, by his psychic friend Carl suggesting he has the mental ability similar to Carl’s pet ferret (who was similarly manipulated in an earlier scene). It is perhaps no wonder that a Brain Bug never threatens Rico – it is unlikely it would find much to suck out. But of course, the sucking out of brains by the Bug mirrors the sucking out of brains by the fascist society. As Rico gets promoted we watch as he simply adopts the persona of his teacher/commander Rasczak, imitating his dialogue and behaviours. Here the hard-body ideal is rendered brainless, lobotomized by society rather than a bullet or a Leucotome – Verhoeven himself stated ‘I felt that the soldier characters were all idiots. They were all willing to die… because of the propaganda they had been fed.’[xii]
And the film offers us a parallel hard-body, that of the bugs – in many ways harder-bodied than the humans and their armour which appears to offer little to no protection from attack. Indeed, the film is consistently reminding us of the fragility of the human body, from the various characters showing amputations and prosthetics, to the many violent ways in which the bugs kills the humans (including various bisections and decapitations). Rico himself is believed dead for a time after his leg is pierced through by an Arachnid. The bugs however are still fragile, and the film shows us the many ways in which they can also be reduced to the mush inside the hard carapace. One early scene, set at high school, shows the various organs of one bug and Rico’s takedown of the Tanker Bug throws orange goo up into his face. The only soft Bug, provocatively, is the Brain Bug – a soft mass that ripples and undulates. Is it significant too that the highly intelligent, and psychic, Carl is one of the few characters not to be defined by muscularity and physical action?
The mushy fragility of human life is always present – no amount of hardening (in literal muscularity or metaphorical political philosophies) can hide that fact. What then of mastery, as Rico shows such little of this quality (in some ways the real hero of the film is Drill Sargeant Zim who captures the Brain Bug). Whereas the two previous films were subtler in subverting the hard-body ideal, Starship Troopers is more direct by suggesting the very ideal is empty, individuality a myth in this ultra-right wing society.
Part 4: Consider this a Divorce.
Robin Wood, in discussing the Horror film from the 1960s to 1970s, suggests the following:
Two elementary Freudian Theses: in a civilization founded on monogamy and the family, there will be an immense, hence very dangerous, surplus of sexual energy that will have to be repressed; what is repressed must always struggle to return, in however disguised and distorted form.[xiii]
For Wood the horror film brings forth, through analogy, that which is repressed. During the Reagan administration there was an emphasis on the return to traditional family values[xiv], with several action films of the era (such as the Lethal Weapon films and Die Hard) reflecting this concern. More generally the hard-body film is one that largely represses sex, with very few sexual relationships for the heroes. Verhoeven’s three films have great fun in unpicking this, by bringing forth the sort of psychosexual imagery usually sublimated or disavowed in such films – except, perhaps, when displaced into muscles and weaponry. Castration imagery recurs, not only in Robocop where it is quite literal, as we’ve discussed, but in Total Recall through Lori’s crotch based attempts to subdue Quaid, to the amputation of Richter’s arms. Various limb removals in Starship Troopers reflect this too. Other, more explicit and challenging, psychosexual images are also in play: the quasi-male-birth of Quato out of George’s body, the killing of Benny via drill and the typical Arnie quip ‘Screw You’; the Martian pyramid reactor can be seen as a feminine space of caverns, that gives out a life saving ejaculation of air at the film’s climax; the Phallic Spaceships of the Federation are assaulted by semen like spays of plasma; Rico’s vaginal leg wound is healed in an amniotic tank; more caverns appear in Starship Troopers and the Brain Bug itself, is a nightmare blend of vaginal orifice and penetrating, sucking, appendage (which we only see attack men).
Marriage, one of the core elements of the Reaganite revival, tied to his support from the Evangelical Christian Right, is subverted too – a ‘lost paradise’ for Murphy to which he cannot return, a burden for Quaid that limits him from indulging in his fantasy (and easily dispatched with the one-liner, ‘Consider this a divorce’), and it is not even on the cards in Starship Troopers, where Carmen happily moves between men as her career progresses, men and women shower together without a hint of sex and Rico fails to retain a romantic partner.
This use of psychosexual imagery and subversion of marriage is, I would suggest, part of Verhoeven’s critique of what he sees as the ‘puritan attitude in America’ – bringing forth the desires and ideas that such as an attitude must repress.
In conclusion, these three films take the hard-body concept and subvert and play with it – the body is deconstructed, wounded and lobotomized. The individuality the hard-body was supposed to connote is withdrawn, and with it a complete sense of mastery for the spectator, either personal or collective.
In RoboCop Verhoeven shows the hard-body as a corporate construct, the hero’s return to individuality undermined by his persistent programming. In Total Recall the ultimate hard-body star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is made elastic before a final lobotomy curtails the fantasy of being Arnold Schwarzenegger. And in Starship Troopers, perhaps the most thorough critique, the hard-body hero is the idiot soldier of a fascist republic, incapable of individual thought. Hard bodied perhaps, but mushy brained.
Arnsten A.F. (2009) Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nat Rev Neurosci. Jun;10(6):410-22. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907136/#:~:text=The%20prefrontal%20cortex%20(PFC)%E2%80%94,detrimental%20effects%20of%20stress%20exposure. [accessed 03 September 2023].
Ayres, Drew (2008). Bodies, Bullets, and Bad Guys: Elements of the Hard Body Film. Film Criticism. 32 (3), 41-67.
Cornea, Christine (2007). Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Ellis, John (1994). Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video. London: Routledge.
Glass, Fred (1990). Totally Recalling Arnold: Sex and Violence in the New Bad Future. Film Quarterly, 44 (1), pp. 2-13.
Jeffords, Susan (1993). Can Masculinity be Terminated?, in Cohan, S. & Hark, I.R. (eds.). Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema. London: Routledge, pp. 245-262.
Jeffords, Susan (1994). Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. Rutgers University Press: New Jersey.
Kac-Vergne, Marianne (2018). Masculinity in Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema: Cyborgs, Troopers and other Men of the Future. London: I.B. Taurus.
Keesey, Douglas (2005). Paul Verhoeven. Cologne: Taschen.
LaBruce, Bruce (2003). Paul Verhoeven. In (ed) Barton-Fumo, M. (2016) Paul Verhoeven: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Lebeau, Vicky (2019). Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Play of Shadows. Columbia University Press: New York
O’Brien, Harvey (2012). Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back. Wallflower Press: New York.
Ryan, Michael & Kellner, Douglas (1990). Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Shea, C. & Jennings, W. (1992) Paul Verhoeven: An Interview. In (ed) Barton-Fumo, M. (2016) Paul Verhoeven: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Tasker, Yvonne (1993). Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema. London: Routledge.
Telotte, J.P. (2001). Verhoeven, and the Problem of the Real: “Starship Troopers”. Literature/Film Quarterly. 29 (3), pp. 196-202.
van Scheers, Rob (1998). Paul Verhoeven. London: Faber & Faber.
[i] Jeffords (1994) 8-9.
[ii] Jeffords (1994) 11.
[iv] Jeffords (1994) 16.
[v] Ibid 28.
[vii] Cornea (2007) 136.
[viii] Fuery (2000) 15.
[x] Shea & Jennings (1992), in Barton-Fumo (ed) (2016), 75.
[xi] Cornea (2007) 172.
[xii] LaBruce (2003) 154.
[xiii] Wood (2018) 57.
[xiv] Jeffords (1994) 191.
Today sees the release of The Vigilante Thriller: Violence, Spectatorship and Identification in American Cinema, 1970-76 from Bloomsbury Academic.
This is a detailed examination of vigilantism in 1970s American film, from its humble niche beginnings as a response to relaxing censorship laws to its growth into a unique subgenre of its own. Cary Edwards explores the contextual factors leading to this new cycle of films ranging from Joe (1970) and The French Connection (1971) to Dirty Harry (1971)and Taxi Driver (1976), all of which have been challenged by contemporary critics for their gratuitous, copycat-inspiring violence. Yet close analysis of these films reveals a recurring focus on the emerging moral panic of the 1970s, a problematisation of Law and Order’s role in contemporary society, and an increasing awareness of the impossibility of American myths of identity.
There’s a book on the way… The Vigilante Thriller: Violence, Spectatorship and Identification in American Cinema, 1970-76 from Bloomsbury Academic is available for pre-order now for release on 21st April 2022.
Exploring the cycle of Vigilante films that occurred in the 1970s, The Vigilante Thriller explores the socio-political and cinematic backgrounds of the films (including Dirty Harry, Death Wish and Taxi Driver) before analysing the spectator’s relationship to these transgressive texts.
In 1967 Stanley Fish published a seminal work that reconceptualised the understanding of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Seduced by Sin Fish argued that the true subject of Paradise Lost was not Satan, or Adam and Eve, but the reader himself who, through the epic poem’s structure and use of recognisable narrative forms (Satan’s heroic journey being patterned on The Odyssey and The Aeneid), experiences his own fall. For Fish the reader is “confronted with evidence of his corruption” (1967, ixxii) when he realises his seduction by Satan’s heroic narrative and should, by the end of the work, come to realise his own temptations and spiritual limitations, becoming a sort of guilty reader who develops an understanding of the limits of his own spirituality.
At first glance a 17th Century English poetic work seems to have little in common with Death Wish, a film that has long been neglected by serious critics despite its box-office success and evident influence on cinema (arguably starting a whole sub-genre of vigilante/revenge films which continues to this day, with a 2018 re-make). Indeed Death Wish was received with outright hostility by most main-stream critics in the US and UK, and still exists as a sort of by-word for violent exploitative film – happily referenced during real-life crimes, such as those of Bernie Goetz in 1984, by lazy journalists.
On its release Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, called it
a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers
in July 1974, returning in August to decry its popularity with “law-and-order fanatics, sadists, muggers, club women, fathers, older sisters, masochists, policemen, politicians, and, it seems, a number of film critics”. Roger Ebert denounced it as “propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice”, and Richard Schickel called it “vicious”. Judy Klemersud was sent by The New York Times to answer the question “What do They See in ‘Death Wish’?”, noticing how audiences cheered when Bronson (as the audience identified him, not his character Paul Kersey) gunned down muggers, and confessing that she too found herself, much to her shame, “applauding several times.” A clear characterisation of the film and its audience emerged, but if it was intended to warn away movie-goers it failed as the film took over £20 million in the US on a budget of $3million (Talbot 2006, 8).
But what if there’s something more complex at work in Death Wish? What if we can take Fish’s ideas about the reader in Paradise Lost and apply them to a film written off as exploitation? What emerges is a film much more complicated than previously assumed – one that tempts the spectator into identification with a psychotic protagonist, forcing them to reflect on their own sense of law, order and justice and the lure of simplistic answers to complicated problems.
Use of Myth & Genre
Many critics have perceived Death Wish as a sort of “urban Western”, an attempt to relocate the form to a more relevant setting, taking account of the demythologising of the genre that occurred through the 1960s and the early 1970s (through the Spaghetti Westerns and revisionist films such as Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970)). There is much on the surface that makes this suggestion appealing; Death Wish repeatedly references the codes of law and order represented in the Western, most notably in Paul Kersey’s journey to Tucson where his is schooled in “the old American tradition of self-defence” by Aimes Jainchill, the sort of man who carries a gun openly and has bull horns on his car. The casting of Bronson as Kersey, who came to fame in The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) and cemented his association with the genre in Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), furthers this, lending the theory some pertinence which is helped by the film’s direction.
Winner directs the film in a traditional Hollywood style (despite his English nationality), eschewing the experiments of form that characterise the New Hollywood period when the film was produced. Indeed one could quite happily label his work as heavy handed, if efficient in covering ground quickly. Generally speaking, except in the infamous rape scene, Winner avoids using subjective techniques, instead allowing the spectator to remain distanced from the action, watching it unfold rather than being in the centre of it. This lends the film a sort of comfort in its spectating position, as does the use of genre tropes from the Western, helping to put the spectator at their ease.
When Kersey’s wife and daughter are attacked the attacker’s behaviour can easily be compared to that of the “Red Indians” in any of the multitude of Westerns audiences had familiarised themselves with through film and television during the past decades.
Much of the initial critical opprobrium directed at the film stemmed from the rape scene and Winner directs it to cause maximum offence and impact – the effect of this is two-fold. First it brings to life the implicit rape threat that was contained in many Westerns for a modern audience more accustomed to such images by films such as A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) and Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971), but also it’s critical for the rest of the film that the crime be sufficiently disturbing that Kersey’s reaction to it seems, on the surface at least, reasonable. From this Kersey’s rediscovery of a Western code of justice follows, with the crime fitting that code – it is after all his “women-folk” who have been attacked in his urban “home-stead” (his wife is killed, the daughter is left in a vegetative state, conveniently unable to voice her own views).
Underpinning the Western genre is a binary opposition between the Wilderness and Civilization, the former a male environment in which the hero belonged, versus the feminizing force of the latter and Death Wish plays with this suggesting that the feminising power of civilization has left Kersey unable to protect his family, and the authorities impotent in the face of crime. Such a philosophy is espoused by Jainchill during the Tuscon segment, where the wide open spaces are contrasted to the dark alleys of New York. Here Kersey witnesses a Wild West show, an artificial and corny representation that beguiles him. Here he discovers a simple answer to New York’s crime problems – the good man versus the bad man.
There is no doubting the seriousness of crime, and especially mugging, during the 1970s so one can assume a certain pre-existing sympathy on behalf of the spectator, especially as they had paid to see a film in which the advertising campaign had highlighted the controversial elements (the tag-line read “Vigilante, city style – judge, jury and executioner”). But the film goes further in seducing the audience towards being sympathetic to Kersey by surrounding his actions with supporters and suggestions that his acts would have a significant impact on crime (the DA claiming a reduction in mugging from 950 per week to 470). The representation of the media within the film, complete with Western inspired imagery such as a noose and the headline “Frontier Justice in the Streets” on the cover of Harper’s, serves to cement this. A consistent narrative of Kersey’s effectiveness is built up – so much that it inspires other New Yorkers to defend themselves (such as Alma Lee Brown, seen in a TV news report, defending herself with a hat-pin).
These elements, alongside the comforting familiarity of the Western model, invite the spectator to align more closely with Kersey as the film continues, as does the comparison provided by Kersey’s ineffectual son-in-law and the scenes in which Kersey is confronted by a police force unable to catch his wife & daughter’s attackers. Having primed us in Tuscon the film returns to New York where Kersey starts acting out his new found sense of law and order, imaging himself to be the lawman of myth.
Kersey’s first act of violence is in self-defence (using a sock filled with a roll of coins), his second (this time with the revolver given to him by Jainchill) saves a man from being mugged. These actions fit within the narrative conventions of the Western, ideas of self-defence or helping the defenceless. They may be the acts of a vigilante, but they retain a certain sympathy, especially as Kersey reacts traumatically (vomiting after the first instance).
From then on Kersey’s actions become more sinister: he begins riding the Subway miles away from home waiting for someone to attack. He cruises the parks with no intent to look for people to save, rather he deliberately makes himself a target, enticing attackers by placing himself in vulnerable positions. And he begins to enjoy it. At home he surrounds himself with the newspapers and magazines that detail his exploits, watching the news reports that validate his actions with a broad smile on his face. He has moved well beyond the desire to protect himself and, of course, he has spent no time at all searching for those who harmed his family. It’s an often neglected detail, but a key one;
Death Wish is not a film about vengeance, at least not in a direct sense. Although the attack on his wife and daughter instigates a change in how Kersey views the world, none of his subsequent acts are directed towards punishing those responsible.
To have done so would have more easily placed Kersey into a pre-existing narrative schema, recognisable from films such as The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), but the film simply elides its way past this point and takes the spectator with it. We have the justification for Kersey’s crusade, but by omitting a direct vengeance against the criminals responsible the film moves slowly away from expectations towards something more complex and troubling. By the time Kersey is shooting men in the back, about as far from the Western code as you can get, the spectator is positioned so as not to notice the departure from expectations.
Revealing the Truth
On reflection cracks in this world appear early, indeed even in the opening prologue (added by Winner, and not present in the original novel by Brian Garfield) in which Kersey and his Wife enjoy a holiday. Ostensibly included to increase the tragedy that follows and to draw a direct comparison with the Hellish New York that follows, Hawaii is represented as an Edenic space, a land of plenty. However anyone with a cursory knowledge of crime on the islands can recognise this image as a sham, the resort an artifice behind which lies high levels of violent crime and drug-use. This effectively preys on our understandings of binary oppositions, the calm pastoral idyll as opposed to the degradations of civilization – however this Eden is so obviously false, as is the world of Tucson presented later which Kersey is so beguiled by. The Wild West show, from which Kersey draws inspiration, is over the top, a tired rehash of clichés for children and tourists in which the gun shots and deaths are clearly fake. Jainchill himself is an over the top caricature. Winner gently suggests to us here that the world that Kersey identifies with is a sham in itself; what values can possibly be drawn from it?
Alone in the film, as a voice of reason, is Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) edging towards the only logical conclusion about Paul Kersey: that he has become a serial killer. Ochoa provides an alternative protagonist in the film, but he is drawn to be uninspiring, a man of stubby cigars and crumpled coat, stuck with a permanent cold, as if crime was a literal disease. In a different edit of the film one could imagine Ochoa becoming the hero, tracking down Kersey the killer, but this would remove the growing moral complexity from the film, cemented when Ochoa tells Kersey to leave New York.
What of Kersey at this point? He has descended into a psychotic state, believing himself to be a lawman in the Old West; of course his targets aren’t the Native Americans of the films, or the bad men in black hats, but young urban men whose lives can only be hinted at.
During the final confrontation the young black man Kersey has chased and cornered can only be confused by the demand to “Draw” and “Fill your hand” – codes utterly inaccessible and irrelevant to someone who had previously exhorted Kersey to “Come on down, Mother Fucker”.
When confronted by Ochoa Kersey inquires if he has to leave town “by sundown?” Slowly, but inexorably, through the film, Kersey has bought into his own fantasies of law and order, coming to see himself as the hero of the West, but moving on to being someone who cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy.
During the final moments of Death Wish Paul Kersey arrives in Chicago and, having disembarked from his train, is confronted by the sight of a gang of young men harassing a woman. As Kersey helps the woman recover the belongings that have been scattered over the floor he turns to the young men and forms his fingers into a gun shape, smiling broadly. But look at that shot again and you can see that the finger, ostensibly aimed at the young men, is pointing straight at us. It’s an image that reaches all the way back to 1903 and the first Western, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which, as the legend goes, had the audience ducking under their seats with its final image of a bandit shooting straight towards the camera. The image has been remade, but the implication is the same – you’re next. The modern audience of course considers itself too sophisticated to duck their heads at such an image, but have they been too sophisticated to be seduced by Death Wish?
Through its use of familiar tropes and structures Death Wish plays out a tempting fantasy, one of easy answers to complicated questions. But rather than simply endorse Paul Kersey the film turns to the spectator and asks whether they too have been drawn in to this fantasy – a fantasy in which complex problems of urban degradation are made into narratives of good men versus bad men. The subtle hints that pepper the narrative, undermining its representations, point to a question for the spectator – are they too to be seduced like the Kersey’s many supporters in the city? As he turns to the camera in the final seconds Bronson reveals the film’s trick – a gothca moment designed to entrap us.
Just as Fish suggests regards Paradise Lost, the real subject of Death Wish is the audience. The question it asks them: are you conscious enough to see your own temptations?
Ebert, Roger (1974) Death Wish. Chicago Sun Times. [online] http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/death-wish-1974 [accessed 10 September 2017]
Fish, Stanley (1967) Seduced by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Gilliat, Penelope (1974) Death Wish. New Yorker Magazine. 26 August.
Klemersrud, Judy (1974) What do They See in Death Wish? The New York Times. 01 September.
Schickel, Richard (1974) Mug Shooting. Time. 19 August.
Talbot, Paul (2006) Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films. Lincoln: iUniverse
This paper was originally presented to London Film & Media 2011, and published in The London Film and Media Reader 1.
The Vigilante Thriller
This essay considers the condemnatory and heavily ideological critical reactions to a cycle of US vigilante thrillers from the 1970s. The cycle includes Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971), The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971), Dirty Harry (Siegel, 1971), Death Wish (Winner, 1974) and Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976). A common accusation was that the films were ‘fascist’, made by ‘fascists’, or liable to encourage ‘fascism’ in the film audience. This was not a label that was necessarily rejected by all the film-makers – certainly Sam Peckinpah enjoyed baiting reviewers and interviewers with a series of abrasive, and often, contradictory statements – but the consistency of this criticism highlights an anxiety in the critical reactions about the meanings of these films and, on closer inspection, the meanings of the violence they portray.
Although the critical writings are an important reaction to the texts, discourse analysis reveals a series of inconsistencies and contradictions in their assumptions about the ways in which a film can be watched. Rather than relying on these critical responses alone to guide us in terms of spectator reaction, we should instead be analysing what Ellis terms the ‘narrative image’,
“an idea of the film [that] is widely circulated and promoted … the cinema industry’s anticipatory reply to the question ‘what is this film like?’” 1
It is important to investigate how this element of para-text fixes, or aims to fix, the spectator’s experience, since the narrative image is also essential in fixing the modality of the film text. Following Hodge and Tripp, ‘modality’ is being used here in the sense that it “concerns the reality attributed to a message.”2
This has specific implications for the reception of film violence, and it is the understanding of violence that I wish to concentrate on in this essay. These distinctions were missed by contemporary critics, who ignored the concept of modality, tended to see film violence as a singular issue, and recycled basic tropes about the effect that film violence might have on the audience. Despite the consistency of the critical reaction to these films, the narrative image of each film suggests a range of spectator positions. The desire to elide these films on the part of contemporary critics, on the other hand, signals a wish to simplify the spectator experience and ignores the shifting relationship that a spectator can have in relation to several connected but different texts.
Critical Reactions: The Politics of Violence
Even a cursory glance at the American and British popular press reaction to these films reveals two central concerns, both of which are linked to the possible effect of the films on the audience and the wider implications for society. The first concern, highlighted more by the American critics than the British, is the suggestion that these films convey and promote a fascist sensibility. The second concern, which is present on both sides of the Atlantic, concerns the portrayal of violence. This is often linked to a perceived increase in the amount of violence being portrayed in film, the explicitness of the violence, and the sense that the films in question encourage the spectator in turn to be violent.
Pauline Kael’s critical reaction to the films exemplifies the general tone of the reviews. For Kael, Straw Dogs is a “fascist work of art”3 that presents the “triumph of a superior man”. Dirty Harry is a “right wing fantasy” that attacks “liberal values” and draws out the “fascist potential” of its genre4. The French Connection, for its part, features “the latest model sadistic cop”5. Gareth Epps draws wider conclusions from Straw Dogs, The French Connection and Dirty Harry such as
“it has been obvious for a long time that American filmmakers are unable to deal with the politics of the left in any recognizable way”6 .
These films, he suggests, are symptomatic of a wider right-wing tendency in Hollywood. He adds that “recent American films have begun to show a frightening sophistication in at least one area of politics – the half-world of sadism and authoritarianism which is the breeding ground of the fascist mentality”. The accusation that the films are characterised by ‘fascist’ ideology betrays an anxiety in the reviewers towards the shifting political landscape in America through the 1960s and into the 1970s.
The effects of the Vietnam War on the collective American consciousness cannot, of course, be ignored. However the shifts in civil rights movements, crime and policing are also important here. The elements that were picked out from these films and directly linked to fascism included the representations of masculinity, race and violence. From a didactic point of view, however – and many of these reviews and reactions were written in a didactic mode – there is a recurrent flaw, namely an inability to define exactly what fascism is. Its recurrent use as a blanket term in reaction to these films shows a remarkable inconsistency in its application, and also a sense that the word is being used as a short-cut, a way of marking a text as unacceptable, with no underlying understand of the word and its political/philosophical application.
Critical Reactions: Violence and Spectatorship
If fascism is one recurrent way of condemning these films, the other anxiety that emerges is the meanings and implications of violence in the films. As has been noted elsewhere, the depiction of violence in American cinema changed radically in the 1960s and 70s. There are various reasons for this, including the influence of non-American films, and the eventual dissolution of the Hays code. More important perhaps was the shift in the representation of violence on television where, from the shooting of LeeHarvey Oswald by Jack Ruby to the reports from the front line in Vietnam, violence was being shown more often and more explicitly.
Of course this form of violence, presented in news programmes, has an inherently high modality despite its mediated nature. In this atmosphere of a shifting depiction of violence, combined with a greater perception of violence in society through rising crime rates and civil unrest, the implications of watching – and more importantly enjoying – film violence became a point of anxiety for contemporary critics. The reviews of Taxi Driver generally avoided the same ideological criticism as the other films and one wonders if this is linked to the potential audience for such a film. Kael suggests, in reviewing The French Connection, that
“Audiences for these movies in the Times Square area and the Village are highly volatile. Probably the unstable, often dazed members of the audience are particularly susceptible to the violence and tension on the screen”7.
It is clear that a strain of elitism has entered the critical reaction here.
The New York Times felt the need to send reporter Judy Klemesrud to a theatre to gauge reaction to Death Wish, asking “What do they see in ‘Death Wish’?”. Klemesrud interviewed audience members and “Three mental health professionals” in the course of her quest.8 I think it’s important here to highlight the suggested opposition in that headline – “they” are clearly not “us”, “us” referring to those sophisticated enough to read the New York Times. Across many reviews and articles on both sides of the Atlantic there is a clear fear concerning the possible impact of a text on a supposedly less sophisticated audience.
These reactions were not without their contradictions. Charles Barr, for instance, noted the differences between the British critical reaction to Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971). 9 His conclusion, that the reaction differed because of the way in which violence was presented by each film – for example, by the use of telephoto lenses in Straw Dogs compared to the use of wide angle lenses in A Clockwork Orange – signals the inconsistency in the criticism of films marked as violent.
Stylistic distinctions are then critical, Barr argues, for understanding the ways in which the films operate: Minute-for-minute, A Clockwork Orange contains more instances of violence than Straw Dogs, but Straw Dogs does not allow the spectator the luxury of remaining distant through the use of the wide-angle lens. The fear of what Straw Dogs implied for cinema and the audience nonetheless moved thirteen British critics to write to The Times to decry the film’s certification, expressing their “revulsion” at the film and its marketing.10 In other reactions we see a clear perceived link between the film text and possible audience reaction (The Guardian, for example, felt strongly enough to send a reporter to New York to examine how Death Wish was inspiring American traditions of gun ownership).
The underlying fear in many of the critical reactions was that the audience, having watched the film, would themselves become vigilantes. That the critics themselves didn’t burst out of auditoria and beat up some muggers seems to have escaped their attention. Moving away from the discourse concerning the supposed effects of film violence we also encounter an inconsistency among critics to accurately differentiate between different types of violence, an inability to recognise the difference between the nature of the act being represented, and the method of its representation.
Modality and Narrative Image
The elision that the contemporary critics made between these films ignores the importance of the narrative image in conditioning the modality of the spectator’s engagement. Even if we acknowledge the polysemic nature of film texts and their para-texts, dominant themes from the marketing of the films suggest ways in which the spectator is primed to watch and respond to a text. The narrative image tells us the frame of mind in which a spectator receives a film; this in turn suggests a level of modality in which the spectator will receive the film violence. To suggest that all film violence can be measured the same way is to ignore the differing modalities of films. In short, not all film violence is equal.
The decision the spectator makes about whether to watch a film will often rest on several factors. One of the key elements is the marketing and promotional material of the film. When examining these for each film we see that they suggest several different ways in which to receive and understand the violence of the films, something typically ignored by the critics. We may thus conceive of the spectator as having a personal and private relationship with a film that takes place within the cinema, but we should also acknowledge that the spectator’s experience of the film begins with several para-textual factors that help condition their subsequent experience.
Take, for instance, the use of violence in the poster imagery for the films. Straw Dogs, whose central image is a close-up of Dustin Hoffman with one lens of his glasses broken, signals violence, but also the effect of violence on the protagonist. The French Connection uses a still of ‘Popeye’ Doyle shooting a suspect in the back as its main image. Dirty Harry concentrates on the persona of Clint Eastwood (but also the duality between the two main characters), while Death Wish uses the image of Charles Bronson. Taxi Driver’s central image, of a lost and isolated Travis Bickle posed in front of a New York street scene locates an alienated figure in a world of degradation.
This image for Taxi Driver places the spectator in a very different relationship to the violence of the text than the other posters. By not signalling the violence but concentrating on the alienation of the protagonist (in effect hiding the violence), the poster prepares us for a film where acts of violence, when they do occur, have greater weight. The casting of De Niro (still relatively unknown at this point and thus ‘absorbed’ by his role in the film), and the setting of the film in real areas of New York, confer a high modality.
This is reinforced by the presentation of the violence in the film. This is not expected in the same way as in an Eastwood or Bronson film, where violence is an inherent part of the experience. Indeed the marketing of both Dirty Harry and Death Wish so connects the characters to their actors as to create a direct intertextual link to their other films. In these circumstances film violence becomes a ritualised part of the cinematic experience. The French Connection, however, with its concentration on reality, linked to the oft-repeated information that the film was based on real events, suggests a higher modality for the film violence which it contains.
We are watching here a reproduction of real violence, not the heightened and stylised violence of an Eastwood or Bronson film. The ritualisation in Dirty Harry and Death Wish confers a lower modality on the violence, which has become part of the expected generic formula of the text, an inevitable and unsurprising element. Through its enigmatic title and ambiguous central image, on the other hand, Straw Dogs denies the spectator a secure sense of how violence will operate in the film.
The explicitness (or lack) of generic context creates other issues here. It has been noted, for instance, that both Dirty Harry and Death Wish bear relation to the Western film, in casting (the stars of both had previously appeared in successful Westerns), iconography and structure. Perhaps the relocation of the generic elements to a modern day location, stripping away the mythic trappings of the narrative, creates this discomfort around the violence.
The recognition of Western genre conventions in the narratives of Dirty Harry and Death Wish may confer a different level of modality than a film such as Taxi Driver, which has a less clear generic definition. The ritual of genre, the procession of structural and iconic elements, reminds the audience that what they are watching is a structured creation – when it runs true to form, the text offers much reassurance but little by way of surprise. This, I would propose, effectively lowers the modality.
Too often film violence is taken out of the context of reception. Film violence occurs within several frameworks, including the textual implications of narrative and genre. The narrative image of a film is explicit in its attempts to set up these elements for the spectator. Thus the debate about film violence should be embedded in not only the referential and aesthetic components of film violence, but also in analysis of the place that violence has within the contextual, paratextual and textual experience of the film. For contemporary critics of these films however, socio-political concerns of the day outweighed the specifics of the textual/para-textual experience.
Notes and References
1 John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video, London: Routledge, 1982, p. 30.
2 Bob Hodge and David Tripp, Children and Television, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1986, p. 104.
3 Pauline Kael, Deeper into Movies: The Essential Collection, from ‘69 to ’72, London: Marion Boyars, 1975, p. 398.
4 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 385.
5 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 316
6 Gareth Epps, ‘Does Popeye Doyle Teach Us How to be Fascist?’, The New York Times, 22 May 1972, II:15, p. 1.
7 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 316.
8 Judy Klemesrud, ‘What do they see in Death Wish?’, New York Times, 1 September 1974, II:1, p. 5.
9 Charles Barr, ‘Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics’, Screen, vol. 3 no. 2, 1972, p. 23.
10 Fergus Cashin, John Coleman, N. Hibbin, Margaret Hinxman, Derek Malcom, George Melly, T. Palmer, J. Plowright, Dilys Powell, David Robinson, John Russell Taylor, Arthur Thinkell, and Alexander Walker, ‘From Mr. Fergus Cashin and Others”, The Times, 17 December 1971.