Do violent films shape or reflect?

To what extent do Americans' views about retaliation, revenge, and warfare come more from decades of popular entertainment rather than from sustained reflections on history and morality?

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Hollywood is scrambling to regain its balance in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's thriller "Collateral Damage" has been postponed by Warner Bros. and may never reach the screen. "Men in Black 2," a sequel to the 1997 comedy, is being rewritten to eliminate a World Trade Center climax.

"Big Trouble," a Barry Sonnenfeld production, has been bumped from Disney's slate until its key plot element - a nuclear bomb in a suitcase headed for a plane - might seem more palatable.

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And so on, reflecting current anxieties over terrorism and related evils of violence and destruction. Sony has even pulled posters and coming-attractions trailers for "Spider-Man" because they show New York's twin towers reflected in the hero's eyes.

These adjustments make economic sense, and they show moral concern as well. But two larger questions loom:

• Are such maneuvers only cosmetic, to be reversed as public spirits rise in coming months?

• Could it be that Hollywood's long habit of drawing entertainment value from violence and destruction has helped shape Americans' immediate reaction to the Sept. 11 events - and may also influence ideas about how their country should respond to its actual and perceived enemies?

The answer to the first question is probably yes. Moviegoers may avoid films about political assassinations or towering infernos in the direct aftermath of similar real-life tragedies, but such qualms are quickly forgotten. "It would be insensitive to release such movies now," a studio executive told The Hollywood Reporter after the World Trade Center crumbled, but added, "if movies are to reflect life, they have to reflect the life that's out there." Audiences tend to share this attitude.

More troubling is the thought that public views of retaliation, revenge, and warfare may come more from decades of popular entertainment than from sustained reflections on history and morality.

For every film like "Gandhi," which takes a serious look at nonviolence and spiritually guided thinking, there are hundreds of movies that present war-related fear, hatred, and aggression as inevitable - indeed, thrilling - aspects of the human condition.

This pattern rarely causes much concern among moviegoers or pundits. It's ingrained enough to go largely unquestioned.

Moreover, screen violence is often wrapped in a cloak of historical realism or patriotic virtue. In a list of six "patriotic" films that "capture America at its best," recently posted by a Hollywood.com writer, fully half are movies about war: "The Patriot," one of Mel Gibson's conspicuously violent epics; "Saving Private Ryan," which blends battlefield horror with guts-and-glory clichés; and a picture from the '70s, the Pearl Harbor epic "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

Films that address terrorism directly can be even more disturbing than ordinary war movies, because Hollywood usually treats this topic in simplistic ways.

Consider last year's "Rules of Engagement," with Tommy Lee Jones as a military lawyer defending a Marine officer (Samuel L. Jackson) charged with the wrongful deaths of Yemeni protesters. The film portrays the officer's prosecutors as bleeding-heart wimps and the Arab demonstrators as "vicious, wild-eyed maniacs," in the words of Film.com critic Peter Brunette, who calls this a movie of "deep immorality" that illustrates the presence of ideological bias in supposedly "harmless" entertainment.

Films presenting such shallow perspectives don't just convey misleading impressions of complicated issues. They also paint skewed portraits of racial and ethnic populations that average moviegoers don't happen to identify with.

There's nothing in the nature of cinema that makes this inevitable, and occasional pictures by truly thoughtful filmmakers belie the notion that superficial views are all the screen is capable of giving.

Richard Peña, program director for New York's influential Film Society of Lincoln Center, demonstrates this point by contrasting "Rules of Engagement" with Gillo Pontecorvo's drama "The Battle of Algiers," an Italian movie about terrorism that earned three Academy Award nominations after its release in 1965.

"Here, both sides, French and Algerian, are depicted in a very humane, perceptive manner," Mr. Peña notes. "Neither side is composed of monsters, yet each side in the film will commit monstrous acts. The pain and suffering, as well as the reasoning behind war, are addressed."

By contrast, Peña continues, "Rules of Engagement" shows the Arab masses as "simply wild fanatics, protesting nothing we know about ... and carrying [deadly weapons] under their flowing robes. Films like this certainly make it easier for Americans to contemplate wiping out similarly faceless crowds. So terrorism has become defined as simply an evil that needs no explanation - a perfect villain, much as communists were or Nazis still are."

To be sure, some films deal responsibly with terrorism, war, and related problems. Iran has produced several fine movies about Afghanis driven from their nation by violent events. The latest is Majid Majidi's fable-like "Baran," about a refugee who becomes a laborer in Teheran.

American filmmakers can make intelligent contributions, too. Examples include "Three Kings," with George Clooney as a cynical soldier fighting the Persian Gulf war, and "Apocalypse Now Redux," about an American soldier who engenders terror amid Vietnam's chaos. "The Siege" angered some with its antagonistic depiction of Arab terrorists, but it also provided a stark warning of how overreaction could endanger America's civil liberties.

Still, it remains true that Hollywood frequently chooses simplicity over complexity and emotions over ideas.

Why should this be so? One answer is studio tradition, dating back to an era when the film industry's own Production Code encouraged stories heavy with overripe feelings but light on analysis and insight.

A more far-reaching approach to this question suggests more deeply rooted problems, however. Violence of sundry kinds - among individuals, among communities, among nationalities and races - has become a cinematic staple because it fills the screen with action, adventure, and the eye-popping spectacle that promises box-office profits. Hollywood has escalated its reliance on graphic strife and conflict in order to retain increasingly jaded audiences.

Contributing to this tendency is the veneration of material abundance in today's money-driven world. The impulse that has led architects to build cities full of flamboyant skyscrapers is similar to the impulse that leads Hollywood to ever-larger productions with increasingly sensationalistic content.

Apart from their profitability for producers, simplified treatments of disturbing topics give audiences a feeling of togetherness in a world that's sometimes too scattered and confusing for comfort. This can have a calming effect, but it can also promote negative attitudes of prejudice and xenophobia.

"In order to have a sense of identity, you need something to define yourself against," says Mikita Brottman, a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, who has written extensively on film violence.

"This helps us know who we are and what we stand for," she continues, "especially when we put these feelings into narratives we can all understand."

Stories like TV's "The X-Files" also have appeal because they give us a sense of dark forces and conspiracies - mysterious, but also comforting because they bring order to what might seem random or chaotic.

"TV coverage of the World Trade Center and many disaster films thrive on this. But seeing terrorists or Arabs or Muslims as evil, motiveless aliens is a way of avoiding the responsibility to understand them," Professor Brottman says.

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