Violence has always been present in cinema. All the way back to the 1890s. The short novelty film, “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” (1895) is nothing more than a (fake) beheading on screen. When the production code came about in the 1930s, violence was toned down a bit, although not nearly as much as sexuality which I will discuss at length in a future article. Prior to the production code you could get away with blood. There was never a lot of it, but it was present. During the latter half of the 30s and straight through until the late 60s, you almost never see blood on screen. If you do, it’s very contained and fleeting.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Filmmakers had to think of new ways to tell the same story. The best way to do it? Force the audience to imagine the violence instead of showing it to them. Filmmakers still do it today, although not nearly as much as I think they should.
However, before we get into on-screen vs. off-screen violence, let’s first look at how it is portrayed. In the past, violence was usually played up theatrically or just avoided. Watch a film from before the 1960s and you will see what I am talking about. Someone gets shot and they stumble around holding the wound before falling to their ultimate death in a grand finish. How theatrical. That kind of acting works on stage, not so much on screen. It creates this shield for the audience. In its own way, it masks the reality of real violence. It masks just how horrible it is. The more realistic we depict it the more people will realize how horrible it can be.
Back to the off-screen vs. on-screen violence debate. I will start by saying that I believe you can show violence on screen. I don’t see any issues with it as long as it is done within good taste and within the confines of the story. Obviously a war film is going to have a lot of it, and even a crime film. Some of my favorite films have some pretty graphic on-screen violence. It doesn’t bother me until it gets gratuitous; until it borders on the ridiculous. Is it really necessary to have non-stop violence in a film? Is it really necessary for a horror film to have excessive violence? That’s not scary, it’s just repulsive. Is there a point to lingering on an act of violence for longer than a few seconds? I’ll let one extended scene pass, but multiple in quick succession? I’m not so sure.
I believe there is a way to depict on-screen violence correctly. I believe you can have graphic violence in cinema. However, if you just put graphic violence in a film for no reason, or you just have so much I am left wondering why I’m even watching the film, you probably did something wrong. I want to enjoy a film not be repulsed by it.
Off-screen violence, on the other hand, can be just as effective if done right. Our imaginations conjure up worse images than any filmmaker could possibly put on screen. The filmmaker can make us think we saw something when, in fact, we didn’t. Just because you can show something doesn’t mean you necessarily should.