In the movies, extreme violence has always been controversial, although standards for what’s considered shocking or offensive have changed drastically over the years. Today, on-screen violence has escalated considerably, and it’s far different from the sanitized, mostly suggestive content of cinema’s early days. The following films — from the late 1960s and early 1970s — are milestones of provocation. Check back next week for a look at the movies that pushed the envelope even further into the new century.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Director Arthur Penn’s landmark film redefined and romanticized the gangster genre, not to mention on-screen depictions of violence. Widely denounced by reviewers for glamorizing its attractive, Depression-era killers (portrayed by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty), the movie culminates in a graphic bullet-ridden ambush often referred to as a slow-motion “ballet of death.” If the initial reactions of the critics were negative, the reassessments shortly thereafter were highly glowing: critical acclaim, a Time magazine cover story, a re-release with advertising that stressed its artistic merit, a huge box-office take, and ten Academy Award nominations.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Robert Aldrich’s highly-popular gritty, macho war pic is built on an anti-Establishment premise that rapists, murderers, and sadistic misfits can be trained to be kill-crazy, “dirty” commandos for a suicidal mission behind enemy lines against the Nazis. The nihilistic film was released during the summer of ’67 — coinciding with a series of race riots in numerous American cities, and increasing protests against the Vietnam War. Reviewers labeled the film as irresponsible, unrestrained, and revolting since it appeared to celebrate war and erase the line between “good guys” and “bad guys,” particularly in the finale: A mass death scene in which an underground bunker filled with German generals and innocent civilians is blown up with a combination of live grenades and gasoline.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Director/co-writer Sam Peckinpah’s breakthrough Western earned him the nickname of “Bloody Sam” thanks to its over-the-top brutality and orgiastic carnage. This much-imitated film is book-ended by two extraordinary sequences, both shoot-out massacres with cinematically visceral, intense blood-letting. Each scene is as choreographed as a dance with semi-slow-motion bodies spurting blood while being torn apart by bullets (from implanted explosive squibs). The multiple cameras and montage editing make these scenes as aesthetically breathtaking as they are disturbing.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s randomly ultra-violent masterpiece of the near future was hotly debated when first released. Some praised it for its stylization and satire; others objected to its bleak outlook and pairing of comedy with violence. The protagonist, a juvenile delinquent named Alex (Malcolm McDowell), is forced to endure aversion therapy by watching scenes of violent films while drugged to induce nausea, but its two rape sequences, set to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie and Singin’ in the Rain, are what incited the most anger. Copycat crimes in the UK led to the movie’s withdrawal from circulation there.
Dirty Harry (1971)
Director Don Siegel’s sensationalist police drama centers on the lawbreaking tactics of San Francisco Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in his fight against urban crime; the title character’s “take-no-prisoners” approach ignores criminal rights in order to restore public order. As a result, Siegel was accused of encouraging audiences to empathetically identify with a fascist, anarchic, unrestrained vigilante who kills in the name of the law.
Straw Dogs (1971)
Sam Peckinpah’s disturbing movie further fanned the flames of controversy with its depictions of misogynistic sexual abuse in the early ’70s. After a graphic double rape of the wife (Susan George) of an American mathematician (Dustin Hoffman), the enraged husband goes on a redemptive yet unsatisfying homicidal rampage that climaxes with a stunningly barbaric ending that can be interpreted to endorse vigilantism of the most horrific sort.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Wes Craven’s debut feature film was this low-budget, crude, taboo-breaking and often revolting ‘snuff’-type horror film. Two teenaged girls were brutally and sadistically tortured (including chest-carving with a knife), forced to have sex with each other, raped, disemboweled (with bloody intestines pulled out), and eventually murdered in the woods. It was intensely criticized for its graphic depiction of violence and disquieting, exploitative nature, which the film tried to defuse by claiming: “It’s only a movie.”
Check back next week as Tim Dirks surveys more movies that continued to challenge critics and audiences alike with their depictions of violence on the big screen.
Tim Dirks is Senior Editor and Film Historian at AMC, an educator
and film buff who originally created the landmark, award-winning Filmsite.org
(Greatest Films) in the mid-1990s and continues to write original
reviews and features spanning all the years of cinematic history.