Faith, Film, and Philosophy: Violence and Peace

In my last post I called into question the legitimacy of viewing shows like Game of Thrones and films like Deadpool because of their potentially subversive effects on our way of thinking or worldview. As I noted in that post, we expect an argument when we go to a debate and we, thus, marshall our defenses. The cinema, however, elicits a different reaction. We go to the movies to be entertained not to analyze messages. As such our defenses are not up, we are not ready for what is coming at us. Films and shows that go too far in their messages (i.e. Thirteen Reasons) tend to be spotted and railed against in blogs and print media. However, others enrapture us with a story that smuggles in a message about identity (who you are), life (what is this thing we experience), love (what is it and how to show it), meaning (where do I get meaning and what makes life important), and metaphysics (what exists or doesn’t exist beyond the material world).

In this post I want to turn attention back to the issue of violence. It seems to me that the world is growing increasingly violent, increasingly combative in the way it views all else. This trend was epitomized with “comedian” Kathy Griffin posted an image of herself holding a mock-up of a President Donald Trump’s severed head. Intended as a joke, the image was universally condemn, even by fellow CNN personality Anderson Cooper. While the image was condemned it was not a vocal enough to stop the attempted murder of several Republican congressional seat-holders and staffers while they were warming up for an intramural softball game. The shooter was a former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer, while it is too far to blame Senator Sanders for the shooting, one could hardly fault a true believer for thinking that violence was necessary given Sanders’ campaign rhetoric. Not to pick on the left though, could the tables not have been turned if Hillary Clinton had won?

All this provokes questions about violence and its uses, and the role violence plays in meaningful societal change. America, it seems, is in need of a political revolution. Something to reset all the bickering and partisanship. Some, it seems, may think violence is part of the answer. Whether it be violent images like Griffin’s, a terrorist act, or a thrown down brawl with protestors and demonstrators. In reflection on violence two films came to mind that introduce different worldviews and ways of pursuing change. The first represents a much more American way to think about the revolution, which is ironic given that it takes place in England and has a discernible Marxist current to it. This is, of course, one of my favorite films V for Vendetta (2005).

The Story

V is a story of revenge and revolution. Set in a not-to-distant future London, we find a sort of 1984 dystopia. Things are normal and comfortable enough on the surface, but the government is a totalitarian surveillance state complete with government propaganda masquerading as news, legally enforced curfew, and blacklisted materials such as the Qur’an and various pieces of art. There is also a reference to potential food substitutes or rations (“I haven’t had real butter in years”). In other words the government has constructed a mirage of freedom, but has really subverted freedom in the name of safety. All is now in the power and control of  a political and religious zealot, the High Chancellor Adam Sutler. In steps our vaudevillian revolutionary V. As the film develops a question arises as to whether rhetoric against political structures mere justification for a revenge, hence the title V for Vendetta.

The character V, it is revealed was classified and arrested with others that we might call degenerates. The only other people we know were detained in the same manner as him are a lesbian couple. It seems the government had set some kind of moral standards for the populace and rounded up those whom did not fit. Rather than simple interned in a prison or holding facility or something like 1984’s re-education department, these are taken to a military research facility in order to test and help develop chemical weapons and cures. V, the detainee housed in room five (Roman numeral V), is able to set off an explosion in order to destroy the facility and escape. It is at this point that we find, that testing on V has increased his strength and speed, but has also (with the explosion) deformed him (“He looked at me, not with eyes, there were no eyes”). V thus becomes a faceless revolutionary—a stand in for the rest of us, as one of the final lines of the film reveal:

He was Edmond Dantes. And he was my father, and my mother, my brother, my friend. He was you, and me. He was all of us.

The film then follows a sort of trail of revenge mentality as V moves down a sort of hit-list taking out all involved in his (and other’s) suffering. It is at this point which the political revolution V ignites becomes questionable. Is the revolution a legitimate out working of his quest to dismantle the system of power that stole the humanity of so many? Or is the revolution simply a means to the end of getting close enough to the man behind all the others, HC Sutler? A generous reading has it as the former, but the quest for revenge lends mixed motives to the films revolutionary arc. That is the story, but what of the message?

The Message

The message of this film is directed by Natalie Portman’s character Evey Hammond. She stands in the gap between the protagonist V and antagonist HC Sutler. She recognizes the wickedness of Sutler’s regime, her parents and brother being victims of it, but she has a clear moral issue with V’s murderous revolution. Evey is our proxy in the film we are meant to side with her and choose the side she chooses. So what are the options?

John Hurt, who died January 2017 of pancreatic cancer, at the 2011 premier of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy.

On one side you have HC Suttler, played by the late-John Hurt (who played Winston Smith in the 1984 of Nineteen Eighty-Four by the way). The V for Vendetta Wikifan page gives this description of Sutler:

“a young and upcoming politician” and “a deeply religious man and a member of the Conservative party”. After the founding of Norsefire, he is mentioned briefly as Under-Secretary for Defence during the “Saint Mary’s crisis”, thus implying a coalition government between Norsefire and a stronger party. Sutler is elected Prime Minister by promising to restore order to the country after terrorists supposedly killed 80,000 people with a self-ignited bioweapon that created a viral epidemic (it is later revealed that Norsefire had actually launched the attack). He then uses the supposed terrorist threat as a pretext for genocide, along with an ongoing propaganda campaign in the state-run media, to cow the public into silence and appoint himself High Chancellor, turning the country into a single-party state with himself as an autocrat.

We should note a couple of things from this description. First, he is deeply religious and, second, he is from the conservative party. This picture is filled out, as mentioned above, by the rounding up of homosexuals for imprisonment and chemical testing. Adding to the description above, we might note that the title of High Chancellor is most likely intended to draw connection to Adolf Hitler, a connection deepened by intentionally giving him the same hair style as the notorious autocrat. This is a slight change from the graphic novel in which the character is named Adam Susan and is intended to evoke the image of Benito Mussolini rather than Hitler. This might be reading too far into it, but given the name change, a quick study of the word sutler reveals that it refers to a civilian merchant who sold hard to find goods to soldiers—as such it is a sort of, though toned back, war-profiteer. Finally, Sutler is made a bit more menacing by mostly appearing on a gigantic screen in an otherwise dark and conspiratorial room where party leaders meet to discuss events.

Hugo Weaving at the 2014 premier of The Turning.

Opposite of Sutler is V. Played, although it is more voiced, by Hugo Weaving of Lord of the Rings and The Matrix fame. Weaving is masked during the entire film, thus his incredible talents as a voice actor are on display. It is hard to write about V as not much about him is known or revealed in the novel let alone the film, but the choice of a Guy Fawkes mask is notable. A Catholic revolutionary who attempted to blow up parliament on November the fifth and assassinate the Protestant King James.

What else can be said is that he had been held and experimented on at Larkhill Resettlement Camp, where “political prisoners, homosexuals, Black people, Jews, Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis, and others deemed undesirable” were held. There he developed a friendship with fellow inmate Valarie Page, arrested for being a lesbian, who wrote her autobiography on a roll of toilet paper and passed it to V through a crack in the brick between their otherwise isolated cells. She died at Larkhill with many others. In part his quest for revenge is fueled by self-pity (what they did to me) and in part a righteous indignation because of what they did to Valarie. According to the graphic novel and implied in the film, the testing on V lead to the development of “Olympic-level reflexes, increased strength, and incredibly expanded mental capacity.” V is knowledgable on all things anarchy (chemistry/explosives, close-quarters combat, espionage, and disguise) as well as literature, art, philosophy, music, and gardening. V may be mentally unstable—after all he does kill a lot of people.

Though the novel goes into more detail, as you would expect, the film simply tells us that on November fifth (interesting given its personal connection and theme of the revolution) V is able to detonate some kind of explosion to destroy the facility and escape. The film begins three years after his escape, where the busy V has collected a sizable amount of contraband art and killer upwards of forty people associated with Larkhill, presumably making it look like an accident, until the final five at the top of the hit-list are left.

While never stated openly, V displays Marxist tendencies re-occuringly throughout the film. First, Marxists believed that the revolution of class struggle would require a sort of cataclysmic war between the bourgeoisie (elite) and the proletariate (poor). Violent uprising would need to meet violent response and the proletariate by their numbers and animus at injustice would triumph over the bourgeoisie. Similarly, V in a discussion with Evey states, “Violence can be used for good… there is no court in this country for men like Prothero.” Not only is there the declaration of violence as a tool for the revolution, but there is also the Marxist view of corruption, that the institutions of power (the courts in this case) are run by the bourgeoisie and thus overlook the injustices caused their fellow elites. It is not enough to unmask the bourgeoisie for who they really are, for their crimes will be brushed under the rug, they must be destroyed. This idea would seem to have affirmed in the open scene in which Evey is almost raped by “Finger men” (the secret police) before V steps in. When this is referenced by a counsel of party members (London’s influencers) later there is a slight hesitation and the word ‘detained’ is euphemistically used to describe the actions of the finger men. It is clear that such events are overlooked in this regime.

Other Marxists themes are present as well throughout the film. When V takes over the BNC his speech is decidedly vulgar. Not vulgar as in profane or foul, but in the sense of the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible, that is the language of the people. He uses slang terms and refers to himself as a ‘bloke’. V creates a division between the populace and those in positions of power with the distribution of hundreds of thousand Guy Fawkes masks. The montage of the masks going out and social tensions rising is interspersed with a scene of V setting up a complex domino design of his logo, which he then sets off. Symbolizing how his actions produce the uprising of the proletariate, which escalates quickly to violence.

So these are Evey’s options, and as our proxy, she must decide. The obvious trajectory of the film is that she would side with V, but the decision must be made more difficult. After all, V tells us himself that he is “cast as victim and villain.”

Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. [carves “V” into poster on wall] The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V.

As such, though initially put off by V’s violence and even angry with him at a few points, her decision is made, she falls in love with the romance of the philosophical revolutionary. She chooses V, either overlooking or coming to terms with the use of violence, and even herself starting the underground train carrying the explosives to parliament. Thus our proxy accepts violence as a necessary evil or potential tool to accomplish what needs to be done. In this Evey has, at best, become a pragmatist or, at worst, a true Marxist—either way she has embraced the revolution.

So this is meant to be our position too. Reject the status quo, challenge authority, and regain freedom of thought, speech, and action through the revolution. And revolt through violence for violence is the only capable tool of justice against the elites.

At this point we turn to our second film, another, as it happens, Hugo Weaving film. This time Weaving is in a supporting role as Tom Doss, the father of Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss, the hero of Hacksaw Ridge.

The Story

Desmond is a bit of a wild boy, fighting with his brother, playing in the wilderness around his home. Then when one fight goes a bit too far and Des almost kills his brother by hitting him with a rock, he vows to God that he would never fight again. He will be a pacifist from henceforth if his brother survives. He does and Des happily keeps his vow—until his blossoming relationship with Dorothy Schotte (Teresa Palmer), a nurse, put him regularly around returning wounded soldiers. Eventually, though Desmond’s job allowed him deferment, he decided to join the army, but would serve as a medic and would not carry nor fire a weapon.

The Mel Gibson directed Hacksaw Ridge was nominated for several awards and had the political moment been different probably would have cleaned up in the place of La La Land.

Thus the stage is set for the two primary stages of conflict. The first is the barracks and basic training where some view him as a coward, unnecessarily difficult, and wrongheaded about his faith. But he endures jeers, beatings, and even an attempted court marshaling, and is granted the right to serve weaponless in the eastern theater of war.

The second stage of conflict is during open battle when the Japanese would target medics and Desmond proves himself not only to be full of courage (as opposed to the earlier assessments of many), but also intelligent, tactical, and unprejudiced (save several Japanese wounded as well). Desmond wins the respect and favor of his fellow soldiers.

The Message 

The message of Hacksaw is of an entirely different substance and manner as V. In Hacksaw there is no decision to make, rather there is a simple question: can you try and put a little piece of the world back together when it is set on tearing itself apart? We might add to that question, what do we (as a people or nation) lose when we marginalize or refuse the service of those who cannot participate because of religious conviction? Or put another way, are we willing to lose the flourishing or accept the suffering that would be alleviated if those of religious conviction are forced into either conformity or forfeit?

These questions are heavy with contemporary significance. Quickly coming to mind as I type are the Catholic charities that were shut down due to their conflict between various civic, state, and federal government bodies over what is called the sexual revolution. The surprise of many displayed an appalling failure to understand religious conviction, much as Desmond Doss’s fellow soldiers and superiors did.

Intersection

So we find ourselves here, considering two films that are ultimately about freedom and change. They both display a world drifting toward destruction. Democracy is hard, totalitarianism is the path of least resistance. Similarly peace, healing, and compassion are hard when the culture around you tells you to hate and to kill without empathy or hesitation. There is, then, a sense of agreement to resist and do hard things, to not get caught up in the flow of life and simply drift with everyone else where ever the cultural winds take you. Simply put, these films are about having conviction and standing for what is right. But how do we stand for our convictions? How do we direct them? Desmond Doss saved the lives on numerous soldiers because of conviction. And V slashes the throats of law enforcement officers (tools of the establishment) on the basis of conviction. So how do rightly handle our convictions? The easy answer would be to juxtapose V and Doss and conclude that Christians should be like (the Christian) Doss and not the Marxist V. In a sense that is right, but overly simplistic. Consider instead the connection between V and Doss’ unit, members of the United States military going to war to kill, not tens or twenties, but hundreds and thousands on the basis of conviction. Is the line blurred at all? Does V’s vendetta display an unrighteousness that could not be justified by the same arguments (just war theory and love of international neighbors) that justify WWII? There certainly is!

For V, the violence perpetrated is in service to his vendetta. Revenge is his fuel, not systemic injustice. While this maybe true of some WWII soldiers, the overwhelming consensus was that young men signed up for armed service and combat in order to to defend the world from the sort of totalitarian regimes that repressed freedom and human flourishing. So the mixed motives and clear hatred should cause concern with the legitimacy of any act of violence.

Secondly, though the discussion would be too long for here, Christians have long understood and outlined the ethics of warfare under Just War Theory. Essentially Just War Theory is an outline of the instances under which one might righteously enter into combat. It includes things like defending weaker nation-states, stopping genocide, and self-defense. World War II fall well in the bounds of Just War Theory. The soldiers depicted in Hacksaw Ridge are fighting a righteous war. In connection with Just War Theory, God gives the government the right to wield the sword—a reference to enforcing civic justice (i.e. the death penalty) and foreign warfare.

Third, we might consider the outcome of violence. For the military in WWII the outcome was a return to international peace and cooled hostilities. For V, we need again consider the Marxism of his worldview. According to Marxism, there is a cycle of revolutions because the existence of political power implies oppression and injustice for those without it. Drawing from a sort of social Darwinism and pessimism of its day, Marxism sees it as intrinsic to power to oppress in such a manner that revolution is inevitable. So V’s revolution will only produce a new/different group of overlooked or repressed proletariate, which will one day rebel against the regime that follows in the wake of V’s revolution. V takes life and gives life for the cause, but in the circular worldview of Marxism, how long until his followers find themselves abusing power? Can a revolution that began with violence have any other ending?

In sum then, what we have is two justifiable positions in Hacksaw Ridge and a deeply problematic position in V for Vendetta, which corresponds to two positions informed by the Christian worldview and one position flowing from Marxism. Reflecting on the Marxist position we might recall the words of Jesus to Peter, “Return your sword to its place, for all who will take up the sword, will die by the sword.”

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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