Hollywood only reflects native culture of violence

It was curiosity more than boredom that drew me last April to a movie complex I had never heard of: the Odeon. Well, that and the nonmatinee price of four-fifty.

I chose the theater showing "Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead," which starred Andy Garcia in a crime drama that was a bit on the gory side. Garcia's character recruits some goons who blow some poor guy's brains out along a roadside. This ticks off a crime boss, who sends out a hit man after Garcia and Co.


The hit man shoots one guy, slices up another, shoots up a bar full of black guys shooting at him and escapes unscathed. He and another of his prey then blast each other into oblivion. Garcia then slips a shiv into the crime boss's son before he himself is dispatched by two other hit men.

The film was violent, gruesome and depressingly American. It may have been one of the films the American Academy of Pediatrics had in mind last year when they blasted media violence. According to a wire report published in The Sun:


"The American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents 48,000 pediatricians, said the evidence is clear: Violence in entertainment makes some children more aggressive, desensitizes them to real-life violence and makes them feel they live in a mean and dangerous world.

" 'There's no debate. There is clearly a relationship between media violence and violence in the local community,' said Vic Strasburger, author of the pediatricians' statement and chief of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine."

Ah, my dear Dr. Strasburger, but there is debate. That Odeon theater complex where I viewed "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" is not in the United States. I saw it in London. (The nonmatinee price of four pounds, fifty pence translated into $7.20, American.) I noticed that a great many Yank films had been imported overseas, many of them the violent kind the AAP -- and probably presidential candidate Bob Dole, who likely figures the terms Hollywood and the Antichrist are synonymous -- finds objectionable.

But here's the rub. Our limey friends and all them other furriners are looking at the same movies we see. Apparently, it has no effect on the level of violence in those countries, which are havens of pacifism compared with ours. What's the difference, AAP? You there, Dole! You care to take a crack at this one?

Let me take a stab at it. We Americans, more so than our counterparts in other industrialized countries, have a cultural predisposition to violence. We pummel each other, maul each other, stab each other and shoot each other in the butt because it's our cultural imperative to do so. Hollywood didn't cause the cultural imperative. It just cynically exploits it. And Hollywood didn't, as Dole implies, just start doing it yesterday.

It was indeed Hollywood that glorified such notorious murderers as Billy the Kid, Frank and Jesse James, the Younger Brothers, the Dalton Gang, Al Capone and a host of lesser-known but no less malevolent reprobates. But most of these guys became romanticized -- through pulp paperback fiction -- long before films were invented. Hollywood just picked up the ball and gave a violence-hungry American public what it wanted. That's why today films with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis blowing up, shooting, stabbing and otherwise murdering bad guys are so popular.

Such details are not lost on the history buffs among us, especially those of us who are fascinated with the history of the American West. While watching a show about the James brothers on the Arts and Entertainment channel a while back, I was baffled to learn that these guys have a museum named for them in Missouri. A museum for two guys who were murderers and thieves! Could it happen anywhere but here in America?

During a radio debate with G. Elliott Cummings, the commander of the Maryland Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, I asked him if he felt South Carolina Sen. Preston Brooks was justified in caning Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate in 1856. Cummings replied that given the code of honor in existence at the time, Brooks' caning of Sumner -- which left him with lifelong injuries -- was perfectly justified. A caller to the radio show agreed. Indeed, Brooks' act in 1856 made him a hero throughout the South. One hundred and forty years later, apparently not much has changed. That's because the South Carolina senator's bludgeoning of Sumner was a distinctly grotesque American act.


The remarks of Cummings and the caller took me back to that Odeon theater in relatively peaceful England and left me wondering how the average Brit would react to a similar attack by one member of Parliament on another. I suspect our British friends might be quite appalled.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Pub Date: 7/27/96