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FIRST-PERSON: Toward the end of the slippery slope

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–The old story goes that if you place a frog in boiling water, he’ll jump out. But if you place him in room-temperature liquid, slowly raising the heat level, he’ll remain until he (excuse the expression) croaks. Over the past several decades, the media has simmered society in a stew of moral ambiguity, excusing their offenses with, “Hey, it’s just a movie.” Like that poor frog, we Christians have adjusted ourselves to the same desensitizing content as everyone else.

Today, content has become as much a defining factor in moviemaking as the technical and artistic merits. And all too often the negative content overrides positive messages in today’s films. So how did content become so crude and/or abusive? Many believe the following films were forerunners, responsible for the exploitive nature of today’s cinema.


“Gone With the Wind.” This classic is now considered one of the best films of all time and contains a great example of screen storytelling. It is also famous for the first screen expletive. As Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler finally leaves his cold-hearted wife, he responds to her question, “What shall I do?” with, “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a —-.” Pretty tame by today’s standards, but very prophetic.

Certainly, Gone With the Wind gives the motion picture industry credibility as an art form. But GWTW also helped crack open a door allowing future filmmakers to one day make coarse, crude or profane language a major part of movie dialogue.

Spring forward 37 years to 1976’s “Network.” Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay is full of insights not just about the television industry, but our society as well. Whether or not it was the intention of the filmmakers, the picture evidenced that money, power or sexual fulfillment would still leave the soul unsatisfied. Without a spiritual enlightenment, no one ever feels complete. However, the screenplay is so peppered with God’s name followed by a curse (and other rough language), that it nearly causes the spiritual ear to bleed.

Twenty-some years later, the comic heist movie “Snatch” contained one particular obscenity 132 times, alone. In hip hop artist Eminem’s 2002 debut film “8 Mile,” there are more than 330 curse words. That same year, the war film “Black Hawk Down” contained an endless stream of obscenities.

Never before had there been a more searing portrait of an unhappy marriage than “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The 1966 dramatic vehicle for then husband and wife Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor brought marital upheaval into the open. The language barrier also went down, with Burton and Taylor profaning God’s name nearly as often as their characters belittled one another. Today, the profane use of God’s name can be heard in nearly every drama.

Sexual morality

Sexual activity in the movies was prominent in the silent era. The inclusion of nudity and perversion back then led to the forming of the Motion Picture Code. But there was no way that moviemakers were going to forsake sexuality when it came to storytelling. No matter how well covered up, sex has remained the main theme of movies ever since film pioneers first shouted, “Roll ’em!”

Filmmaker Elia Kazan tested the boundaries set by the Motion Picture Code with dramas such as the 1951 version of “Streetcar Named Desire.” Several scenes from that film suggesting sexual tension and carnality were deleted when it was first released and have since been replaced. “The Moon Is Blue,” a sex comedy by Otto Preminger in 1953, also tested the sexual mores of the day with its innuendo and subject matter of a young woman who flaunts her virginity. And Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” in 1962, a dark, satirical comedy/psychological tragedy, explored the sexual lust of a middle-age man for an underaged girl.

Forty years later, in the Oscar-nominated “Shakespeare in Love,” a comic scene features two men in deep conversation, while the one is fornicating with a naked woman. And in 2001, the English comedy/drama “Gosford Park” further dehumanizes the sexual act by featuring two people cavorting with all the sensuality of two canines.


Like sexuality, violence has always been a staple for movie material. But two films sealed the fate of the much-maligned Motion Picture Code. First, came “Bonnie & Clyde” in 1967. Though stylish, this trend-setting gangster melodrama did two things that are now synonymous with hoodlum biopics: it portrayed a sympathetic side to outlaws who in reality were cruel and deviant. And it was grisly in its depictions of slow-mo killings. When it was released, the graphic orchestrations of its bloody violence were considered controversial and received a great deal of negative response from critics and audiences. The volume and gore were unprecedented. Now, deafening sound effects and carnage are commonplace. Two years after Bonnie & Clyde, Sam Peckinpah added slow-motion carnage to the western genre with his bloody “The Wild Bunch.”

The sensory pummeling of today’s screen violence has become so lifelike that even the horror of jets careening into New York’s twin towers looked to many of us, at first, like a mere special effect. Susan Linn, associate director of the media center of the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, has noted, “The average sixth-grader has witnessed 8,000 murders on television and in the movies. Research shows that [children] can become desensitized to violent acts and to the victims of violence.”

If these moviemakers had known the outcome of their choices, would they have broken those barriers? Most likely yes, for the worldly nature of man does not seek the will of God, but rebels against it. Nowhere is this more evidenced than the direction Hollywood has taken in its storytelling.
To explore this subject further, click over to Boatwright’s website at www.moviereporter.com, then the Know Before You Go button, for a more in-depth look at the increasing amount of such fare in movies, including the assault on Christ and Christianity and the demise of good versus evil in the horror genre.

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright