One of the most famous scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark came about because of dysentery. As the story goes, the original script directed Indiana Jones to disarm a hulking swordsman with his whip. Harrison Ford, however, was suffering from food poisoning that day and suggested to Steven Spielberg that Indiana would more likely just shoot the guy. And so, cinematic history was made.
Spielberg has stated repeatedly that his intention in creating this film was to pay tribune to those old Republic serials of the 1940's. In those films, the heroes very much wore white hats (if not in the literal sense) and the villains were very black-hearted foes indeed. But with the post war period and the rise of film noir, our heroes started to take on a grayer sheen. Their motivations weren't always so pure and their actions weren't always so ethical, but we rooted for them anyway because, on the whole, they fought for the forces of good.
Looking at Harrison Ford's other iconic role of Han Solo in Star Wars, we get a prime example of this. Here we have an independent beholden to no one and not above petty crimes such as smuggling to make his living. In a character-defining scene early on in the film, he shoots a bounty hunter under a table as his opponent holds a gun on him and jokes about killing him.
Is it self defense? Yes, but not exactly what you'd call fair play. Yet in 1997 when Lucas made a modification to this scene so that Greedo shoots first, there was a fan uproar that was deafening. In his book "On Writing", Stephen King wrote that you can write anything as an author as long as you tell the truth. In simpler terms, you must be true to your characters. Lucas's little edit might have made Han's actions more morally acceptable, but it struck a false cord with a character that had been embraced for his flaws.
Getting back to Indiana Jones, the swordsman scene as scripted could have been taken out of one of the old serials that Spielberg loved so much: An honorable fight between two great opponents. And though Indiana is clearly Han Solo's moral superior (he "steals", yes, but not for a profit), his decision to shoot the guy comes at the halfway mark in the film after we have seen Indiana endure so much already. Again, it comes down to character, and his expression of "I really don't have time for this" says all that needs to be said about his character's actions.
Which brings us to The Untouchables. Like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is meant to be a fun action film. Unlike those two films, it's not the escapism of Sci-Fi or Treasure Hunting Adventure. We're dealing here with real history and real people that once existed. Furthermore, the film is directed by Brian De Palma, who on the whole produces more disturbing films that his contemporaries Lucas and Spielberg. The Untouchables was one of his few stabs (a successful one, most would agree) at a more mainstream popular entertainment.
And yet... and yet we are presented with a scene that causes problems with some viewers. In it, lawman Elliot Ness is pursuing a hitman on a rooftop. The hitman starts to descend a rope and Ness traps him there with his gun drawn. There is a moment of consideration on Ness's face, but he soon helps the hitman up and starts to escort him into custody. While crossing the roof, the hitman brags about killing Ness's friend. Ness then force marches/runs the handcuffed hitman to the side of the building and pushes him off, where he dies on the street below.
This is the scene that Don has an objection to and I understand it completely. Coincidentally, about twenty years ago when I was attending UNF, I had an argument with a fellow film buff about this very same scene. It became very heated as he was angry that we were acting so indifferent to a scene that upset him so. Yet his objection was not to the immorality of the action per se, but rather the action being performed by a character that, so far in the film, had very much been a by-the-book cop. I never asked him about his opinion on Han and Greedo or Indiana and the Swordsman, but I can imagine he would be less bothered by those two scenes because of the characters involved.
Yet one can make arguments in defense of Ness's actions. As my grandfather-in-law pointed out, he seemed to be in a fit of rage when he pushed the hitman off the roof. More importantly, his memory was jogged when the hitman mentioned Jim Malone. As Malone told Ness in a church earlier in the film:
Malone: "You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I'm saying is, what are you prepared to do?"
Ness: "Anything within the law."
Malone: "And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they're not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead."
Ness: "I want to get Capone! I don't know how to do it."
Malone: "You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way!"
If a man pulls a sword on you, you pull a revolver. If a man pulls a blaster on you over a table, you pull one under it. Malone, it seems, would be in good company with Indiana and Han.
But let me address some other aspects of Don's essay and we'll get back to Mr. Ness in a moment. In terms of sadism and cruelty by heroes and villains alike, I think this is largely confined to the period of the 1980's when our action heroes were played by actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stalone. It's been noted by many a film buff that the Reagan era produced action films that were particularly brutal, such as the unapologetically violent Commando, which is the film where Schwarzenegger holds a man over a cliff edge and drops him. It's a film that really symbolizes the era, and not in a good way.
Platoon is also from this era, but I don't think it belongs in the same group as the action vehicles described above. Yes, there is action, but the film is at its core a drama about how people can lose their moral center when in the middle of a war zone. Yes, the actions taken by Chris are reprehensible, but I think the film is never meant to be looked upon as a white hat/black hat affair. There are too many shades of gray when you’re knee deep in the muck. (Speaking of War films with moral ambiguity, I would point you to my essay on The Dirty Dozen and how it presents us with flawed heroes, only to drive home at the end that they were used to do the "dirty" work that needed to be done while the more noble soldiers fought the "good fight".)
The last example noted in Don's essay was Mel Gibson in The Patriot. Given that this film was made in 2000, it doesn't have the excuse of 1980's excess to fall back on, but it does have Mel Gibson. There was an article that I read around the time Apocolypto came out that reviewed how many of the films involving Mel, whether actor or director, have a measure of sadism.
Mel getting tortured with electric shocks in Lethal Weapon.
Mel getting tortured with needles in Conspiracy Theory.
Mel getting his toes smashed with claw hammer, one by one, in Payback.
Mel getting sllloooowwwlllyyy drawn and quartered in Braveheart.
Then there are his two non-starring directorial efforts: The Passion of the Christ and the aforementioned Apocolypto. Both received generally favorable reviews, but critics were quick to warn off people who have queasy stomachs.
But quicker than you can say "What's my motivation?", you can see the clear line running through most of these films: Threat to family and loved ones. This is the reasoning/excuse that will dismiss almost any behavior by the hero imaginable. Schwarzenegger in Commando going after his kidnapped daughter. Gibson in The Patriot defending his family and avenging his son. With this, you have two age groups satisfied: Young boys who tend to enjoy violence in and of itself are pleased, and older viewers (who should know better) are able to put aside moral objections because they know that they would do anything for their loved ones as well.
But lets look at the villains. More so than heroes, villains are usually of the two-dimensional sort, and that's not confined to a particular decade. That's just a result of poor scriptwriting, which will forever and always be with us. But I'd like to offer evidence that there are glimmers of hope in this area. Some of the most successful action films of the past fifteen years have been impressively nuanced with their villain character portraits. Take The Matrix, where we get a marvelous monologue from Agent Smith on how his actions are motivated not by riches or power or love of violence, but from the desire to escape an environment he finds repellent. In essence, he tells Morpheus that he’s simply trying to complete his job so he can leave work and go home. That’s a motivation we can all appreciate.
Then there is the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, where Captain Barbossa explains to Elizabeth Swann how their quest is not riches but to simply have the undead curse lifted from them. “I feel nothing”, says Barbossa for emphasis. It’s not a haughty threat from an overconfident villain, but the plea of a desperate man. When he finally gets his wish, he is cruelly shot and his last words are “I feel… cold”. He dies, but you get the feeling that he died with a level of satisfaction that he died a feeling human being.
The crazy thing about these two films is that they didn't really need to go this extra length (and they are therefore all the more commendable for doing so). The rise in Sci-Fi and Fantasy have granted filmmakers permission to present bad guys that are embodied in forms other than human, which means that their motivations aren't entirely necessary to map out. Aliens, mutants, zombies, robots and every other hip genre trope allow our heroic leads to mow them down with wild abandon with little thought to moral consequence. One can imagine what a bloodbath a film would be that had the hero fighting rampaging aliens who had also kidnapped his daughter.
But getting back to Ness, I'd like to close this essay out by comparing his rooftop scene with a scene in the Sci-Fi show "Firefly". For those unfamiliar, It is set 500 years in the future where a totalitarian government called the Alliance rules over all the planets that humans have been able to inhabit. A renegade ship captained by Mal Reynolds tries to avoid the Alliance as best he can and make a living doing jobs that are often less than legal (and if that sounds awfully familiar to certain character and ship from Star Wars, give yourself a gold star). Mal once fought a rebellion against the Alliance but lost, and the loss of this war left Mal disillusioned and without a cause to fight for (More on this in a moment).
In the episode “The Train Job”, he and his crew are hired by a ruthless gangster to rob a train of certain goods. After the job is done, Mal finds out that the stolen material was much needed medicine for a remote settlement of farmers. He decides to return it to the proper owners, which brings the gangster's henchmen down on him like a ton of bricks. He and his crew defeat them, and then we are given this scene:
In a number of ways, it’s very similar to the scene in Untouchables: The Hero attempts to do the right thing, but the villain mouths off once too often and compels the Hero to give a little push that results in the (handcuffed) villain’s death. Both scenes are played for comedy (it’s a darker humor for sure, but humor none the less), but it’s overplayed in the Untouchables. Whereas Mal does what he does for very practical reasons (eliminating the need to run from this maniac for the rest of his life) and it’s something he very briefly debates over in his head before doing it, Ness commits his act out of rage and is allowed not one, but two one-liners after the deed is done (“Did he sound anything like that?” “He’s in the car.”). Of course, Untouchables was made in the 1980's, and delivering one-liner’s after dispatching an opponent were practically required in action films of that era.
"Firefly" was sadly cancelled after only one season, but it was allowed to be spun of into the 2005 feature film Serenity that wrapped up most of the major plot strands quite nicely. Mal, who had always exhibited a core of decency in the show towards his friends and the oppressed, finally found a cause to fight for again, and through this he becomes the true hero he was always destined to be. It was a wonderful capper to a wonderful saga, and emblamatic of the rocky path some heroes take. Not all of our movie heroes are that well drawn, but we cherish the few that are.