The following article, an investigation into the treatment of violence in John McTiernan’s
, originally ran in 1996 in a special issue of the French magazine,
Admiranda, dedicated to action movies. The author, Martin Barnier, is professor of film history at Lumière University Lyon 2 in Lyon, France. He publishes articles in the 1895. Revue and has also published in CinémAction, Positif, Film History, and Cinegrafie. The piece was graciously translated for
The Vulgar Cinema by Ted Fendt and reprinted with the author’s permission.
Predator or A-violence
Can a Hollywood action film be self-reflexive? Can it rid itself of the apology for violence that is inherent to such productions? Can it contest the legitimacy of a government’s historical decisions with images? How can it rework the rules of a cinematic genre? These are some of the questions the film Predator seems to be asking us.
In the Die Hard
series (two of the three episodes were directed by McTiernan), the hero is practically nude or unarmed at the beginning of the film, then forced to fight and invent sophisticated traps to overcome terrorists who have put his wife in danger. On the contrary, the team of specialists who go to war at the beginning of Predator
is over-armed. The latest gadgets, the best technology, the heaviest and most precise weapons allow these soldiers to wipe out a camp of guerrillas in Central America. Technological power has a terrifying quality at the beginning of the film. We even wonder what could possibly happen to this seemingly invincible, over-trained group. In comparison to a similar kind of film, Commando
(Mark Lester), we can see that, in the first fifteen minutes of the film, the attack and destruction of a pro-communist guerrilla base is carried out with effects resembling those during the final battle in Commando
: slow-motion bodies thrown into the air by explosions, men mowed down at full speed… Did the screenwriters and producers make a mistake? What will happen during the rest of the film when, after fifteen minutes, the mission—Rambo II
-style—is already successfully completed? Nothing remains for the little group than to return to the meeting point at the helicopter… The structure of the beginning of the script is similar to Rambo II
(Rambo: First Blood Part II
by George Pan Cosmatos) where, after thirty minutes of running through the jungle, the hero brings a beautiful native and an American prisoner of war to the helicopter meeting point. Fortunately (?), to stretch out the story, an awful Pentagon bureaucrat sends the helicopter away in order to prolong John Rambo’s suffering and the film by an hour. In Predator
, the hero’s friend, the one who offers him the mission, resembles both the cruel organizer of the search for the missing soldiers—who abandons Rambo in the middle of the jungle—and the “adoptive father” of the hero played by Stallone—the leader who trained him and who admires him. This is to say that action films from the mid-1980s have an unusual relationship with the American state administration and pose several questions about the meaning of the values of the military hierarchy.1
But the similarities end there. The films in the Rambo series (the first one aside) reproduce clichés, strung out one after the other, like a prayer for the Dead that must be said and repeated again to forget one’s grief in the litany it brings about. McTiernan, however, interrogates them as commonplaces: the time for consolation is over, the images of destruction must be destroyed. (Hence, in a film with Stallone, women have only a supporting role and must die quickly. In Predator
, the feminine element alone can survive).2
The elementary political aspect of the beginning of the film is quickly ditched.3 It isn’t a matter of dealing with anti-communism like his rivals (the 1980s was a period rich in films of this kind, with John Milius, Stallone, etc. in the middle of the end of the Cold War!). The polemical spirit of McTiernan’s films is felt here as well. The film’s hero questions himself about the mission he has to undertake. Does he really need to help the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua at any cost? The denunciation of the actions of certain highly placed generals who manipulate large sums for veiled ideological goals is felt, but gently. The issue in Predator is situated at a more abstract level of reflection. Early in the film, Dutch—played by Arnold Schwarzenegger—opposes his ex-colleague in the CIA by affirming that he doesn’t, or no longer, likes to kill…even though he has been trained for it. The hero considers and shows his problem with violence and death. It is not uncommon for action films to begin with the opposition between a reformed hero (for example, Schwarzenegger, already playing a former soldier, in the countryside, with his daughter at the beginning of Commando) and a group of former comrades-in-arms who have turned to crime, or particularly well-organized, intelligent and cruel bad guys. We find this structure in most of Joel Silver’s productions. The heroes of this very shrewd producer (Commando, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Demolition Man…) are on vacation (in the first two) or on the verge of depression (the following two), and Spartan/Stallone is imprisoned and even frozen at the beginning of Demolition Man. They are, then, inactive and supposedly not a threat to the bad guys. These supermen return to being killing machines after the first two sequences. In the case of certain action films using the idea of technological domination even more, the “heroes” are machines in the primary sense of the word with Terminatorsand Robocops. The mechanization of violence is equally present in Dutch, but he continues to question his life and the justice of his actions throughout Predator. The young, fragile, unarmed woman who accompanies him represents an exact figurative counterweight to the obtuse warriors these soldiers are. Another paradox: she functions as the antagonist. Dutch, however, protects and saves this revolutionary. She is a kind of conscience, a call for peace. The twin of this peaceful conscience, the “drive towards violence” (and the mind of a hunter attracted by the blood of the hero) is revealed in an even stranger manner.
The heroes of John McTiernan’s work are ambivalent. Their double nature is manifested in the characters around them. The young guerrilla embodies the question about violence that Dutch carries in himself. But where is his Nemesis? After having rapidly destroyed the camp of guerrillas in the middle of the jungle, the small group leaves, on guard, ready to fight off an ambush. The men, rather heavily armed, are ripped apart one by one. They disappear in the bushes and are found with their limbs torn off, their bodies in pieces, dismembered by something they cannot see. After the war film—1980s version—we switch to a horror film…rapidly filled with shades of science fiction. The law of genres is broken and at the same time the director renders homage to the old masters of that classical Hollywood genre: the horror movie. Faced with this invisible thing that cruelly tears up and kills, the hardened, indifferent men rediscover a very human attitude: fear. Another paradox, this time against the current of the American cinematic river. “Never show the cause of the horror”: in following this principle McTiernan remains closer to The Leopard Man (1943) and especially Cat People (1942), Tourneur’s classics, than fantasy and horror films of the 1980s.4 The goal of the Alien sequels seemed to be to show the greatest possible number of monsters. Gore having discolored contemporary productions, suggestiveness is no longer appropriate. Blood gushes, monsters are presented to the eyes of spectators in Homeric battles with the heroes. The Predator hiding in the trees, like the leopard man,5 is suggested much more than it is shown. When, finally, it is completely visible, it is no longer scary and the film again changes type. Meaning that in its “horror” part, Predator follows the old rules, out of step with films from the 1980s but in order to then elude them.
The survivors discover that what is attacking them, one by one, is an alien, an invisible monster that kills for pleasure alone. So that his sport is “nobler,” he only kills people who are armed. Dutch understands this rule quickly and forbids the young woman from touching a weapon, allowing her to be saved. The balance of power is constantly evolving. The “superheroes” of the technological world—supposedly invincible thanks to their weapons—become easy prey precisely because of the objects that are supposed to protect them. The dialectical reversal does not stop there. If their rapid actions at the beginning were very bloody, they find far worse in each of the powerful alien’s acts and become frightened humans condemned to helping each other out. Contrary to most action films, canons, rocket launchers, flamethrowers and other big guns no longer have any use in the face of the non-human entity chasing them. The most accurate fire would be useless in the face of this chameleon that reflects the forest. We might think it is Nature incarnated, like the demons protecting the forest in Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. In fact, the alien blends into the jungle, its camouflage attaining the hunter’s ideal: authentic invisibility. But the demonic powers attributed to it by viewers and the soldiers are revealed to be exaggerated. The Predator proves to be much closer to Man than the reflections glimpsed at the tops of the trees lead us to believe (sometimes also evoking the invisible monster created by electrical energy in Forbidden Planet). Is it just a pure spirit, a creature coming from the very unconsciousness of those who are afraid of it, as in so many horror films? This idea occurs to viewers and maybe to the characters as well but one of McTiernan’s games is to lose his audience by forcing it to put together multiple scenarios6 and to stay ahead of the action in order to escape the fear and suspense implemented.
The hunter alien kills Dutch’s men one by one, to the last. To succeed in beating it, one has to be even better camouflaged than it. Dutch—fascinated by this being—rises to the challenge. He gets rid of his weapons once the young woman is taken away by the helicopter. He too disappears into the natural elements, covers himself in mud, returns to a primitive state, becomes a part of the Earth and the land… He no longer looks like a man, changes into a root, a branch, a rock and becomes invisible himself—a new transformation of the film’s genre and a new reversal of the situation. The predator—who stops re-activating his camouflage—returns to the visible, becomes Dutch’s game again. It then becomes a suspense film, the fantastic having disappeared… But is it still an action film? The rule here is to not show any violence, to hide, to not bear arms, to play dead…in order to live. We end up with the exact opposite of every action film. The second rule is to only use Nature to combat the Predator’s ultra-sophisticated technology. A bit like in the first Rambo, creepers, branches, trunks and mud allow a trained and determined man to defend himself when faced with a superior enemy (in number with Rambo, in technology with Dutch). Predator confirms that all that counts is cunning and intelligence, not the power of weapons. In 1987, Ronald Reagan was developing the military budget, only industries linked to the Pentagon continued to flourish and the President of the United States still clung to his “Star Wars” project. “He wanted to make the Strategic Defense Initiative the major, irreversible work of his presidency, while most experts—including military ones—judged the project as technically unrealizable, financially ruinous and strategically destabilizing.”7 Predator is opposed to over-armament—even against an enemy “from the sky”—and argues the profound futility of it. The polemical, if not political, motivation of its auteur. The film poses questions to its country. If East-West relations are becoming more open, do we still have the right to spend billions on ultra-sophisticated weaponry that is becoming useless? Even in the face of an effectively more powerful enemy, Dutch—becoming the incarnation of Humanity in the face of a hunter who has taken the entire Earth as a hunting grounds—chooses to fight with his heart and mind, without the help of his killer’s accessories.
The last part of the film puts Dutch and the alien face to face in a fight without weapons. The Predator also rejects his murderous technology. It’s unusual hand-to-hand combat. Only the beauty of the struggle interests the Predator. It’s been wounded by the clever man who was only using stakes made from branches, vines and stones. They’re fighting, then, with their fists. Once again the genre conventions are overturned. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s superb, ripped biceps no longer serve any purpose in the face of a ten-foot tall giant. McTiernan reduces bodybuilding—a selling point of the actor’s earlier productions—to nothing. Finally, the monster avoids the trap set by the man but not the trap’s counterweight (the final suspense and another reversal: it’s not what we think is most important that saves us, it’s the second element, the compliment, the unappealing, utilitarian part that proves essential and vital). It is a tree trunk, then, that hits and mortally wounds it. Dutch bends over the alien hiding on the ground and, for the first time in over 45 minutes in the film, we hear dialogue. “Who are you?” the human asks his enemy, throwing away the rock with which he wanted to finish off the creature. The response throws the question back at Dutch through a synthetic voice that records and reproduces the way the entire body of this camera-being can do. “Who are you?” The veritable mirror of the human “super-killer” reflects the question. The alien double puts “Work”—the soldier’s raison d’être—into question. It’s the Socratic gnōthi seauton. “Know thyself” to know your enemy…who is none other than your double. You are only fighting yourself. The mirror being is just the indicator of the vacuity of a life spent killing. It allows for the re-internalization of the process of knowledge. The only end to battle of the Titans was this questioning.
The Predator is equally the incarnation of Death, which Dutch served so well. Faced with his own death, what is life? The alien, collector of Death and Annihilation: once his hunt is completed and lost, he programs his self-destruction. He becomes a living bomb and the human has only a few seconds to escape the giant explosion that ravages the forest. When Dutch is picked up by the helicopter, despite the combat he’s experienced, he is destroyed, not physically but mentally: he has looked truth in the face.
Seeing his hidden face, the negative, the darkest part of himself: that is the experience this man has gone through. A person and his opposite meet, constructing a figure we call an oxymoron. The final, complex part—the film’s revelation which functions like a spiral staircase that we go up or down, around ourselves, depending on the director’s good will. When the director uses a genre in a classical manner, it is in order to better pervert it, twist it and—through this helical torsion and tension—create a new figure, oppose terms that went hand in hand or bring opposing elements back together. This is why this anti-action film is so active: following a continuously looping dialectical principle, it overturns the initial elements and pushes everyone—viewer and character—towards a multi-faceted revelation. From Reagan’s policies in Central America to the question of the violence in each of us, and including the Strategic Defense Initiative and the causes of fear, the film never stops questioning us. Revealed by his enemy-double, his brother from the other side of the mirror, Dutch evolves and transforms. This process is already in progress from the revelation of the “Who are you?” just as, from this moment, his alien-negative effects his final transformation in the opposite sense: his destruction. Why fight, since you’re only fighting yourself. ■
Thank you to Vincent Vatrican and Frédéric Borgia, who were the first to show me another way of looking at John McTiernan.
1 We will see further on that it is undoubtedly the ambiguous and manipulative attitude of the Reagan and Bush governments that resulted in this defiance of military authority in many action films from this period. Without neglecting, moreover, the rebellious tradition of all Americans in the face of the federal government, an attitude that is also a legacy of Vietnam: can we still believe our leaders if they sent us uselessly to die? Or can we believe a military-political hierarchy that makes mistakes whose consequence is the loss of soldiers? This is the metaphor that is implicit in films implicating the army during this period, even Rambo who sees his leaders abandon him and leave in the helicopter… As Nicole Brenez suggested to me, this is an analogy with the abandoning of the South Vietnamese and American prisoners during the army’s departure from Saigon. The last soldiers and civilians were evacuated by a noria of helicopters. The same image during the fall of Cambodia.
2 Perhaps a foretaste of political correctness, preceding by little the diffusion of this slogan and its ideas.
3 The film is nevertheless entirely realistic on this point because, since 1983, the United States was militarily supporting the Contras in Nicaragua. An American citizen was even captured on October 6, 1986. It’s also the beginning of the Iran-Contra affair and Oliver North’s trial…
4 Jean-Louis Leutrat, Vie des fantômes: Le fantasique au cinéma (Cahiers du cinéma: Paris, 1995), 27-28. My translation.
5 “A young girl in a cemetery at night suddenly looks up and sees a tree branch bend and break. She screams and it’s over, everyone has seen the leopard. But it’s curious, what is suggested is much better than what we see.” In “Entretien avec Jacques Tourneur,” Camera/Stylo, May 1986, p. 59. My Translation.
6 On the other hand, in regards to Die Hard: With A Vengeance, Bill Krohn explains: “Willis, trapped in a deadly version of ‘Simon Says,’ is forced to read and interpret a veritable deluge of evidence and enigmas that Irons throws at him and that McTiernan’s editing, even more rapid than usual, makes more and more unintelligible to the viewer who spends the last third of the film two steps behind the hero.” Bill Krohn, “Une Cure hollywoodienne,” Cahiers du cinema, no. 493, July/August 1995, p. 59.
7 Marie-France Toinet, “Etats-Unis. Sombre année pour Ronald Reagon,” L’Etat du Monde 1987-1988 (Editions La Découverte: Paris, 1987), p. 95. My translation.
[First published in Admiranda/Restricted: Fury, Contemporary Action Cinema, no. 11-12, 1996]