Bad gore, good gore?

I don’t really do gratuitous gore. My days of staying up late with a horror-fiend friend watching ‘torture porn’ (i.e. the Hostel and Saw genres of film – not actual porn) are long gone. I do not, as a mature grown up person with a LoveFilm subscription, enjoy films containing gore for gore’s sake.

However, I’m of the opinion that some forms of gore are necessary in films and that in those cases, saying that you don’t want to watch them because of the gore is verging on the unacceptable.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had negative responses to tweets mentioning a couple of ‘gory’ films. The first was Looper [recent blockbuster starring Bruce Willis]. Friends stopped watching it because “we found it too gory”. That’s probably fair enough, given as a major plot element involves shooting your future self in the head. The second was The Killing Fields [Oscar winning true life story], which after I tweeted that I was watching it received the response: “I can’t stand gore”. That may be your standpoint on gore, but quite frankly, it’s utterly essential to the film and its message…

I found myself watching The Killing Fields after a long Saturday of theology reading. I’d had it for a while, but was inspired to finally watch it having read a Guardian article about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Yes, I do realise that the film is set in Cambodia, but I think you can see the connection. I’d been trying to remember the name of a Rwandan film I’d watched a while ago and ended up in yet another Wikipedia vortex – this resulted in my wanting to do nothing more than watch another genocide film. I know it doesn’t sound relaxing and it wasn’t, but once a historian, always a historian.

There are several films relating to genocide which could be described as ‘gory’ and they are. But you know what? So is genocide. Most of these films are based on true events and tell stories that the rest of the world need to hear. None of them could possibly depict violence, death and destruction that’s even half as bad as what actually happened. Avoiding these films because of their gore is effectively denial. Denial that this has happened multiple times in the last century. That it keeps on happening in this self-destructive world. That it’s probably happening right this moment in Syria. That it may happen somewhere else in the very near future.

If the gore upsets you or makes you nauseous, close your eyes; walk out of the room briefly; hide behind a cushion; or fast forward – but whatever you do, don’t use the violence within these films as an excuse to not watch them. The people who died in the real versions deserve to be heard.

The_Killing_Fields_-_3Dith Pran & Sidney Schanberg as they appear in the film.

This may seem a bit wrong, but here are some of my ‘must watch’ films on this subject:

The Killing Fields – The massacre that took place under Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia in the 1970’s. Tells the story of two journalists (one American, one Cambodian) who work together to share the truth of what was happening prior to the Khmer Rouge’s invasion. The fields in the title were paddy fields covered with the bodies of thousands of Pol Pot’s victims.

Shooting Dogs; Hotel Rwanda; Sometimes in April – All cover the Rwandan genocide, from slightly different perspectives. All are well-worth watching.

Schindler’s List; The Piano; Sarah’s Key – Obviously, there are hundreds of films featuring the Holocaust, but these are three that spring to mind. Schindler’s List depicts the utterly mindless violence of the death camps. The Pianist evokes the terror of being a Jew in Warsaw, while Sarah’s Key does the same but for Paris. The latter (which is the most recent of the trio) is utterly heart-breaking.

As I wrote this, I tried to think of films that are set during the conflict in former Yugoslavia – all I could think of was Welcome to Sarajevo which I’ve never actually seen. It’s strange that given the atrocities there, few films have emerged. If I’ve overlooked any you know of, do let me know.


  1. This is such an interesting perspective. I think I’m generally with you in that I hate gore, but I can see its necessity occasionally, when the subject of the film is a true-to-life theme such as genocide or conflict. But at the same time, I wonder if there is still a line within that necessity that should not be crossed. Our human imaginations have a huge capacity to understand what is happening without it needing to be explicitly shown. The fact that I will watch these films from behind a cushion implies to me that it’s beyond what I needed to see. Not beyond what I needed to know, to understand. But maybe beyond what I needed to see.

    I find the same with books too, sometimes. I got about half way through the novel “Little Bee”, about violence against women as a weapon of war and couldn’t finish it because the descriptions of rape and violence were so horrifying. It’s a difficult one, because I do want to know more, educate myself on these difficult subjects, I don’t want to be hiding. But should I be giving myself nightmares in the process? I don’t think that’s healthy.

    • I think you’re right – there is a line, but I guess the issue is that everyone’s line is different. I always hide behind a cushion whenever needles are involved, but a medic (or most other sane humans) probably wouldn’t.
      Perhaps I should’ve defined ‘gore’ properly. I don’t usually mean bloody violence, but sights that are out of the ordinary – like the discovery of thousands of bodies in a field in The Killing Fields, or heaped up along the side of the road in Rwandan films. It’s the kind of thing you might see if you chose to visit memorials to these events, but instead you see them in the context of a story.

      Personally, I still can’t get the image out of my head of Ralph Fiennes’ character shooting Jews from his balcony in Schindler’s List. Maybe I was too young when I first watched it. Maybe it was right to leave an impression because it is exceptional and horrific. Could my mind have visualised this is the same way without it? I’m not sure.

      I think I find books even worse. You can’t turn away from text in the same way as you can from a screen! But I suppose the most important thing is to know your limits and be in a good place to watch/read these things when you do.

  2. Katie Etherington says:

    What surprises me most about this blog Liz is that I would not have classified any of the films you mention here as ‘gore’ (with the exception of Looper, about which I know nothing!)! I deem gore as something ‘made up’ for its own ends, i.e. not the violence shown in historical films, however fictional. Die Hard, Reservoir Dogs, etc etc, to me they are true ‘gore’ as the violence portrayed exists solely for the purposes of so-called entertainment.

    Films set historically require, in the midst of a fictional tale, elements which make them realistic. Imagine Titanic without the iceberg!!

    Yet, especially after yesterday’s events in Woolwich, for me there will never be a place for gratuitous violence in film: the risks of fiction informing reality are too high.

    • I wrote a really eloquent reply to this yesterday, but my WordPress app deleted it!

      I think the point I was trying to make was that other people seem to classify these films as ‘gore’ and use that as a reason not to watch them. I was surprised at the Tweeter who referred to The Killing Fields as ‘gore’ because in my mind, you don’t actually see much bloody violence (although there are an awful lot of dead bodies).

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