The worst thing I ever heard at the movies was laughter.
This oft-merry sound reached me, to my dismay, at a Manhattan showing of Mel Gibson’s historical epic Braveheart (1995) nearly 20 years ago. I was watching it in the theatre, surrounded by other New Yorkers, when a scene came up in which King Edward I (played by Patrick McGoohan) confronts his son, who is with his gay lover in their castle. Shockingly, Edward pushes his heir’s partner out the tower window, and the man falls to his death.
That’s right, loud laughter – in the audience. Why?
It would be dangerous to assume this scene was played for laughs, yet I couldn’t help but think it was. And that’s disturbing. Whose fault, then, was it: the audience’s or the director’s?
In this case, it’s hard to say. It depends on whether one trusts the audience, as well as the filmmaker. And it has nothing to do with the supposed sophistication of the venue; this was in New York, mind you, and prejudice has never been relegated to any particular class.
But I’m going to blame director Gibson for this, anyway, and I’ll tell you why.
Movies are powerful tools. They are so ingrained in our culture that when we watch them, if they’re good enough, it’s hard for us to extricate ourselves from the proceedings, to tell ourselves that we’re not living the lives onscreen but our own. We become absorbed by the pictures; we cry, we grin. And we take lessons from these films, as we would any work of literature or art.
This is the lesson the audience took from that scene in Braveheart: Killing gay people is funny.
I wondered at the time why people would laugh at so criminal an act. How it was portrayed onscreen was essential to understanding this, and it was clear that the scene was not only geared to shock viewers, but also to make them guffaw. The takeaway was that the prince’s gay lover was a jerk, an aberration of nature – and therefore deserving of death. Watching him die was like watching Wile E. Coyote fall from the tip of a canyon to the ground below in a Looney Tunes cartoon. In other words, it was a joke. And the king’s outrageous behavior deserved a big laugh.
This type of filmmaking is scarier than any horror movie.
Gibson is no stranger to offensive material, and his offscreen adventures have been well documented. But we can’t just remind ourselves that “it’s just a movie” when viewing such nonsense. We have to realise that it can affect people’s thinking, promote homophobic philosophies. Yes, I’m arguing that filmmakers must be accountable in this regard. If they make movies, they need to realise the effects they may have on their audience.
I believe Gibson does, but not in a positive way. Other films of his, including The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006), had their own battles with perceived prejudice – the former in allegations that Gibson didn’t remove from the text controversial statements about groups of Jews taking responsibility for Jesus’ death, and the latter in the scene at the end of the movie showing the arrival of Spanish Christian ships … ships containing Europeans bent on converting the natives to Christianity. These issues bring up important questions about the validity of these pictures’ perspectives, but my problems with them are more aesthetic than philosophical; I just find the direction tedious and the scripts lacking. I feel that way with Braveheart, too, but the outlook may be even more frightening in that flick, owing to the suggestion that gay people are expendable. That’s like a call to action, and the way it resounded in the Manhattan theatre where I watched it could not be ignored.
By the way: I’ve seen and heard good things from audiences, too. I was present at a showing of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) during which a fellow sitting in front of me pumped his fist, shouting, during the climax of the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech. I heard people shriek with fear at an on-campus film society viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) during the scene in which murderer Lars Thorwald (played by the inimitable Raymond Burr) breaks the fourth wall to look into the camera accusingly as he notices Jimmy Stewart’s photographer spying on him. Audiences change in composition and quality. You can do all the marketing you want, but it’s impossible to determine without fail that a film will fly in certain regions and not in others. There’s no magic recipe, because everyone’s different. People can’t be categorised in lumps, like hot cereal.
Yet they can move like one entity when spurred to do so, and this is what happened at the Braveheart showing I attended. I won’t believe humans are innately evil, that they don’t recognise, as a rule, the villainy of murder. Groups move en masse when sparked to do something by individuals, governments or phenomena. Such collective actions can result in good or bad – which means there has to be accountability on the inciter’s end.
So far, there’s been no reason to believe Mel Gibson’s camp will come through with that.
Should we avoid his films, then? Given the quality of his recent movies, I’m all for such an idea from a cinematic perspective, but the only way we can continue to be aware of hatred is if its mechanisms keep coming to light. Gibson has been oft-criticised in the media – and rightly so – for many of his philosophical beliefs, but I often feel that the homophobic sentiments of Braveheart are ignored. We are entering a brave new world in which, thankfully, people who are gay are receiving more respect and acceptance than they have in any other era. I believe we must also scrutinise our movies and other creations to ensure irresponsible philosophies aren’t perpetuated. I’m not saying we should ban them; rather, we should see that they are more frequently viewed so people can understand how hateful they are. And let’s not relegate this practice solely to Gibson’s films – let’s also put the spot on venerated pictures such as Gone With the Wind (1939), which is still televised widely despite its anti-black prejudice, as well as on little-seen flicks such as the notoriously anti-Semitic Jud Süss (1940). We need understanding of these movies to be out in the open, obvious. We need more people to reject them.
Otherwise, we’ll have more and more reactions like the one I encountered during that viewing of Braveheart two decades ago. And I want no part of that happy few.