Even before films had dialogue, they had guns. In 1903 The Great Train Robbery had the first narrative story in movie history. It also—just two minutes into running time—had the first on-screen kill with a gun. In total, six characters succumbed to gunfire in that ten-minute film. The last image on the reel is of a man firing a pistol directly at the camera.
In 1903 guns forged a relationship with movies that would last indefinitely. But it would take another 67 years for the F-word to break taboo and find itself on the big screen in the movie M*A*S*H.
As of 2023, it is still more acceptable for a movie character to shoot someone than to say “F—.”
In 2008 the movie sensation The Dark Knight portrayed characters shooting handguns, shotguns, semi-automatics, explosive missiles, and rocket launchers. But in all that chaos, viewers never heard the F-bomb. If that word were uttered more than once in the film, the rating would have escalated from PG-13 to R, by order of strict decree from the MPAA. In a motion picture with 66 kills, about a dozen of which by gunfire, director Christopher Nolan could not take that risk.
The Dark Knight grossed over $1 billion and was nominated for eight Academy Awards. It was the winner in two categories.
Other high-grossing films by Nolan have the same motif. Tenet (2020), Dunkirk (2017), and Inception (2010) all have prominent gun use. None contain the F-word, so therefore all carry a PG-13 rating. Collectively these three films were nominated for 18 Academy Awards, of which they won eight.
Nolan has found the line in the sand. Since 2002, he has kept all of his movies in the PG-13 spectrum by simply avoiding that one word. His earlier films Insomnia (2002) and Memento (2000) contain as much gun violence as his newer films, but they slip in over 50 F-words a piece and so, are aptly rated R.
Now, I would never suggest that more bullets equal more Academy Awards, but while we are on the subject, let’s examine Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), which has 15 kills by firearms. It was nominated for five Academy Awards. It won four, including Best Picture.
Also consider Steven Spielberg’s beloved film, Saving Private Ryan (1998), which has well over 200 kills by gunfire. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and took home five. It is still uncanny to viewers that Ryan lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love, a movie that contains no guns at all.
But if ever Scorsese and Spielberg wanted to keep their films south of an R-rating, perhaps they should tone down the use of the F-word. Spielberg allows it nearly 20 times in his 1998 film, and Scorsese lets it fly over 250 times.
This year, out of the 10 movies nominated for Best Picture by the Academy, seven feature guns or gun violence in some capacity. Four of those have a rating of PG-13. One of this year’s nominees not only features the word ‘gun’ in the title, but also showcases military-grade artillery firing in the forefront of the narrative. Director of Top Gun: Maverick Joseph Kosinski, though, has assured viewers that the F-word is not heard on screen, so the film is appropriate for viewers 13 and older.
American cinema is more concerned with impolite speech than the portrayal of gun violence.
Perhaps this is why in 2022, actors, writers, and producers composed an open letter to raise awareness of Hollywood’s obsession with firearms. The letter, signed by A-listers like Judd Apatow and Mark Ruffalo, asked Hollywood “to be mindful of on-screen gun violence and model gun safety best practices.”
Hollywood should listen.
Let’s also call on the MPAA to change its rating criteria. If a character in a movie can’t say “f—” twice in two hours, lest the film be given an R-rating, then there has to be a better standard for the display of gun violence as well.
The leading cause of death among young Black men is not profanity. Media outlets do not cover deranged individuals throwing F-bombs in nightclubs. Firearms, not curse words, plague America.
It’s true, Hollywood alone cannot fix the problem. But if they are going to be the parent in the room who won’t tolerate cursing at the dinner table, perhaps they can do something about those semi-automatic rifles.
2 thoughts on “And the Academy Award Goes to … Guns!”
Great article. I thought it was interesting that you had so many facts from the movie industry.
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Very insightful piece with meaningful research supporting the main (MY main?) takeaway—the US is both Puritanical and gun-worshipping at an unconscious level. Thanks for raising it to the level of a conscious debate.
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