The soundtrack to whatever it is my boyfriend watches without me is at least 50 percent machine gun fire. The remaining 50 percent might be foreign dialogue, children crying, fire from a variety of other types of weaponry and sounds of young men experiencing a palpable fear of their own mortality.
It doesn’t seem like him at all, though: He identifies more as a pacifist, rejecting the militaristic patriotism war movies tend to embrace. When we watch TV together, we usually watch something light — we’ve been bingeing Malcolm in the Middle as of late. Perhaps he uses his solo media time to consume something entirely different, centering largely upon themes of war and brutal conflict. But why is it exactly that my (hate to say it) relatively wimpy, anti-war boyfriend loves to see people get their limbs blown off for an imperialist agenda?
Some psychological studies might answer the question. In 2013, researchers from the University of Augsburg, Germany and the University of Wisconsin, Madison explored popular beliefs about why some people enjoy violence in films. One common theory is that violence can be enjoyable because it often produces a sense of excitement or thrill, but when the researchers surveyed various respondents on their perceptions of violent films, truth-seeking was noted as essential to the enjoyment. Rather than simply wanting to see some blood and guts, people often want that blood and guts to tell us something about humanity.
War movies in particular can often check that box perfectly, potentially even in ways that few films without the blood and guts could. When I asked my boyfriend to dig into his desire to watch movies centered on explosions and suffering, he emphasized the sense of escapism these types of films provide. A movie like 1917, for example, a film where the only scene I witnessed featured a young man accidentally shoving his fist into a decomposing body in the trenches of World War I, is entirely foreign to his own lived experience. He cannot relate his own memories to the plot, and is able to engross himself within the movie accordingly. When he thinks about the anxieties of these soldier-protagonists, he doesn’t need to think of his own. At least, that’s what he said initially.
As we discussed it a bit further, though, he mentioned how he loves watching these movies because they’re something his father enjoys. They’re something my father enjoys, too. Neither of them have been to war, either. They’re all interested in history and the mechanics of submarines and airplanes, but it’s not just that: Those details, combined with the gunshots and wails of pain, might be a cover. Behind those layers, these violent movies often feature dialogues of mourning, fear and brotherly love. As young men face their deaths, they speak some of their most sentimental words.
Few other movie genres showcase the vulnerability beneath the traditionally masculine exterior in a way that traditional masculinity still finds acceptable. Men like my boyfriend may be comfortable and secure enough with their own tears and sense of self, but for those less inclined to display their feelings, the emotions that war movies evoke need little justification. The thrill of violence in war movies may be one avenue for escapism, but for many, the relief of these films’ catharsis must be another as well.