At the time of this writing, almost every newscast dealing with the “War Against Terrorism” shows some of the gadgets that are part of the hi-tech U.S. arsenal. For the last year and a half, audiences have been assailed with images of stealth planes, night vision goggles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and laser-guided “intelligent” bombs.
On the other hand, and in stark contrast with the American war machine, the terrorist forces are shown as utterly primitive. The so-called “forces of evil” often appear in a video clip showing a bunch of men in filthy clothes training in what seems to be a decrepit and dirty camp. In some other clips, the “enemies of the free world” are hidden in caves, holding antiquated rifles. However, their lack of advanced weaponry does not make them less lethal. Indeed, one only need consider how a handful of terrorists managed to circumvent state-of-the-art defense systems and obliterate the World Trade Center, a quintessential symbol of the States’ economic power.
As this first war of the 21st century accelerates, it’s important to recall that the confrontation between primitive and civilized cultures is not new. From the expansion of the Egyptian Empire across Africa, to the European conquest and colonization of America, to the recent wave of Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, history is rich in examples where an outwardly primitive culture is in brutal battle against a civilized culture. Not surprisingly, the many anxieties generated and mirrored by these struggles are repeatedly translated into fiction. From Homer’s The Odyssey to Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun, the heroes embody the noble values of the civilization that creates them, while the foes represent savagery.
In particular, action and horror films showcase the battle between the primitive and the civilized. Here, I will examine three critically acclaimed films emerging from different decades and genres: Deliverance (John Boorman 1972), Aliens (James Cameron 1986) and Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott 2001). For all their differences, these films have strikingly similar plots, presenting “typical” Americans boldly invading a primitive world that they do not really understand, and the terrible consequences they must face.
In order to understand the designated primitive in these films, we recall that the heroes stand for the values of the culture that creates them. In the cases of these films, the target audiences belong to the heroes’ culture. This makes the “primitive” that which is perceived—and represented—as “different” from the target audience. While this assumption seems to be reasonable, it is also problematic, as the meaning of “primitive” is not absolute, but relative to the culture that generates the narrative.
So, the hillbillies in Deliverance, the xenomorphs in Aliens, and the Somalis in Black Hawk Down are representations of primitivism. On the other hand, the campers, the colonial Marines, and the U.S. troops all stand for the civilized. In each case, the primitive is portrayed as radically different from its civilized counterpart, and the civilized is strikingly similar to us (the movie audience). The primitive is bizarre, even repulsive, a member of a different race (literally or metaphorically), or species, as in the case of Aliens.
In Black Hawk Down, for example, the Somalis—much like the Al-Qaeda recruits, wear filthy clothes and speak an unintelligible language. Moreover, they are incredibly thin, due to years of famine, and act as a collective force, ominous and seemingly unstoppable. Significantly, the Somalis are black, visually contrasted with the nearly all white American troops.
However, the difference between the primitive and the civilized is more than skin deep. It is further encoded in terms of class, social, and moral differences. In all three of these films, the civilized belongs to a well-established cast of adventurers, entrepreneurs, scientists, soldiers, even lawyers. He carries expensive gear, wears flashy clothes, and uses advanced technology. In Aliens, for example, the crewmembers work with fantastically sophisticated equipment, to the point that one of them, Bishop (Lance Henricksen) actually is a machine.
At the same time, in a futile attempt to dominate the primitive, the civilized tries to use money to purchase and humiliate its opposition. Consider, for example, how Black Hawk Down‘s Colonel Garrison (Sam Shepard) posts rewards for the capture of Mohamed Farah Aidid and pays informants for ambiguous intelligence. Here, the battle between the civilized and the primitive boils down to a fight between those who have economic power and those who lack it.
One of the most dramatic differences between the primitive and the civilized emerges in the morality of their behavior. In Deliverance, a hillbilly viciously rapes one of the campers (Ned Beatty), and in return, the city adventurers kill the rapist. In Aliens, the monsters rape, impregnate, and exterminate the human colonists, while the Marines eventually manage to nuke the entire place. And in Black Hawk Down, the Somalis abuse and desecrate the body of an American soldier at the site of the helicopter crash, and later on the American helicopters fire upon hundreds of locals on the rooftops.
As the heroes represent a society where gratuitous violence is morally objectionable, they must be “goaded” to violence in order to maintain their moral viability. The primitive aggresses with evil purposes, but because the civilized attacks to defend himself (or wreak righteous revenge), he is vindicated of his violent actions.
Ironically, the civilized society is traditionally more repressive than its primitive counterpart, which is uninhibited in its use of brutality and aberrant sexuality. If we subscribe to Freudian theory, the primitive is perceived by the civilized as an embodiment of their “repressed” desires, here “returned.” This monster is impure and dangerous, threatening established order. Indeed, the monster’s very existence raises anxieties of cultural mixing. These anxieties reach a zenith in the scenes where the primitive engages in interracial sex: the camper being raped by the hillbilly in Deliverance, the aliens impregnating the humans, and the Somalis stripping the stranded pilot in Black Hawk Down.
At one level, then, these films work as cautionary tales against getting too close to the primitives’ bodies and lands. The action takes place in isolated places such as Appalachia (Deliverance), another planet (Aliens), and Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down). In these exotic locations, there is no electricity, no luxuries, and most important, no law.
This “other” place makes visible the films’ scapegoating process, aimed to relieve the cultural guilt felt by the civilized. While the civilized in each case is visibly attacked, it invades and takes advantage of the primitive’s territory in the first place. Indeed, the destruction of the Appalachian countryside by a power company in Deliverance, the terraformation of the planet’s atmosphere in Aliens, and the kidnapping of government leaders by the U.S. troops in Black Hawk Down precede atrocities against the heroes.
Historically, when a civilized culture encounters a less civilized society, the former will invade, conquer, and exploit the latter. For example, European nations colonized Africa and the Americas during the “golden age of world exploration,” which led to centuries of slavery and segregation. (In Aliens, Burke’s [Paul Reiser] intention to put the aliens to use as bioweapons recalls the slave trade.) The civilized, “winning” in such circumstances, represses and rewrites the past by means of popular art, which includes literature, films, and TV shows.
This is certainly the case in Deliverance, Aliens, and Black Hawk Down, all centered on the victimization of the civilized by the primitive, while obscuring the initial invasion of the civilized into the territory of the primitive. The primitive thus embodies the very repressions the narrative enacts, and once again, the primitive is moralized. That is, as a consequence of the scapegoating process, political and ideological complexities are reduced to moral oppositions.
Although this discussion has been limited to three movies, it applies to a large class of action and horror films, and more recently, “news” media. Monsters (and evildoers) are usually primitive, and primitives are typically monstrous. The attacks on 9-11 and subsequent war against terrorism repeat this characterization, as a “civilized” culture wages war against a “less civilized” culture. Most likely, anxieties generated by this real life conflict, such as fear of the primitive circumventing advanced defense technology to destroy the civilized, will be embraced by future action and horror films. But we should bear in mind how, based on our perception of racial and socio-cultural differences, cultural products moralize and redefine our conceptualization of primitivism.