It Was Acceptable in The 80’s

The Dam Busters was broadcast on British terrestrial TV on a Sunday afternoon recently.  The film, made in 1955, charts the progress of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs that were used to destroy German dams during the second world war. 

There’s an innocuous scene fairly early in the narrative when one of the protagonists is seen clambering out of his plane following a practice raid and upon seeing the unit’s faithful dog, a black Labrador, he calls out the hound’s name.  So far, so normal.  Except then we learn the dog’s name is ‘Nigger’ – probably the most offensive word in the English language. A word so hideously toxic that it’s almost universally been replaced by the phrase ‘The N Word’ these days. I couldn’t quite believe what I’d heard so rewound to check my ears hadn’t deceived me. They hadn’t. 

There have been censored versions of the film broadcast before where the name is changed to ‘Trigger’, but on this occasion the original un-dubbed edit was aired. The Labrador crops us several times during the film, and pretty much every time he is addressed by his name, before getting hit by a car and killed. 

A Peter Jackson directed remake of the film has been mooted for a number of years now and needless to say if there is a black Labrador in the script, he’ll have a different name. 

There are many scenes from recent film history that just wouldn’t be deemed acceptable in today’s more enlightened society. And it isn’t always just the language that is an issue.  It has been well documented that Ian Fleming’s James Bond was, to the say least, somewhat unreconstructed when he first appeared in print, and continued to be a neanderthal, misogynist when he make the leap from page to screen. It is nonetheless quite shocking to look at a compilation of various Bonds down the years restraining, slapping and abusing women.  It is perhaps more disturbing watching these scenes because the character is still relevant in today’s market; 2012’s Skyfall is currently the 20th biggest grossing movie of all time. Since Daniel Craig breathed new life into the character, Bond films have become major events again, with all the films in which he plays the British spy grossing over 500 million dollars. Skyfall, which breached the 1 billion dollars mark, includes a scene in which are titular hero walks unannounced and naked in on a woman having a shower. Naturally enough they proceed to have consensual sex, whereas in reality she would have been far more likely to freak out and phone the police.  It’s debatable whether during the current #MeToo climate this scene would have made the cut. Take a look at the clip on Youtube and the first comment underneath reads: “How come when I did this I went to prison?”  Well, quite.   

Maybe we are living in over-sensitive, permanently offended, snowflakery times. I wonder whether in 20 years time we will be looking back at some of the things produced now and gasping at how offensive they are.  Maybe there will be a reaction the other way and future filmmakers will produce overtly offensive material with hugely unreconstructed characters in a backlash to our current, supposedly more informed climate.  But as we can’t see into to the future, let’s delve into the past to ‘enjoy’ some scenes that remind us how far we come in recent years and be thankful for existing in more enlightened filmmaking times.

Here’s a lovely scene from Hondo, a big budget western from 1953 where John Wayne takes a slightly unconventional approach to teaching a young boy how to swim.

Picture the scene: you’re on a first date and feeling horny but your partner isn’t, what better way to get her to engage sexually than to pop your erect cock up through the bottom of your popcorn carton so that when she reaches in for a snack she inadvertently handles your boner.  Classy stuff from 1982’s Diner which featured the likes Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon and Steve Guttenberg.

Mick Dundee here meeting what he assumes is a woman in a bar in the first Crocodile Dundee and goes all Donald Trump by grabbing her/him in the nether regions to ascertain gender.

The eighties seemed to be a decade in which casual homophobia was acceptable in the movies. From the aforementioned Mick Dundee nearly falling from a building ledge a hundred foot in the air following the discovery that guy who he just talked out of jumping was gay, to Michael J Fox saying he ‘wasn’t a fag’ in 1985’s Teen Wolf. Though perhaps the par exemplar scene comes when two characters enter the Blue Oyster club in Police Academy.

And finally here’s Dan Ackroyd engaging in some spectacularly lazy stereotyping whilst blacking up in Trading Places.

These clips are, in many ways, troubling, but I prefer to take the positives from them.  For me, they serve to highlight how far we’ve come as a filmgoing community.  Ask yourself this: Can you imagine any of the scenes being included in a mainstream movie made in 2018?  The answer, I would suggest, is no.