‘The Great Breening Blogathon is an opportunity to censor a movie based on the old Hollywood decency codes. I want to thank Tiffany Brannan for the invite to participate in this fascinating Blogathon; especially since, it provides me with some challenges as a writer and as a movie fan. For instance, it allowed me to see a wonderful film classic with a different perspective. The film isn’t just a work of art with its own truths and lessons; instead, I viewed it with the eyes of a societal protector that uses a moral compass called the Hays Decency Code.
I have been following a blog, Pure Entertainment Preservation Society (PEPS) for awhile now, and; I have enjoyed their posts. They have invited bloggers to honor the man whose control of movie content has produced many of the classic, timeless movies during a twenty year span (1934 to 1954), known as the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The Process of Breening
First, I carefully review the film by watching every detail in each scene for any objectionable material that might not have been allowed according the code. The process of censoring these movies is called Breening. This is in honor the man, Joseph I. Breen, who perfected this system. For the purpose of this Blogathon, I had to choose a movie that was not previously “Breened.” A movie not made between 1934 to 1954 and not made after 1968. So, my movie choice which was made in 1930 is considered one of the best films ever made, even by critics today: All Quiet on The Western Front.
Just think about it, this movie was made only one year after the introduction of sound pictures, in 1929. In addition, this movie is bit historical considering that it was made only twelve years after WW I (1914- 1918) or “The Great War” as it was known then. This means most adult audiences, which saw this movie in 1930, were either in that war or affected by it in some way. This brilliantly made film won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director; and, it also earned two nominations for Best Writing, Achievement and Best Cinematography.
Could this movie even been allowed to be made using the Breening system?
The Movie is adapted from a popular book published in 1929 and written by a wounded, German WWI Veteran, Erich Maria Ramarque. So, basically it is an American made movie based on the viewpoint and experiences of an enemy soldier. Ironically, this is, in and of itself, enough too have stopped the release of this movie under the Hays Code. A general rule of the code claims: the sympathy of the audience must never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin. In war, the other side is always wrong and evil.
Ramarque’s book became a best seller around the world. It is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. It is still required reading in classrooms and colleges across the United States. A sequel to this book, The Road Back, was published in 1931. In this book, he opposed the rise of Nazis Germany. In 1933, Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s minister of Propaganda) banned his books and had them publicly burned them. War hero, turned author was an anti-Nazis; so, Hitler deemed him as a traitor. In 1939, he immigrated to the United States; and, he became a U.S. citizen in 1947.
The Movie and the book are still considered influential anti-war works and important chronicles of WWI. The leading actor in the movie, Lew Ayers, was so influence by the movie, he became a conscientious objector for the rest of his life. This did not make him popular in Hollywood; but, he continued to act in various roles for decades until his death in 1970.
The Great War (1914 – 1918)
Sadly, this war was tagged as the “War to end all wars.” Many people of that time believed in stockpiles of modern weapons (militarism) as a defense against attack and eventually, war itself. Their “new” weapons and machines would make the act of war obsolete. This delusional belief was based on the idea that the war would be fought mostly by machines instead of humans, who would just control the buttons. As a result, there would be fewer lives loss; and, the war would be over very quickly. The technological arrogance of this assumption is deplorable. I guess they thought it would be like Robot Wars. Of course, Trench Warfare, Submarine Warfare, Chemical Warfare, Tank Warfare, and even uses of the Aeroplanes (flying coffins), radio, motor vehicles, animals (homing pigeons, horses, and dogs), flame throwers, hand grenades … just made destroying all known life easier to do and in much greater numbers. As a result of so many men killed in this war, the remaining survivors were known as being part of “The Lost Generation.”
What an enormous responsibility these film makers took in making a war movie that the viewing public was still healing from. Too much realism could repulse them and not enough would make the film sound dishonest and irrelevant. Would using the Bleen system change the quality of this two hour and 11 minute movie classic? After censoring this film, would it keep its integrity and possibly be a better movie? Or, regrettably, with details left out or changed, would it have too much sugarcoat and therefore, unbelievable?
The Breen scenes
The Movie opens with a military parade in the streets. A professor in boy’s classroom is nearly yelling at his students in order to be heard. He is encouraging a whole class of boys how honorable and adventurous it is to fight the enemy on foreign soil. He even quotes the Latin phrase that every Roman soldier said: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Sweet and Fitting it is to die for the fatherland.
The need to join the fight becomes so overwhelming, they jump up from their desks and quit school. This displays their heart felt love for their country (Nationalism). The armies around the world would keep families and friends together as a fighting unit or company. They truly were a ” band of brothers” sent off to war together.
So, here is the first scene I would cut or at least rewritten.
Breen #1: Costumes – undressing scenes should be avoided.
Breen#2 Sex: scenes of passion –No excessive or lustful kissing and no suggestive postures or gestures.
It is a scene where the boys first arrive at boot camp and are assigned their uniforms and bunks. These young men sit on their beds together and excitedly talk about the weapons they will be soon trained to use. There is a close-up a man taking off his shirt as they talk. Many are half dressed playing around on beds. As one young man raises his hips off the bed to put on uniform pants, his friend, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayers) jokingly places the pointy Helmut under his butt. Of course, his butt lands on the point. He screams and then uses the Helmut to smack Paul, as they both laugh. Then one of the other friends, grabs another friend’s face in both his hands and kisses him squarely on the lips and then on the cheek while he laughingly says: you won a metal that time Mulller. Muller laughs too.
Personally, I love this scene; since, it displays their exuberance for life and their playfulness while they excitedly wait to start their imaginary adventure. However, I am sure it would not pass decency code at the time. Since it is a long scene, in a long movie, over two hours, it would be easier to just delete it.
Second scene to Breen
When the men find out that their drill sergeant is their friendly post man back home, they literally laugh in his face. Part of boot camp training is to break down independent thinking and then build it up again with team thinking. Immediately, the Corporal shows the men that he is not their friend and is on a power trip. So much so, Himmelstoss delivers his cruel and sadistic orders.
Breen #3 Crimes Against the law – REVENGE in modern times are not presented in detail
After 6 weeks of grueling training, the men were denied leave to relax in town. Not one weekend were they allowed a break from training like other companies. They were given their orders to leave at midnight for the Western Front (trenches built between two warring enemies: French and the Germans). They had just enough time to clean the mud off their uniforms. Later, that same evening, they were given an opportunity to even the score. They happened to witness a drunken Himmelstoss stumbling across the camp. They strung wire to trip him; then, they covered his head in a blanket. Then, they carried him into the woods and commenced to beat the “tar” out of him. They each took turns beating his arse with canes. Then, they dumped his unconscious body in the mud.
We see the men pre-plan their brutal attack and carry it out in detail against a superior officer. This would definitely not be allowed under the decency code. I would rewrite the scene as an accident witnessed by the men for their enjoyment. As the drunken Himmelstoss crosses the camp, he hits his head on a tree limb and falls unconscious into the mud while the men hilariously laugh.
Breen #4 Repellent subjects – Brutality and possible gruesomeness is not allowed
The scenes of men in combat are very graphic. There is one scene that a soldiers hands are left grabbing wire while the rest of his body has been blown away. I would have deleted this scene.
The last scene I would like to Bleen, although there are many more, is a scene where they are bathing in a lake, NAKED.
Breen #5 Nudity can never be permitted as being necessary for the plot
After lusting for a woman on a poster, in a village pub behind enemy lines, the men decide to take a bath to try to feel human again. While bathing and swimming naked, they see three French girls across the river. The girls are giggling and laughing at these nude boys. They see them and try to persuade them to join them. They girls only laugh and shake their heads in unbelief at their nudity and terrible attempts in speaking French. Finally, one of them lures them with a bottle of wine and some bread he had retrieved from the embankment.
A guard on duty orders them back to across the river. The girls indicate their house and for welcome to a rendezvous later that night. They arrive in the dark: wet and naked (nakedness is implied). The girls are shocked that they were butt naked. So, they grab the feminine clothing hanging on a clothesline. When they come into the house, they clothes are hanging on them in weird ways in their excitement to be admitted in the house. The women are starving and they quickly ravish the food. One of the girls lead Paul to a kitchen chair beside her. This is one of the sweetest scenes in the movie. Paul tenderly watches her as she devours the food. Then, she cups his cheek in her hand. He slowly turns her hand over and delicately kisses her palm. You could almost feel his heart and read his mind as you witness the grossness of the war slowly fall away.
There is free love, nakedness, and sneaking around by breaking orders not to cross the river….let alone fraternising with the enemy. This whole scene would have to be rewritten where Paul is married and returns home for some love. Too bad because this scene, with these two strangers and enemies, reveal a lesson in the fact that humans have a basic need. In order to connect to our sense of humanity, we must do so through others. That is all this scene wants to convey; no more and no less. In a rewrite, Paul’s going back to the wife involves mutual expectations. He is not the man he was before the war. His experiences have changed him into someone much more complex. All of that has to be included too with a wife. These two scenes would be completely different lessons with different results. The plot does just thicken, it is changed.
There are many more scenes that I could Bleen for this movie; but, since I am a newbie at this, I think five scenes is enough for this post. What do I take away from this process? There are movie scenes that can be removed and rewritten to make a better movie. Fine editing is vital for a film’s success. However, this classic masterpiece could not withstand too much Bleen censoring without changing the true sentiments of the storyline and plot.
This challenge of utilizing the Bleen system, not only entailed that I use someone else’s decency standards; but, also that I judge the merit of an art form purely based on the perceived notions of what is considered “good taste” or what is “right” for the common good. It is stifling at best and at worst, it limits freedom of speech. Anyone who has been involved in creating any art form knows that most artists look for the “Truth” from within their soul. Without a doubt, the artist and the censor have two separate perceptions of what Art should be. This difference creates an endless discussion and debate on defining Art and the limitations (if any) on the freedom of speech and expression.
I enjoyed participating in the Bleen process and again, I want to thank Tiffany for this lovely opportunity. If you enjoyed critiquing this movie with me and you would enjoy reading more posts about other “Bleen” movies, please use the link: