Washed in Blood: Male Sacrifice, Trauma, and the Cinema

Washed in Blood: Male Sacrifice, Trauma, and the Cinema

Washed in Blood: Male Sacrifice, Trauma, and the Cinema

Washed in Blood: Male Sacrifice, Trauma, and the Cinema


Will Smith in I Am Legend. Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. Charlton Heston in just about everything.

Viewers of Hollywood action films are no doubt familiar with the sacrificial victim-hero, the male protagonist who nobly gives up his life so that others may be saved. Washed in Blood argues that such sacrificial films are especially prominent in eras when the nation--and American manhood--is thought to be in crisis. The sacrificial victim-hero, continually imperiled and frequently exhibiting classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, thus bears the trauma of the nation.

Claire Sisco King offers an in-depth study of three prominent cycles of Hollywood films that follow the sacrificial narrative: the early-to-mid 1970s, the mid-to-late 1990s, and the mid-to-late 2000s. From Vietnam-era disaster movies to post-9/11 apocalyptic thrillers, she examines how each film represents traumatized American masculinity and national identity. What she uncovers is a cinematic tendency to position straight white men as America's most valuable citizens--and its noblest victims.


Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) succeeds at being a hard film to watch. Like the devotional art of the Middle Ages, it focuses intently on the psychological and physical torment Jesus endured during the hours before his death, graphically depicting scenes of torture and fixating on Jesus’s bloody lacerations. Its gore has led some critics to call The Passion a traumatic film: a film not only about traumatic suffering but also one that is traumatizing to viewers. For instance, Owen Gleiberman’s review for Entertainment Weekly locates The Passion within “the cinema of cruelty.” Citing the “voyeuristic brutality” of the film, Gleiberman suggests that while it is possible to write Gibson off as a “glorified pain freak,” his “torture-racked” film might be better understood as a “sacred form of shock therapy” fixated on the alleged “link between pain and what lies on the other side of pain—between horror and awe.” Lisa Schwarzbaum’s adjacent review in Entertainment Weekly derides the film as producing little more than “shock and awe” and worries that viewers may be “traumatized by something they shouldn’t need to see.”

Reviewers typically attributed The Passion’s fixation on trauma to the perceived singularity of Gibson as a star, filmmaker, and public figure. Some celebrated Gibson as a religious devotee with a unique artistic vision and determination to offer an “accurate” portrayal of the gospels; others positioned Gibson as an anti-Semitic fundamentalist obsessed with the Christ story. In each case, however, Gibson’s high-profile and divisive persona operated as the particularized lens through which most discussions of The Passion were filtered. Of special interest were the extreme personal and financial efforts Gibson undertook to get this film made and the risks such endeavors posed to his career. Some reviewers (and fans) even suggested parallels between the suffering of the film’s protagonist and the sacrifices made by its director, framing Gibson as a modern-day martyr.

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