Monday, October 19, 2009


Vergeltungswaffen—German for “vengeance weapon,” as in V-2 rocket, a weapon of revenge, retribution, and reprisal. Prompted by the box-office success of the Gerard Butler-starring vigilante movie Law Abiding Citizen this past weekend, an article in today’s L. A. Times explores the link between vigilantism and vengeance in American movies. The link is indisputably true—the vigilante is as old as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), in which a rogue terrorist organization, the Klan, is depicted heroically—but vigilantism (the act of operating outside the law) should not always be equated with vengeance (retribution). Revenge is a force that crosses film genres, as the article observes, and it is true that there are indeed “affinities between vigilantes and superheroes”—the character of Batman, for instance, whose traumatic origin was in witnessing the cold-blooded murder of his parents. The character’s origin is, of course, a conceit, revealing more about the logic of entertainment than about the motives for vigilantism.

Vengeance, retribution, reprisal—getting even—is a powerful motivating force, and the cinema seems to be the ideal medium in which to enact its violent display. The reason seems obvious: justice is an abstraction, and because it often unfolds slowly, it makes a poor subject for drama. Moreover, stories of vengeance ideally fit the Modernist paradigm, the individual pitted against (corrupt) society. Since the justice system is an incalculably complex bureaucracy, and filled with corrupt officials, the individual necessarily operates outside the system, as a rogue (vigilante), often using a gun as his or her vergeltungswaffen. The American vigilante descends from the gunslinger, the streets of the big city analogous to the lawless frontier. Although the gun is the vigilante’s preferred weapon, I’ve always found figures such as Dr. Phibes and the Crypt Keeper much more imaginative in the way they enact a form of poetic justice.

V For Vengeance (x13):
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Once Upon A Time in the West (1968)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Tales From the Crypt (1972)
High Plains Drifter (1973)
Walking Tall (1973)
Death Wish (1974)
The Exterminator (1980)
An Eye For An Eye (1981)
Vigilante (1983)
The Brave One (2007)
Taken (2009)
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

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