Now, before we go any further I want all of you to rest assured I’m not going to tell you “mainstream film and media suck because they don’t do this thing I want them to!” If we were going that route, I’d just hop on the whitewashing bandwagon and word-flay them for being more concerned about profits than accurate casting. By the way, that’s dumb. They should stop casting white people as non-white people.
Anyway, we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here so I can discuss unforeseen violent death again. If you hadn’t guessed by now that I have a wealth of serious psychological issues, I’d like to call attention to the fact that I’m a caucasian male. You know, the serial killer demographic? But we’re getting off topic there, the title specifically says combat. Less generally and more creepily, it’s my professional opinion that shit does not, in fact, go down at a high enough rate in fiction. One of the most common aspects of war history is that every single person involved says there’s never any warning. It’s not even, “one second, everything was quiet, and the next, kablooie!” We’re talking more on the order of this: “Well, we spent about a week just camped there. Arty in the distance, but there was always arty in the distance. Some of the rookies started griping. I admit, even the rest of us got bored. I guess maybe we asked for it. Day 9 of the op Lieutenant Fuller got everyone up to do a dawn patrol. Thirty minutes in we passed by this little copse of trees, saw a church across a field. Then the LT was bleeding from the head, two MGs opened up on the lead squad, and about a hundred (ethnic designation of opposing force here) popped up goddamn everywhere, and we were engaged.”
The recurring theme in most first-hand accounts of warfare is suddenness. One second you’re giving your foxhole buddy crap for stealing one of your K-ration bars. Then Earth itself seems to erupt in smoke and fire, and it’s only once you’re down in your foxhole trying to squeeze your whole body inside your helmet that your brain says, “Oh, it’s enemy artillery. That makes sense.” You’re jostling Septimus with your shield and teasing him about his Grecian mistress, then the Gauls surge out of the woods ahead and the entire legion’s fighting for its life. Going for something a little less historical, your squadron’s on patrol over Centauri Station. With a pulse of blue-gold light, an entire Secessionist fleet warps in and swathes the station in plasma blasts and missiles. In the split-second it takes your squadron to pull evasive maneuvers, half of them are torn to glistening shards by anti-fighter railguns.
We don’t get these moments often enough in film and writing. The closest I’ve seen is in the semi-realistic shooter department with games like ARMA, Red Orchestra and their ilk. Only there do you have the right combination of dense cover and open spaces, of close-knit units and lone wolves. At any second, your avatar in these games could be under the crosshairs of an enemy sniper. Even if you are the sniper, you never know that the attack helicopter two miles off hasn’t picked you up on thermals. There could be a missile coming your way the instant you open fire. The only “safe” decision is to hide in a corner, but even then the enemy may find you. The great terror of war, by all accounts, is not during the enemy assault. Once they come at you, you can shoot back, you can make decisions, you can keep your brain busy. The fear most accounts come back to, over and over again, is of the instantaneous nature of war. Things are never peaceful, they’re just calm. There’s no safe time to stop paying attention. In modern warfare a hospital a hundred miles behind the front line isn’t safe. Enemy aircraft could bomb the building at any moment, rules of war be damned, the front line could fall back almost to the hospital’s front door in a matter of days, enemy infiltrators could stage a terror attack and disappear by the time the chief surgeon finishes calling for help.
We rarely see any of this in entertainment. Excepting explicitly historical films and war documentaries, anyway, but you may not consider those entertainment. The heroine always spots an enemy archer behind a tree, or the brawny commando hears someone’s safety click. The wing commander sees a single fighter dart between tumbling asteroids (because it’s not like the enemy had a full fucking week to get positioned in the belt), or the Admiral just flat-out senses that “It’s a trap!” Although in Akbar’s defense, the Death Star II was so conspicuously unattended that just about anyone should’ve known it was a trap. Strangely enough, the only popular film I remember having a good ambush is Disney’s Mulan, wherein the Hun archers do, in fact, open fire out of nowhere and target the Captain first.
I have some guesses as to why surprise violence gets so little play these days. First off, it’s become associated with war films. It often seems to me that people in one genre of entertainment try to avoid the hallmarks of other genres, even though there’s never been any explicit rule against borrowing. To borrow a keen observation from my cousin Eric, Alien borrowed substantially from the Slasher film genre, and that turned out one of the best SciFi horror films ever made. My other hypotheses are more basic. There’s an ever-increasing pre-occupation with avoiding anything that might be difficult for any members of the audience.
As a child watching Saving Private Ryan for the first time (which might explain some of my neurological mis-wirings, to be honest), I didn’t immediately understand what happened to Vin Diesel’s character, Caparzo. I’d begun to tune out when the screaming child appeared, and was turned away in the instant that Caparzo was hit. Turning back, I saw this tall soldier collapse against a piano for no apparent reason, then turn, run three clumsy steps and collapse in the street. I didn’t realize he’d been shot until the blood started trickling. Even horror films haven’t terrified me as much as that moment did, and it was possible because Spielberg and company weren’t afraid to confuse me. That scene also represents one of the best handlings of ballistics I’ve ever seen in a film. The bullet hits, then there’s a sound that might be a gunshot, and of course we don’t see the shot because it was fired by a sniper quite a ways off in a Normandy rainstorm (and more basically, because his belltower roost wasn’t on-screen at the time). More on this in another article, but it goes to show that realism can make some scenes more effective if handled right.
Getting back to the main point, it’s entirely possible that a lot of filmmakers don’t want to use suddenness because it’s cheap. And it is cheap, I can’t deny that. When things happen without warning or foreshadowing, we almost invariably experience an adrenaline spike from the pure shock value of the moment. As an intensifier suddenness is so easy that I can understand how serious artists would be reluctant to use it. Let’s come back to that other side of war I mentioned earlier, the part where most of the time nothing much happens. A battle is a frenetic, high-stakes encounter with very few lulls until the end. A war is comprised of many battles as well as all the skin-rippling silence between them. Battles are sudden in the context of a war, but compared to the ambushes which start them they can be absolutely glacial. If all we’re trying to do is avoid the Jumpscare Effect (artistic integrity, right?), then this is my recommendation: only use the “sudden start” option a couple of times. The main character won’t be at the forefront of every ambush, especially since that takes the believability of his/her survival down more notches than Michael Wittmann’s Tiger had victory stripes. For that matter, have the main character be the one to do the ambushing every so often. The violence itself is still sudden, but the audience and the character they identify with are able to see it coming.
On the note of main character conduct in fight scenes, there’s a persistent idea in our culture that fights are supposed to be fair. Unless that’s a core rule of the universe being written or filmed, I suggest we get over that. It’s just plain wrong and it seriously limits options. Combat and bloodshed are seldom fair and often brutal, and there’s no reason to hamstring the leading lead-slinger with a stereotypically heroic code of conduct unless that’s a core trait. I bring this up because speed lends things a sense of uncertainty. Imagine if Star Wars’ lightsaber duels ended in three seconds rather than three minutes. Even when the hero (read, Jedi) wins, the whole dismembering laser light show would be over so quickly you’d feel as though it could’ve gone either way. We’ve been conditioned to expect that the hero’s victory is somehow assured, predestined even, which in my mind basically robs them of any credit to their victories. Doubt is what makes heroism possible. Lone warriors who hold off forty men on a narrow bridge, fighter pilots who dive straight down at AA guns to protect the bombers they escort, soldiers who charge through a hail of gunfire to rescue wounded comrades: we’re impressed by all this because they could die at any second. If the hero’s guaranteed to win from the start, how significant are her actions, really?
We expect that when heroes are going to die, we’ll get to see it coming. It’ll be telegraphed clearly, labeled for us so as not to be too shocking. Even Game of Thrones can’t seem to resist foreshadowing its deaths in advance from time to time. Come down to it, even the way grunts die in fight scenes is carefully paced so as not to happen to quickly. Even stormtroopers, those most disposable of goons, are given three or four seconds to pose in the open or flail blaster bolts at empty air before Solo guns them down. Wouldn’t want the dying to seem arbitrary, that’d be way too exciting. For clarity’s sake, I’m not saying every fight should be sudden or that every death should be quick, or even that most of them should be. All I’m saying is that the option gets too little consideration. If this is trying to build tension, then it’s being handled precisely the wrong way. Once the audience knows that death could happen at any second, the only way they won’t be tense is if they just don’t give a damn.
What of that last notion, you ask? My friend, if your audience just doesn’t give a damn then fight scene pacing is the least of your problems.