In a 2014 interview with horrorflickers.com, Sergio Martino was asked about the animal cruelty on display in his film Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978) and his thoughts 36 years on. For his part, Martino expressed regret, saying: “The only sequence … the python kills the monkey. I didn’t want that. I don’t know what happened. The producers wanted this sequence. It was an accident. I know we used the sequence in the film, and for that, I apologise.”
In Martino’s defence, while the sequence is by all accounts harrowing, it pales in comparison to the sheer number of comparable scenes, and worse, in Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1981). It’s at this point, that I should explain that I haven’t seen any of the films mentioned above, my reasons for this have been covered in a previous post and I shall make no moral judgement on anyone who has watched and enjoyed any of the films I take a look at in this piece. For clarity, I have seen a number of them myself.
One of the first, and most notorious incidences of animal cruelty on film is the 1903 black and white short, Electrocuting an Elephant. The film, possibly erroneously attributed directly to Thomas Edison, plays out like an Edwardian snuff film.
As the story goes, Topsy the elephant was captured as a calf in Southeast Asia and shipped to the US, where she was passed from owner-to-owner, trainer-to-trainer, each utilising their own methods of ensuring Topsy’s good behaviour. When she killed a man who thought it wise to extinguish a lit cigar on her, and thus became regarded as a troublesome beast, her card was marked.
After several further incidents it was deemed appropriate to destroy Topsy by public hanging at Lunar Park on Coney Island. The park’s enterprising owners had intended to sell tickets for their ‘public spectacle’ until American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) stepped in and the event was pared down to invite-only, with Topsy due to be executed by electrocution, strangulation and poisoning.
The film, which runs at less than two minutes, shows Topsy being led in front of a static camera where she stands attached to wiring, unaware of her fate. On her feet are four copper-covered sandals which she lazily tries to kick off, but seemingly realising they are securely fastened, stops and stands still for a moment. Suddenly, Topsy’s body stiffens, her feet begin to smoke and within seconds she falls forward, dead. It’s a harrowing and ugly film, shocking even by today’s standards, but was merely the first in a grim line of sequences of unnecessary cruelty to animals for the purposes of entertainment.
Three decades before Charlton Heston’s swords and sandals epic, a silent version of Ben Hur (1925) was released to great acclaim, but at the cost of the loss of lives of countless horses and one stuntman. A search for information about the making of the film frequently turns up the same name, B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason. Eason was the second unit director on Ben Hur, and famed for his ability to film incredible action scenes. Unfortunately, he was also notoriously casual (or Breezy, as he was aptly nicknamed) with regards to the health and safety of actors, crew and animals in his charge, while in pursuit of the perfect sequence.
The safeguarding of animals on set was so lax that Rosemonde Rae Wright, a member of the American Animal Defense League, documented the horrors, writing a four-page leaflet in protest, which stated: “It was a bloody close-up in which the bodies of sentient animals and their sufferings were of no consideration whatsoever. I saw the body of an animal that had been killed the day before in rehearsal – also the punctured breasts, the torn, sensitive mouths, and the bruised, bleeding bodies of others in the final race.”
By the end of the Thirties, public opinion was turning against the studios and their ‘at any cost‘ attitude towards filmmaking and safeguarding of people and animals in their employ. “Breezy” Eason’s work on Charge of the Light Brigade (1935) demonstrated even more flagrant behaviour, including the use of the notorious ‘Running W’, a tripwire designed to literally bring horses to their knees at any desired moment. Light Brigade star, Errol Flynn, later wrote in his autobiography: ‘The stunt man, riding the horse, knew where the trip wire was. He knew when he had to get off and all he had to do was take a fall. But the horse would go headfirst, and sometimes get hurt and have to be shot.’
But it took the appalling death of horse during the making of Jesse James (1939) for the Hays Office to intervene with the aid of the American Humane Association (AHA) and create long-overdue guidelines for the ethical treatment of animals during film production. The horse in question was forced off a cliff during a pivotal scene and into a river using a mechanism that caused the reticent animal to slide of the cliff’s edge. Although it survived the initial fall, so traumatised was the horse that, according to a cbr.com article, it drowned in the water. Subsequently, along with the inception of The American Humane Association Film Unit, the legend ‘No Animals Were Harmed’ was born.
However, the AHA’s jurisdiction only extended as far as North America and no such guidelines were in place for films made outside the US. In Russia, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1971 film Andrei Rublev, featured both simulated (the depiction of a cow on fire, though said cow was actually covered in an asbestos coat and unharmed) and real animal cruelty. In the worst case, a horse is seen falling down a set of stairs and stabbed by a spear. To achieve the shot, Tarkovsky obtained a horse from a slaughterhouse and shot it in the neck before pushing it down the stairs. Once the required shot was achieved, a single bullet was fired into the horse’s head and the dead creature was sent back to the slaughterhouse for commercial use.
One of the most infamous incidences of animal cruelty occurred at the end of the Seventies in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). The ritual slaughter of a water buffalo is front-and-centre in a shot in which the indigenous Ifugao people hack the animal to death. As per the film’s narrative, the slaughter is supposed to symbolise Colonel Kurtz own demise. Speaking about the scene, Coppola said: “I decided, after much thought and conversation, to have Martin end by assassinating the great king (Kurtz), and utilise the fact that the Ifagao (sic) people were going to sacrifice their water buffalo on our last day of shooting.” While the film was an American production and ostensibly under the auspices of the AHA, filming took place in the Philippines where animal cruelty guidelines on film productions were not monitored and so, despite protestations, their only course of action was to give the film an ‘Unacceptable’ rating.
By 1980, the cannibal sub-genre was in full swing, with none more notorious than Cannibal Holocaust. The film features the horrific slaughter of several animals, from tarantula to turtle, and although director Deodato has since repented: “I was stupid to introduce animals,” the film continues to shock and appall to this day. But Deodato wasn’t alone in the depiction of real animal cruelty. In fact, it seems that the on-screen death of animals became something of a cannibal film convention, with producers and distributors alike insisting upon these sequences in order to help sell the film, certainly if Martino is to be believed.
While these films are very much a product of their time and, as such, should be viewed with that in mind (assuming one can stand the sight of animal torture, etc.), the end of the cannibal sub-genre did not mark the end of animal cruelty in cinema. Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) features a particularly harrowing scene involving an octopus. After 15 years of captivity Oh Dae-su, played by Choi Min-sik, is mysteriously set free and heads to a restaurant where he tells the chef, “I want to eat something alive.” he proceeds to force a live octopus into his mouth, its tentacles stretching and desperately grabbing at his face and hand as he pushes it in. Min-sik (a Buddhist who said a prayer for each octopus) performed the scene four times before the cameras stopped rolling, even apologising to one creature ahead of devouring it.
The overriding emotion from most people directly involved in films that feature real animal cruelty is one of remorse and, certainly, from the Italian directors of the 70s/80s cannibal sub-genre, they have long since ceased to make films that include such grim fare. But there seems to be a certain lip service paid with regard to the mistreatment of animals on film, and always after the fact. South Korean director, Kim Ki-duk was quoted in a 2004 interview about the release of his film The Isle (2004), which ran into trouble with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) over scenes of fish slaughter: “I’ve done a lot of cruelty on animals in my films. And I will have a guilty conscience for the rest of my life.” While that may be true, there’s a still a feeling that this type of comment is merely a way of excusing one’s actions as acceptable, by virtue of publicly stated remorse.
There is, however, another school of thought, that arose during a US interview with Ki-duk that speaks of both hypocrisy and cultural differences. In the interview, the director is asked about his thoughts on animal cruelty in The Isle and how that would translate to the US:
“In America you eat beef, pork, and kill all these animals. And the people who eat these animals are not concerned with their slaughter. Animals are part of this cycle of consumption. It looks more cruel onscreen, but I don’t see the difference. And yes, there’s a cultural difference, and maybe Americans will have a problem with it – but if they can just be more sensitive to what is acceptable in different countries I’d hope they wouldn’t have too many issues with what’s shown on-screen.”
It’s an interesting point that people who eat meat and fish in Western society often choose to ignore the less savoury aspects of how the product finds its way onto supermarket shelves. This closeted way of existing is often in contrast to other parts of the world – at least away from the farming industry – where they may be involved in every aspect of, say, a pig’s lifecycle; from birth, to slaughter to plate, and therefore don’t flinch at the site of an animal being put to death. Yes, there’s a vast difference between inflicting pain on another creature for pleasure (or entertainment) as opposed to rearing and killing for food, and there are likely farming methods that are less than ethically sound, but perhaps provenance, husbandry and a real understanding of cultural differences with regard to animal treatment is something that isn’t explored and discussed enough.
Following the Cannes premiere of Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built (2018) and the inclusion of a scene involving the torture of a duckling, the subject of animal cruelty was once again front page news. Inevitably, the sequence caused furore, especially given von Trier’s penchant for stoking the fires of controversy. As it transpired, though, the film’s most influential ally was from the most unlikely of sources. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) issued a statement that not only defended the film, but applauded von Trier’s choices:
‘Following numerous calls about a scene in Lars von Trier’s film ‘The House That Jack Built’ in which a young child uses a pair of pliers to cut a duckling’s leg off, PETA has confirmed that the ‘leg’ was created using movie magic and silicone parts. While depictions of gratuitous violence like this may leave viewers sickened, it’s true that serial killers, like the character in the film, often get their start by first torturing animals, making the scene all the more realistic and disturbing. PETA is also happy to report that the images of tigers in the movie were from stock footage, yet again proving that there’s no need to use live wild animals in productions, thanks to the many humane alternatives being embraced by filmmakers today.’
In the end, the treatment of animals has improved markedly over the past century and, while there are still questions being raised about such depictions in non-Western films in particular, there are – as I briefly highlighted – a number of cultural differences that do muddy the waters. As one man’s meat is another man’s poison, so what is palatable to some is abhorrent to others.
There are a great many fans of Cannibal Holocaust, some of which have no quarrel with the content, while others (in which I include myself) have avoided the film entirely despite its wide availability. Deodato has pleasingly recut the film and removed a number of the more troubling scenes of animal cruelty, meaning that those who’ve harboured a desire watch Cannibal Holocaust but felt unable to due to the animal sequences can now do so.
I’ve deliberately not covered every possible film that features a scene or more of poor treatment of animals as this article would have proved too long for even the most willing of reader, but some of the better known include Pink Flamingos (1972), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1972), Deep Red (1975), and Heaven’s Gate (1980), all of which contain dubious scenes of animal cruelty. I am not wholeheartedly condemning any of them, Deep Red is one of my favourite films, and I do try to place each in the context of time in which they were made, but cruelty to animals is the same no matter which decade or century it exists. I’m sure many of us wrestle with morality when watching films that show animals in distress, even when we consider them classics.
It’s possible, in this age of computer generated technology, that the use of animals – certainly in depictions of cruelty to animals – is slowly becoming all but redundant. Cannibal Ferox director, Umberto Lenzi has stated that if he had his time again, he’d employ special effects to create scenes which call for the death or mistreatment of animals. And while there’s some who’ll ask why such scenes would be deemed necessary in the first place, it’s probably worth considering this from a narrative rather than moral perspective: The House That Jack Built called for the protagonist, as a boy, to inflict horrendous cruelty upon a duckling to demonstrate the reality that serial killers often begin their ‘career’ this way. It’s horrific and cruel, and apparently one of the most shocking scenes in the film, despite the extreme violence and murder that also features heavily throughout. The scene was achieved with special effects. And no animals were harmed.